Back in the Ex-USSR: Former Soviet Nationals in the Football League
Amid the relentless cacophony of last Friday’s transfer deadline day, Radio Five Live’s needlessly exhaustive coverage did include an interesting discussion on the whys and wherefores of signing players from the former Soviet Union in the light of Liverpool’s failed bid to take Yevhen Konoplyanka to the club from Dnipro.
Examples were given of underperformers from the one time Russian orbit with Martin Keown contrasting Oleh Luzhnyi’s ‘OK’ performances in an Arsenal shirt to that of the beast of a player who had had Marc Overmars running backwards during a Champions League tie against Dynamo Kyiv and the mystifying failure of Andriy Shevchenko to perform anything like his best for Chelsea – for the record, I think the Ukrainian national hero might be my choice as the most disappointing player I have seen play across three seasons of live Premier League football since 2006.
Shevchenko’s former partner in crime, Serhiy Rebrov, was another abject footnote of course and if the discussants somewhat unconvincingly tried to decry the strong counter-examples of Georgi Kinkladze and Andrei Kanchelskis as proof of their argument (the nineties were described as ‘a different era’ before the ‘pressure’ intensified), there did seem to be a strong point being made.
Keown also claimed that playing in front of one man and his dog in the various satellite leagues of the ex-USSR, seriously weaker than the Soviet Supreme League from which they splintered, does little to prepare one for the packed stadia of even the humblest of Premier League fixtures although there are plenty of players from other countries who have taken this transition to the big time in the stride.
No – perhaps the reason for the general set of underwhelming stints are cultural and institutional. The Commonwealth of Independent States has been an uncertain environment to ply one’s trade in since Boris Yeltsin addressed crowds from a tank outside the Russian parliament in 1991 and football is no different.
James Appell wrote in The Blizzard of endemic match-fixing in Russia, clubs such as Arsenal Kyiv in Ukraine have risen and faded away, the bear-like shadow of Gazprom and others has loomed over the on and off field action, oligarchs have emerged as owners to degrees of reliability stretching from dubious to outright criminal and transfers have been conducted with no internal and external logic – Christopher Samba anyone?
The Premier League may have its dodgy dealing and it would be naïve to suggest that corruption is entirely absent but it’s a more regulated environment that certainly requires a greater degree of professionalism while simple structural matters such as a lack of winter break (and winter football at all) and a more consistently high standard will also have played their part in the failures.
But what of the Football League? Perhaps the less exalted climes of tiers 2 to 4 will have provided a way in for players from the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?
Not exactly. There have been cases of men starting in the EPL before dropping down the divisions and if Rebrov’s time at West Ham was even less noteworthy than his time at Tottenham, one or two – Georgian Zurab Khizanishvili and Russian Pavel Pogrebnyak, currently enjoying an industrious second campaign at Reading after flopping in the top flight, have achieved a degree of modest success.
But what of players plucked directly from the taiga and steppe? Without the transitional stage of a spell at another western European League – see Alexander Hleb and Pogrebnyak as examples – it is hard to come up with too many glowing examples.
Pyotr Kachura (known to Sheffield United fans during his time in England as ‘Petr Katchouro’ achieved in bursts at Bramall Lane – netting 19 times in 95 games for the Blades and staying for half a decade after a £650,000 switch from Dinamo Minsk in 1996. That promise came to pieces after he left the field through injury in the play-off final decided by David Hopkin’s screamer and Kachura never hit the same heights again, eventually being transferred to sister club Chengdu Blades – a slightly lumbering presence, the Belarussian international never quite lived up to his billing.
Still, his performances were marked by a decent level of effort which is more than you can say for Sergei Yuran. The Russian’s spell at Millwall was punctuated by ill-discipline, a drink-driving ban and a diffidence that would have made his fictional compatriot Ilya Ilyich Oblomov from the Ivan Goncharov novel proud. Lions boss Jimmy Nicholl remarked that ‘the only thing the other players could have possibly learned from him while he was here was how to steal a living’ – and this from a player who had turned out for both Portuguese giants, Benfica and Porto, even if he was signed from Spartak Moscow, arriving in tandem with his almost equally underperforming countryman, Vassili Kulkov.
Few Football League sides have dared to take the plunge since but one region of the former Empire has provided a note to buck the trend and a hope that increasing internationalisation could lead to a better influx.
That region is the Baltics of course which, despite a large Russian population in each state, often has as much in common with Scandinavia as it does with Mother Russia. Hence, despite the pretty desperate time of it Estonian Tarmo Kink was forced to suffer at Middlesbrough, the odd thirty yard blaster aside, there have been some noteworthy thumbs-up.
Take Vitālijs Astafjevs, a fine midfield general in one of the best teams never to make a play-off spot, Ian Holloway’s exciting Bristol Rovers team of 1999-2000. The Latvian providing some midfield class behind the lethal duo of Jamie Cureton and Jason Roberts. Take another Latvian, Andrejs Štolcers, 25 games for Fulham and a Second Division winning medal in his pocket, finally losing his place only because of the squad competition resultant from Mohamed Al-Fayed’s philanthropy.
More convincingly, take Kaspars Gorkšs, a hero at Blackpool and then back-to-back Championship medals at Queen’s Park Rangers and Reading. The Royal’s introduction to the Premier League last season was brief and horrific but he has fought back to reclaim his place this year, provides the natural balance of a left-footer in any central pairing and is a very dangerous customer at the right end from corners.
So the signs are there that players from the transition countries can do the business. It’s just question of picking the right ones. Shevchenko was a major success for Milan after all while even as maligned a player as Andriy Voronin has been terrific in Germany, along with his fellow Ukrainian Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, until recently a man who plied his trade at the world’s best club in Bayern Munich.
Perhaps, therefore, it takes both sides to tango and rather than expecting players from Russia and elsewhere to simply ‘fit in’ on a bus full of headphones, endless ‘banter’, Stalin costumes at the Christmas Party and a media quick to play the xenophobe’s card, serious efforts to help players integrate might be more welcome, in particular given the investment made. It hasn’t been a great era for ex-Soviet players in England but I’d wager that the next few years will see a marked improvement.