Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Spartak Moscow, the winners of the championship, deserve separate narrative.

Spartak Moscow was ailing since 1970, declining steadily until the unthinkable happened – relegation. The fact of actual relegation surprised even the fans, for so old and revered club most likely was to be salvaged by some scheme (expansion of the league, most likely). According to the club's lore, the club itself proudly refused to be saved and preferred to play fair game and sink in the second division. But repairs started at once – curiously, at the time Spartak lacked a 'sponsor' – that is, was not attached to any institution, something almost impossible in USSR. That was the reason for the decline as well – no money and no strong administration. On spirit alone future did not look bright – and 'sponsor' was found: the Minsitry of Civil Aviation. The first step of recovery was bringing back from retirement the legend of Spartak and Soviet football Nickolay Starostin. Starostin did not like the idea at first, but eventually agreed to become 'Director of the team', a managerial position in the European, not the English sense. His equally famous brother Andrey Starostin suggested a coach: the well known, but not easy to work with Konstantin Beskov. Bringing Beskov to Spartak was not easy: he represented the arch-enemy Dinamo (Moscow), so 'philosophy' as at stake, but the real problem was the fact that Dinamo belonged to the Ministry of the Interior, the Police, and Beskov was not only employed there, but was a full Colonel, which the Police was not willing to free, although he was not coaching at the time. The Minister of Civil Aviation had to pull rank... the commercial aviation of USSR was governed by no less but a Marshal! It took a Marshal to get a Colonel – the Ministry of the Interior did the favour to Marshall Bugaev. But it was not enough – Beskov did not want to coach Spartak and only the severe order of the boss of the Moscow Communist Party made him change his mind.

Next step was cleaning the stable and finding new colts. The changes surprised unpleasantly the fans - five established players were kicked out. Among them was the veteran Nikolay Osyanin, who retired at 35 , and Victor Papaev, who went to... third division club, Fakel (Voronezh). The fans had no problem with the retirement of Osyanin, but Papaev was their hero since 1969 and his dismissal was seen as an assault. The rest of the dismissed players were hardly mourned: Pilipko (to Krylya Sovetov Kuybyshev) and Redin (to Nistru Kishinev) were already beyond their prime and fans were no longer keen of them. As for Abramov, he kind of disappeared and nobody missed him – it was not for the first time he left the club in this manner. Those were out by Beskov's design, but there was more – Prokhorov wanted to keep his place in the national team and tried to move to Dinamo (Kiev). It was dark affair, which ended with player staying and apologizing. He lost his place in the national team, but was made captain of Spartak. Which probably made Evgeny Lovchev, the loyal star, angry. Prokhorov stayed, but another player left without even saying goodbye – one Oleg Romantzev, who returned to his native Krasnoyarsk. There was no fuss over the thick-headed youngster at first: he appeared in only 2 games during the unfortunate 1976 season, so hardly a great miss. However, in the summer of 1977, mid-season, Beskov suddenly decided to give him another try and brought him back. After that the story of Romantzev, national team player for years and later quite a famous coach started, but probably his calling back out of the blue after leaving the team in without a hint of warning did not endear him to old pillars like Lovchev.

It was not the end of 'removals': some younger players were out of the team, but their names did not mean anything, except Victor Bukievsky – he and his brother Vladimir were considered very promising defenders. Vladimir was kept in the team, but Victor was sent to third division, to Spartak (Kostroma), together with two more player. It was a barter for Kostroma's striker Yartzev. During the season few more were dismissed quietly – no big loss, except the experienced Valery Andreev. From today's standpoint the dismissals appear entirely OK: a lot of dead meat, people already over the hill, lazy boys and underperformers. It was not so in actual time, largely because the of the mind-boggling replacements Beskov brought to Spartak.

It is common practice a new coach to bring along players from his former club, so the intrdocution of two Dinamo (Moscow) strikers, Vadim Pavlenko and Yury Gavrilov, was understandable at first. Spartak lacked strikers, but... Pavlenko a pale shadow of the 19-years old sensation of only two years ago, when he was a big bang, scoring plenty of goals and establishing himself as the regular Dynamo centreforward. After that he was going rapidly down: after and injury, he did not regain his form and was benched permanently. Gavrilov was even bigger disappointment: he never established himself as a starter and by now played mostly for Dynamo's reserves. It looked like Dynamo's 'garbage' was brought to Spartak, but at least these two were young and had experience. Two other strikers horrified the fans: Georgy Yartzev, already nearing 30, was recruited from third division Spartak (Kostroma) – even the player was surprised and was reluctant to join Spartak, pointing out his age. He never played any other but third division football – some star! At least he was a regular, for another guy was not even that: Sergey Shavlo was brought from Daugava (Riga), also playing in the third division, but playing applies to the club, not the player. Shavlo, at 29 years of age, was unable to become a regular in third division! He played for the reserves of Daugava. A right full back, not exactly spring chicken either, was lured from Metallurg (Lipetzk) – Victor Nozdrin looked like a star when compared to the other new players: he was a regular of second division team! The fans were horrified – the newcomers looked worse than the dismissed. Fans grumbled nostalgically, missed Papaev, and found Shavlo's incoherent movements on the left wing pathetic.

Spartak was considered prime candidate for first place, but the 'new team' struggled, and appeared to be disjointed, rag-tag squad. They lost matches and by selection and performance looked like settling to play in second division for a long time. At the end of the season Prokhorov wined that the league was tough and it was difficult to play against unknown teams, but the fact remained: this Spartak vintage played badly. The fans supported the team out of loyalty, not because the boys were exciting. Evgeny Lovchev most likely was the sole player trying to really fight, to encourage his teammates, and provide energy, but the atmosphere was not in his favour. There was sense of desperation – once Lobvchev was rushed to airplane (belonging to the Ministry of Aviation had some perks in terms of travel) right after the match of the national team and delivered in some distant city where Spartak played. He arrived in time for the second half and immediately was fielded. Perhaps Spartak hit rock bottom at their visit to Kemerovo. The hosts Kuzbass, led by deadly Vitaly Razdaev destroyed Spartak 4-0. Spartak dropped to 7th place... new changes were needed: in June Beskov brought Gavrilov from Dynamo (Moscow) and Romantzev. Spartak slowly improved, started winning, climbed up, the table, and eventually finished first. Once promotion was achieved, opinions changed: it was pointed out that Spartak scored not only the most goals in the league, but one of the highest ever numbers. Most players suddenly were satisfying, coach Beskov as well. But it was no triumph, doubts lingered, and Prokhorov's final words leave the smell of inside tensions. It sounded like Spartak won the championship thanks to fighting, not to superior playing.

The starting eleven was unconvincing: Prokhorov between the goalposts, Nozdrin, Romantzev, Khidiatulin, and Sorokin in defense, Lovchev, Gladilin, another oldtimer, and Gavrilov, transformed into playmaker, in midfield, Yartzev, Pavlenko, and Shavlo in attack. Sidorov was also a starter, but more or less, the first eleven was the group mentioned. Apart from Lovchev, few others had strong season: Pavlenko, it was said, 'found' himself and started scoring again. The real 'revelations' were Yartzev and Gavrilov. Gavrilov, moved to midfield, proved to be inventive playmaker, providing the strikers with good passes. Yartzev surprised everybody with his speed and hunger – he scored the most goals, 17, followed by Pavlenko with 14. First place, back to first division, relieve.

Standing, from left: I. Frolov – assistant coach, A. Sorokin, V. Khidiatulin, O. Romantzev, V. Samokhin, A. Bibichev – scientific worker, K. Beskov – coach, A. Prokhorov, I. Varlamov – assistant coach, A. Kokorev, E. Lovchev, N. Starostin – head coach, responsible for upbringing.

Crouching: A. Kodylev, V. Nozdrin, V. Andreev, G. Yartzev, V. Pavlenko, E. Sidorov, M. Bulgakov, S. Shavlo, V. Bukievsky, Yu. Gavrilov.

Some titles are mind-boggling mystery: what was the role of the scientific worker? And what exactly means the pompous title of Starostin? I am translating it as close as I can get to the fantastic Russian description – the title sounds tutorial, educational, disciplinarian, but what exactly? It also appears that Starostin and Beskov were join head coaches of the team, but Starostin was not involved with training. It was a tandem to stay for years, for with this rag-tag squad a long-lasting dynasty began, but what unlikely combination... Starostin and Beskov had very different views of football, both were pig-headed and stubborn, and did not like each other much (to put it mildly). Such tandems hardly last even short time – without great results and constant clashes between the members, usually one is sacked, often both. Beskov, among other things, committed grave offense: he got rid of practically all old-time Spartakovites - Prokhorov, Bulgakov, Gladilin, Andreev, Kokorev, Sidorov, and finally Lovchev. True, he got rid of some of the beauties he brought himself – Pavlenko and Nozdrin – but it was clear that he preferred his own creations or at least youngsters, not tainted with traditional spirit. For Starostin, more than a legend of the club, for he was Mr. Spartak really and truly – a founder, a star player, a functionary, a policy-maker – such attitudes were irritating. Yet, the duo lasted many years, brought enormous success for Spartak, built a dynasty. Starostin a manager and Beskov head coach – no more mystery titles after this season, both co-existing in something best described as 'cold peace'. Beskov eventually proved himself right – the core of his great teams was already here: Khidiatulin, Romantzev, Gavrilov, Shavlo, Yartzev. Not a single 'classic' Spartakovite among them, but the beginning was shaky and unconvincing. At least the first step – return to top league football – was achieved. May be lucky moment – if this squad failed to reach promotion, very likely there was not to be great Spartak, for Beskov and his 'stars' were to be sacked immediately.