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Looking out across Leyton Orient’s baked, browning training pitches in Chigwell, you wonder why Richie Wellens bothered taking his squad on a pre-season tour to Portugal earlier this summer.
As far as warm weather assignments are concerned, nothing the Algarve served up could have been as daunting last Tuesday at Brisbane Road, when, on London’s hottest day on record, the O’s lost 5-2 to Portsmouth in a friendly moved behind-closed-doors out of concern for supporter safety.
“I don’t think you can have a six-week pre-season and turn up to the same venue every week,” Wellens explains. “You need that escape, that change of scenery.
“I think the first game of the season’s going to be 28 degrees as well so we’ve had plenty of practice!”
Time on the training ground has been much appreciated by Wellens and his coaching staff, who took over in March with Orient languishing in 20th in League Two, tasked with keeping the club in the division.
“You want try and get your principles across as quickly as possible,” Wellens tells Standard Sport. “When we first came in, we played Saturday-Tuesday for the first two weeks so that was really difficult.”
Even so, results improved instantly, with 11 points in Wellens’ first five games easing relegation fears and setting the course for a comfortable 13th-placed finish.
If there was collective relief around Brisbane Road then there was also plenty on a personal level for Wellens, whose career had stalled badly following his decision to leave Swindon in late 2020, months after leading the club into League One.
“If you rewind two years ago, I was getting linked with Championship jobs and my stock was high, I was on the way up,” he says. “Then I made a terrible decision to go to Salford and that knocked me back.”
A Manchester United academy graduate, Wellens dropped back into the fourth tier to work with Gary Neville and the rest of the Class of ’92, but lasted less than five months before departing only days after the club’s EFL Trophy win at Wembley.
He then returned to League One with former side Doncaster, who had been “hit hard financially by Covid”, but couldn’t turn their fortunes around and was on his way after 199 days in the hot seat, with the club 23rd in the division.
“The decisions I made at Salford were good decisions,” he says. “When I look back, a lot of those decisions are actually being made now. So, I was right, but 18 months ago. The players I thought weren’t good enough at Salford have since been released.
“At Doncaster, the investment just wasn’t there to get League One, ready-to-go men. Every time I picked up a teamsheet, the opposition have got better footballers across the park, a stronger bench.
“You’d go away to a team like Ipswich, whose bench was worth two or three times my whole budget, teams like Sunderland who just blow you out of the water. But even teams like Shrewsbury or Wimbledon we should have competed with financially, we just couldn’t.”
After twin failures in jobs Wellens took “for the wrong reasons”, the 42-year-old thought especially hard before committing to Orient when the call came to end a three-month sabbatical, though he also concedes he “wasn’t in a situation to be very picky”.
“The break allowed me to work on things that I needed to improve,” he says. “I always think when you’re out of work you have to try and maximise because what happens in English football is that a lot of managers only get one or two opportunities.
“When they get them, they’re not actually ready, but then once they’ve practiced and two or three years down the line they’re better at the job and understand what it entails, a lot of them don’t get the chance to go back into it.”
Wellens has and so far has grasped it, though he fears his side have “lost a little bit of momentum” over the summer, having gone winless in pre-season since beating Haringey Borough at the start of the month, and would still like “two or three more players just to add some freshness, some quality and some depth to the squad”.
Last season’s top scorer Aaron Drinan will miss the start of the season through injury, though that he and the majority of Wellens key men from last term have re-committed over the summer is a huge plus, avoiding the kind of overhaul that saw 11 new faces arrive last summer.
The signings of QPR youngster Charlie Kellman on loan and midfielder George Moncur, who brings genuine Championship experience, on a free transfer, have further improved a squad from whom Wellens is looking for just that: improvement.
“I think it’s really cheap and really easy to say we want to finish top three or top seven,” he says. “That’s something we can’t control. Performances week-in, week-out and our work ethic - those are things we can control.”