Leyton Orient might have been knocked off their perch - but they will take some stopping this term.
Under Russell Slade’s inspirational leadership, the O’s lie second in the third tier of English football, having made their best ever start to a league season.
Slade’s troops won all of their opening eight league fixtures and are currently eight points clear of third-placed Preston North End. Their draw at Bristol City in midweek allowed Wolverhampton Wanderers to leapfrog them in the table.
Nonetheless, Slade, once a caretaker boss at Sheffield United where he was also a youth coach, has worked wonders with a small squad at the Matchroom Stadium.
Orient captain Nathan Clarke told The Star: “Russell is right up there with managers who I have enjoyed working for. He has been great with me from day one since coming to meet me in Huddersfield when I was out of contract and he wanted me to come and sign for Orient.”
The Halifax-born defender, who made his 400th professional start on Tuesday, credits Slade’s current success to his man-
management skills. “He likes to give as much information to his players as possible,” he said. “When you get that relationship, you want to do as much as you can on the pitch to help him out.
“Russell is a very knowledgeable guy. He is fantastic on the training ground.
“He likes to get around and speak to the lads who are on the fringes and maybe not getting as much game time as the rest of the guys.
“Russell makes sure they are ready to be called upon and that they are not disheartened or disappointed to be left out of the squad.
“He tries to make sure they still feel part of what’s going on at the club.
“He manages to keep everybody happy, which sometimes can be quite hard.”
After United axed David Weir last month, Slade, appointed Orient boss in April 2010, was strongly linked with the vacant managerial position at Bramall Lane before the Blades named Nigel Clough as their new number one.
“I am surprised other clubs haven’t come in for Russell,” acknowledged Clarke. “There have been little rumours but he has got a great relationship with the club and the chairman and I don’t think he would want to let that go.
“The fans are right on his side and sometimes as a manager that’s what you need. You need to feel wanted. I am glad he has batted off a few inquiries and stayed with us.
“If we can keep ahold of the manager, it would be massive in helping the club progress forward.”
Fourteen points separate Orient, who finished just outside of the play-off places last season, and seventh-placed Rotherham United.
Clarke said: “Everybody is flying at the moment. Results have been fantastic for the players and the club. It has given everybody a bit of a boost
“We have probably shocked a few people this year. We knew in pre-season we were more than capable of putting a decent run together.
“We have managed to keep a pretty stable side week in week out and that always helps.
“We have got a very tight-knit group and you need to have that togetherness when you have a small squad. I think everybody is fighting for the same thing and are wanting to do the best that they can do. Luckily, things seem to have clicked.”
Clarke, who turns 30 tomorrow, is under no illusions at the size of the task facing Orient when they entertain United this weekend.
“It is a shock to see them [United] struggling given the size of the club and the success that they have had in the last couple of seasons,” said the Yorkshireman. “You certainly wouldn’t put them in the bottom group but unfortunately they are there for one reason or another. Maybe something hasn’t clicked right just yet.
“Given the size of the squad and the fan base they have got, I’m sure it won’t be long before they put things right.
“They are not the only team who are finding it hard to get to grips with the league. Bristol City and Notts County are other teams who are finding it tough.
“I think United are possibly in a false position. They a tough side to play against, as we found out last year, and have got a lot of experience in their team.”
If everything goes according to plan, the Clarke household could be celebrating a double promotion come May.
Nathan’s younger brother, Tom, is a first-team regular at Preston, who are third in the standings.
Nathan said: “It would be a massive achievement for both clubs to go up.
“It would be a great achievement for the family. If we keep on doing what we are doing, we won’t go far wrong.”