At the age of just 20 years old, Jayden Sweeney is one of Leyton Orient’s current longest serving players. Joining Orient from the early age of seven, Sweeney has been able to risen through the ranks, from Under-8’s level all the way through to the first team.
It all began at the age of just “four or five” when Sweeney started playing for a local Sunday league team- Aldersbrook- in Wanstead where he grew up. “My parents just wanted to get me out the house to burn all my energy off. When I got a bit older I used to take it a bit more seriously and moved to a team called UPR Upminster Rovers.”
“Then I was at the age where clubs were scouting. I remember going on trials at the local so-called big teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and spending time at them.”
However it didn’t work out at the “big teams” for the left-back, giving him the opportunity to have a taste of football at Leyton Orient.
“I remember being at Spurs for quite a while, just training and my dad saying to me ‘we’re going to Leyton Orient today for a loan’. Because I was young he didn’t want to tell me ‘you’re not getting into Spurs’, for my morale. There was an Astro turf called the Score right across the road from the stadium, I remember going in and I was quite nervous. But once you get on the pitch you just really enjoy it.”
“At the bigger clubs, not that there’s pressure, but there’s that aura around it”, by contrast, Sweeney recalls that at Orient there was more of “a relaxed chilled-out vibe, just playing football.”
Most people who play football from a young age remember a certain coach or teammate who helped them develop week in, week out to become the player they are today. In Sweeney’s case, former QPR striker Kieron St Aimie and former Southend United defender Osei Sankofa are those coaches.
“You’re at the age where you’re still being introduced into men’s football. Those two coaches had played in the leagues before and opened my eyes to what it would be like in a full-time environment. It wasn’t going to be all wrapped up in wool. They were harsh but fair and lovely people. But when they had to be harsh, they would.”
All was going well for Sweeney, up until under-14’s level when he was released from Leyton Orient for a short period of time. “They said ‘we aren’t going to extend your contract but we do see potential in you so you can come back in the following pre season and re-trial’. That’s what I did and the rest is history.”
Sweeney was able to continue rise up through the ranks for Leyton Orient and made his first team debut in the FA Trophy in 2018 at the age of just 17, a 4-0 win over Beaconsfield Town.
“The week leading up to the debut I was training with the first team. Justin Edinburgh called me in and said, ‘you’re going to play tomorrow; I wouldn’t play you if I didn’t believe you’d do the job’. He told me ‘I thought I’d tell you now rather than before the game’. I think it was worst that he told me the day before because honestly I couldn’t sleep that night. I was sweating, it was terrible but it was a great feeling knowing I would play for the first team. If I had to do it again I’d do it the same because it went well.”
“We had this one coach Pete Gill, and he ended up being my youth team coach and he always used to say, ‘your aim is to get from this Astro (where the academy trained) over the road into the stadium’.” Ten days after his 17th birthday, Sweeney was able to succeed in that aim, before going on to make “another two or three appearances in the FA Trophy that season.”
Sweeney’s efforts in training and on the pitch were later rewarded with his first professional contract with Leyton Orient in 2019. “My agent Kevin Nicholls told my parents first, so I got home one day and they were sitting on the sofa all weird, then said Orient have offered you a pro. I was like ‘good one, good banter!’. I couldn’t believe it, I was more proud of that then the debut.”
“The amount of people who’ve made their debut and then drop out of the league is quite common, that first contract is so hard. Let’s say 100,000 try to become a scholar, out of that only 10% will become scholars and then out of that only 4-5% get pros. It was an unbelievable moment, so proud and all the little things that come with it like being on FIFA.”
After Sweeney’s first team debut and first professional contract were pinned down, the chances to play and train with the senior players at Orient began to increase, with the likes of Craig Clay, Conor Wilkinson and more. However when asked who was the best he had played with, there was only one answer.
“It has to be Jobi McAnuff. Even though he was going towards the end of his career, he was easily the best player, ripping up training every day, it’s a joke. His mentality; he’s an absolute machine, a lovely top guy but on the pitch it’s strictly business. He doesn’t care if you’re 17 or 37, he’s onto you. Not in a nasty way but to be like ‘c’mon mate you can do better’. He motivates you to do better.”
McAnuff managed well over 400 career appearances, 184 of those with Leyton Orient, before retiring in 2021 to move into punditry and coaching.
Sweeney’s league debut for Leyton Orient came on the last day of the 2020/2021 season, away to Salford, a short ten-minute cameo. “It was weird because I made my debut at 17 and football league debut at 19, so two years had gone by where I was learning a lot about myself. I remember the moment, I expected it to come sooner but I had the best feelings ever, it was an unbelievable feeling. The Class of 92 used to come to all the games, so I remember seeing Roy Keane in the stands and it was so weird.”
“It was a good feeling to break down that door and say I’ve played in the league which just motivated me again for the following season.”
Sweeney has able to push forward this season with two recent loan moves, the first of which with Wealdstone in the National League in mid-November 2021 which was the 20-year-old’s first taste of that league.
“Initially I thought ‘am I ready?’ But then I was like this is a really good loan move for me at a good level to test me and I was looking forward to it. My debut was Wrexham away, I remember the lads at Orient saying surely that’s going to be a day before trip. But we went up on the day, I remember being on the coach. At Orient you’d have a proper pre match meal; for Wealdstone there was just some microwavable pasta. I was so unprepared for the match I hardly ate anything, just smashing loads of energy gels before the game.”
“It opens your eyes to say, ‘yeah I’ve got it really good at Orient’. Brings you back to earth that this is what some clubs are like, Wealdstone is a brilliant club I thoroughly enjoyed my time there”.
Sweeney’s second, most recent one month loan move was to National League South side Dartford, which came to an end at the start of April, where he was able to manage four games for the Kent-based side. “Whenever I’ve gone out on loan I’ve gone with the mindset to get experience, improve and come back to Orient a better player.”
“I see playing football games as the main way to continue your development, and my main aim is to play games for Orient and help Orient.”
Now, with the chance to finish the season at Leyton Orient, Sweeney will be hoping to help continue the O’s brilliant run, with only one loss in their last nine games, leaving them in 14th with six games remaining.