By Andrew Flint –
In the wake of CSKA Moscow’s stunning 6-goal second half comeback against Mordovia Saransk, not to mention the Financial Fair Play restrictions that have been a factor in the expenditure of only €18 million across the entire top tier this season, the goings on in the First National League (FNL) are occasionally overlooked. The league has seen the controversial addition of Spartak-2 and Zenit-2, the financial support of Oleg Mkrtchyan save newly-promoted Torpedo Amarvir from having to refuse their place, and last year’s champions Krylia Sovetov Samara thrive on their return to the Russian Football Premier League. External pressures make this one of the most vicious European leagues in which to survive.
The very nature of nationwide professional football in the largest nation on earth, especially at a level that doesn’t offer glamorous opposition, means that a regular turnover of players is inevitable for almost every team. Unfortunately this also means that the connection between the playing squad and the fans is often distant at best, so when a cult hero comes along, he often makes a seismic impact. Here we take a look at five such players who have played for FC Tyumen (which are often referred to as Geolog), and examine where their careers have gone.
The current skipper, having joined in 2013, is now the longest serving player in the Tyumen squad after the versatile winger Andrey Pavlenko. At 31, he is towards the end of his career, and his pace has certainly deserted him, but it has not cost him in his role as a lone striker. He often drifts in from wide on the left, and has an eye for a spectacular finish, and although he doesn’t have an especially muscular frame, is able to hold the ball up exceptionally well.
He has been partnered with a number of completely different players, from the imposing but stylish Evgeniy Savin—who was once called up to Guus Hiddink’s national squad—to the slippery Brazilian genius Cleyton, who has since returned to Académica Combrook in Portugal. His intelligence and positional sense is a delight to behold, and has enabled him to adapt to varying styles and teammates, as well as cause a threat which is different from the majority of strikers at this level.
He has taken on the responsibility of leading the team through a tumultuous promotion to the FNL, and was even voted the 93rd most influential figure in Tyumen society last year. One fallacy is that lower down the league system, a hulking lump of muscle and strength is a recipe for goals—Mamtov’s phenomenal influence has proven that brain, not brawn, makes the difference. His longevity will depend on how he is managed and where he is played—a drop back into midfield could suit his style in a couple of years’ time—but the future is still bright for the man who outshone Belarus international Sergey Kornilenko when Krylia Sovetov Samara visited the Geolog last season.
As Gazovik Orenburg once again dominate the early proceedings of the FNL season, Delkin has shot to second place in the scoring charts for the Orenburg-based side, having signed permanently from Krylia Sovetov after three years in his native Samara. The high esteem in which he was held by Konstantin Galkin was indicated by the fact that negotiations went on for two months before his signature was secured in January. Initially the plan was for him to provide competition between Savin and Mamtov, but his 13 starts only yielded three goals as he failed to kick start his career.
Delkin is an example of a player caught in the strange limbo between early promise and lack of playing time. In the bumper season and and a half, four years ago when Russia switched from a spring-autumn season to a European style autumn-spring, the slightly-built forward scored a respectable 14 goals in 37 starts, but even then, he was substituted off 28 times. Now, after seven full professional seasons, he has only started 84 professional matches, scoring a mere 32 goals, despite being one of the most sought-after strikers of his generation below the Premier League.
His playing style is based on anticipation, for which he requires a partner in order to share the front line fruitfully. Too often in Tyumen, he was selected as the lone man in front of a more fluid attacking trident of Cleyton, Pavlenko and Mamtov, and found himself struggling to impose himself upon the game. Gazovik have employed him in a similar position, and although he has scored five goals, none of them have come at home. Given his erratic form in front of a goal, it seems unlikely that a Premier League side will take a chance on him, so his best opportunity for proving himself at that level may come from earning promotion with Gazovik.
The enigma of Prokofyev is tough to crack. Seven clubs in the last five and a half years, ranging the length of the Trans Siberian railway from the Pacific coast to Leningrad oblast, tells it’s own story, but it doesn’t tell of his magical talent. Born in Tyumen, he made his debut for his hometown side ten years ago, and returned for a six month spell in 2011 to a hero’s welcome, when he capped the opening of the magnificently redeveloped Geolog Stadium with a moment of sublime beauty to earn a point against Chelyabinsk.
In the baking heat, the visitors’ early lead was cancelled out immediately, after which the pace of the game dropped significantly. Prokofyev himself was on the bench, and was introduced after an hour to rapturous applause. After a comical own goal seemed to doom the stadium’s grand re-opening to a defeat, the second-time debutant received the ball with his back to goal and, crowded out by defenders, with nowhere to go, he belied his sizeable frame with the detest of Cruyff, turned to simultaneously nutmeg his marker, and smashed the ball into the top corner.
A player of his physique, by rights, should not be a professional footballer, but his speed of thought and prodigious imagination make him an unknown quantity, an intangible that opposing managers find impossible to plan for. Like Delkin, he has appeared in precious few matches (134 total appearances since leaving Tyumen the first time in 2008), but he combines the physicality and aggression necessary to unsettle defenders—with a delicate touch too.
Few people could enrapture an entire stadium as single-handedly as as the little Georgian maestro. Thankfully the stadium announcer in Tyumen stuck to the more manageable nickname ‘Lado’, which was a good thing given the frequency with which he was involved in everything on the pitch. At 163 cm tall, he should have struggled in Russian football, but he rarely loses a physical challenge to which he commits himself. With a grizzly beard, a full-blooded approach, and no shortage of self confidence, it isn’t hard to see why he appeals to the fans.
The real reason for his enduring mastery of the game is his trickery. With such a low centre low gravity he is able to ghost past hapless defenders, and is extremely difficult to knock off the ball once he has set off at pace. The physics of his brilliance are impressive enough, but his vision to see opportunities that nobody else would consider, and the confidence to exploit them, are what make him unforgettable. Watching Lado in full flight is a sight to behold. In his season and a half in Tyumen, he built a connection with the sparse crowds that was as rare as his magnetic ability.
Sadly his injury problems meant that his last six months in the city were spent on the sidelines, and even when he was at full fitness, he simply couldn’t last a whole game at his ferocious pace; in fact, he has only completed 90 minutes 22 times in the last seven seasons. His unadulterated joy was what crowned him King of the Geolog – seeing him leap higher than his teammates after scoring the winner against Khimik Dzerzhinsk, as he was mobbed by one and all, showed a pure love between him and his audience. Although he was last seen at the cusp of promotion from the Second Division, his last club Vityaz Krymsk were one of of a growing band of clubs that were unable to fulfill their license requirements. If a club is looking for an inexpensive option to spark their team into life, they could do a lot worse than Gogberashvili.
Many Premier League clubs treat the Russian Cup with with a barely disguised level of disdain, but for lower league clubs it offers a rare chance to trade blows with glamorous opposition. For a Second Division side as Tyumen then were, drawing Zenit St Petersburg meant the only time the 13,057 capacity stadium was packed to the rafters, and a once in a lifetime opportunity. A highly suspicious second goal, palmed into his own net by the 20-year-old reserve keeper under no discernible pressure, failed to blunt the euphoria, but one player capable of shining on this grand stage was left sitting on the bench.
The year before, Premier League Alania Vladikavkaz had visited Tyumen, only to be torn to shreds within two minutes by Oleg Polyakov’s cocky, mesmeric dribble through the unexpectant visitor. To try such an audacious slalom, showing no respect for the superior experience and league placing of an opposition is impressive enough, but to do so in the opening moments was even more remarkable. Not the most demonstrative of characters on the pitch, Polyakov does all his talking with his feet, but his mouth did land him hot water with Konstantin Galkin, and cost him a shot at glory against the richest club in the land.
Now plying his trade alongside two other Tyumen teammates—Mikhail Pimenov and Sergey Volosyan—at KAMAZ Naberezhnye Chelny in Tatarstan, Polyakov is in the unenviable position of being being a luxury player in the struggling side. His lightweight build means he is sometimes bullied out of games, but his lightning burst of speed off the ball means he is still a real asset.
Inevitably, there will be more clubs that go out of business or are unable to pay wages this season, and regrettably we may not have seen the last incident of racist behaviour from the stands despite the best efforts of shining examples such as CSKA Fans Against Racism, but all is not doom and gloom below Russian football’s top table. The relationship between players and fans as a whole is at a low point, with attendance falling to worrying lows, but if you look hard enough you can find plenty of diamonds in the rough.
Andrew Flint is a English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football, and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.