How does a football club cope when their manager dies?
It is a situation which is thankfully rare – but one which befell Leyton Orient this summer, shortly after their promotion back to the English Football League.
Justin Edinburgh – the man who had led the O’s to the National League title in May – died at the age of 49 in June, five days after suffering a cardiac arrest.
For players and staff of the east London side, coming to terms with Edinburgh’s death has been a process which is still continuing.
‘You don’t know how to act’
The news was announced on a Saturday evening – and in the days that followed The Breyer Group Stadium became a place for all affiliated to the club to gather and pay their respects.
“I was able to come to the stadium and be around people sharing their grief,” said club captain Jobi McAnuff.
“It was very important, particularly in the early days, to let those emotions out; to cry, to speak about Justin and remember the good times – which would obviously set you off again.”
The shock caused by a sudden death is the first barrier to overcome and Orient’s squad met soon after Edinburgh’s passing.
“Everyone has been taken into territory they could never have imagined,” said club chaplain Alan Comfort.
“Just the disbelief of these young men – shocked to tears and rightfully so. All of them experiencing the same thing is rare.
“Having everybody together, trying to help them in some way, but watching them just begin to talk it through or work it through was the beginning.”
Orient had endured their share of trauma off the pitch in the years before Edinburgh was appointed in November 2017.
Italian businessman Francesco Becchetti had bought the Brisbane Road outfit in the summer of 2014, shortly after the O’s had finished third in League One and lost the play-off final on penalties.
Three years later, the club had been through 11 different managers, lost several key players and suffered two relegations to drop into non-league for the first time in 112 years.
Following a takeover in the summer of 2017, Edinburgh helped reunite the club, then delivered success on the pitch.
But the club would now need to appoint a successor.
‘I’d never want people to call me gaffer’
Eight days after Edinburgh’s death, chairman Nigel Travis said Orient planned to “build on” the former Tottenham defender’s coaching team when they named a new boss.
Ross Embleton, Edinburgh’s assistant, was handed the reigns as interim head coach three days later.
“I built a relationship with Justin in 18 months that was quite remarkable for how close we became, with the respect that I had for him,” said Embleton.
“The one thing I will never be able to do and I would never want to do is to step into his shoes. I’d never want people to call me gaffer because that’s what I used to refer to him.
“One thing I said to the players on the day we got them all together after Justin passed away was ‘someone has got to try to lead us towards normality again’.
“That is my job.”
One man who has been through the same situation as Embleton is Gary Simpson.
He was assistant to Keith Alexander at Macclesfield Town when Alexander suddenly died in March 2010, aged 53.
Simpson took over as manager and, incredibly, then had to deal with the death of midfielder Richard Butcher in January 2011, with the 29-year-old dying from a heart condition.
“When I heard about Justin I felt for the Orient lads and everyone connected,” said Simpson.
“It is something you don’t think you’ll ever have to come up against. I came up against it with my best mate and manager going, and then a player who was like a son to me.
“I don’t know what Ross is like but obviously he has worked with the players, and the players know him and will look to him.
“He’ll be his own man and want to put his own stamp on things as well. He’ll want to do things in Justin’s memory, like we did with Keith.
“The grief was difficult. You just go in a zone and you just deal with it.”
‘It is OK to have my meltdown’
As the squad attended Edinburgh’s funeral and his memorial service in Cheltenham on 16 July, support was constantly on hand; be it through the club itself, the Professional Footballers’ Association or the League Managers’ Association.
Club chaplain Comfort, himself a former player who spent three years with the O’s during the 1980s, has also offered a “trusted ear” and confidentiality to players and the squad.
“As a few weeks pass, it is possible you just have to start getting on with life – as the players are,” said Comfort, the incumbent vicar at St John the Evangelist in Upper Holloway.
“You can feel guilty that there was Justin and now he is not there, and it has only been a few weeks.
“You try to help them to keep talking about him and say it’s normal to go on and enjoy your football and keep going.
“And yet it is also normal to keep talking about Justin and remembering and laughing, because he made them laugh.”
“Talking about it sounds like an easy thing to do, but it’s not,” Embleton, 37, added. “There have been so many unusual feelings and so many unusual moments.
“The lows and emotions come at strange old times.
“I have a lot of people around me here who have been through the same emotions that I have, but we are all blokes that come to work every day and we are all proud.
“Sometimes we feel as though you don’t find it so easy to talk. I think the biggest thing I am learning is that it is OK to have my meltdown when I have meltdown.”
Orient also have Martin Ling to call on, their director of football who has spoken publicly about his struggles with depression.
“You know Martin will allow and want people to be able to get the right help and have the right amount of time to be able to work things through because he knows, in his scenario, he didn’t always have that,” said Comfort.
“It led to things for him that he had to work through for years. The club, and the football staff particularly, in that sense are in the hands of somebody who is going to be very helpful.”
Embleton added: “The players are humans and they have all experienced something I would never wish on anybody else at any time.
“We have to understand the boys will have their struggles and tough periods. We need to know we have each other’s support.”
Returning to playing
Ling said the League Two fixture release day was “tinged with sadness” because of the absence of Edinburgh, who had led the club back into the EFL.
Orient opened the campaign with a 1-0 win over Cheltenham Town at an emotional Brisbane Road on Saturday, 3 August.
Visiting fans had raised money for a banner in tribute to Edinburgh, while Orient fans spelled out ‘JE3’ via a card mosaic and there was a minute’s silence before kick-off.
Robins fans also presented a donation to the Justin Edinburgh 3 Foundation, which has been set up by Edinburgh’s family.
Fittingly it was Josh Wright – the last player signed by Edinburgh – who scored the only goal of the game.
The 29-year-old was close to his former manager, having played under him at Gillingham and invited Edinburgh to his wedding last year.
“It has been like a big blur and it is only as time is going on that things are setting down, as they do with time and things heal,” he said.
“It is hard to explain because there are no answers. There never will be. You will never be able to understand it and believe it.
“I feel awfully and terribly sad about the circumstances that Justin isn’t with us, but we have to use that to galvanise us.”
McAnuff, who has taken on the role of interim player-coach, thinks the return to playing gives the players “a focus”, and thinking of Edinburgh will provide motivation to the squad.
“We have got to use it to channel those emotions and use it as a positive to spur us on,” said the 37-year-old midfielder.
“There should certainly be no points during the season that we need that extra bit of geeing up given what has happened.
“At the same time we can’t rely on it – that is not just going to win us a game. We are not going to get any sympathy from any of the other teams we come across.
“But Justin is certainly with us and we carry him with us in everything we do and, as a club and individuals, that will certainly be the case going forwards.”
Simpson says Alexander’s mid-season death helped his Macclesfield side, who were battling against relegation in League Two, become a “tight-knit group” and survive the drop.
“We pulled together and it gave us a focus – that we wanted to put the club in a safe position for him,” Simpson, 58, said.
Keeping Edinburgh in mind
While football moves on and the season continues, Orient are keen to remember Edinburgh, with their former manager retaining a profile on the club website which is kept “in loving memory”.
The nature of grief is such that it manifests itself in different ways, and can return at a later date.
“This was a person who loved the club and loved this group of players,” said Comfort.
“The reality is, for many of them, they didn’t get the chance to carry on that relationship and that will always be a loss for them – the loss of a person and a footballing influence.
“I think it will make and shape many of these young men in ways that were impossible without such an event.
“Losing people is a grown-up moment. In there is a loss of someone so important, yet they are having to find ways to understand it and then learn and grow up as people.
“You’ll have people who have experienced their own personal losses and in a moment when you lose somebody who is important again, it reminds you of someone you might have tried not to think about as much.
“For some of them it is a very reflective moment and it can be troubling.”
For Embleton, Edinburgh will remain an inspiration.
“Whenever I get emotional or Justin pops into my mind, I try to remember what an incredible geezer he was,” he said.
“Justin had an exterior and an aura and a presence that impacted everyone that he met. He is never going anywhere and will stay with us forever.”