Book Review: Russian Winters: The Story of Andrei Kanchelskis
Russian Winters: The Story of Andrei Kanchelskis
by Andrei Kanchelskis
Published by De Coubertin Books
It would be tempting to say how a footballer’s autobiography somehow mirrors the playing style of the player who wrote it. In Andrei Kanchelskis’ case that make this book dynamic and direct, perhaps even a little old-fashioned, written in a style that has been shunned by the ‘new football’ of lavish wealth and superior technique and strategy.
Well, almost. Russian Winters – the title is an interesting choice, as is the use of a Soviet style typeface and the inclusion of an epigraph taken from Doctor Zhivago – is probably an above average title in the genre, and for a player who often looked so boyish in his heyday, Kanchelskis is, on occasion, surprisingly robust or even ‘old school’ in his views. But at times it still suffers, like many footballer’s books, from only hinting at the character of the person whose life it is supposed to represent, while mentioning in passing events which would seem to be more significant. Perhaps it’s too much to ask in terms of self-reflection, but it seems odd that Kanchelskis, whose father died when he was 17, doesn’t discuss how it affected him then, or the influence it’s had on his life since.
What probably elevates the book is that it covers an era that now seems fairly distant, when the idea of a Soviet footballer playing on the wing for Manchester United felt exotic, and not just because any winger playing for United feels slightly anachronistic these days. Andrei Kanchelskis was brought up in Ukraine before the breakup of the Soviet Union – he was actually the last man to score a goal for that national side – but though he recognizes the hardships of life under Communism, he is clearly no fan of the system that has replaced it. As many people do, Andrei harbours an almost nostalgic view of the times in which he grew up in, but clearly hasn’t bought into Ukraine’s nationalist renaissance, or the fractured legacy of the collapse of the Soviet system. Although he is aware of the terrible famines which killed millions of Soviet citizens, including some of his own family, the book begins with Andrei fondly remembering the Moscow Olympics, then promoting Russia’s hosting of next year’s World Cup. He remembers the tragedy of Chernobyl, and how the Communist Party kept the details hidden, yet still sees himself as ‘a Soviet kind of guy’.
Kanchelskis was a cult hero at Old Trafford, where he arrived in 1991. He was an integral member of the Double winning team of 93-94 that is still considered by some as the club’s best ever XI, and it is his account of his time there which will be the biggest attraction of this book for many people. So, there are brief accounts of Sir Alex’s hairdryer treatment, including squaring up to Mark Hughes and Peter Schmeichel, though Kanchelskis’ lack of English means that he was able to exist almost outside the madness. In his early days at the club, for example, he’s told the customary way to greet the manager is with ‘Fuck off Scottish bastard’, so he does. We also learn how, in his difficult second season, Andrei refused to play for the reserves after being dropped, and the friendship he developed with Bryan Robson. But it’s a relatively brief section of the book, underlining how fleeting his impact at Old Trafford really was. In the spring of 1995 the United physio at the time, David Fevre, somehow failed to diagnose a double hernia, and instead accused Kanchelskis of faking the injury. His agent then agitated for a move away, and despite United wanting him to stay, Andrei bafflingly chose to move to Everton instead. You get a sense that Kanchelskis has probably regretted the decision ever since, even if he did enjoy a decent first season on Merseyside.
The style of the book is rather monotone; it feels like a collation of several interviews, drawn together by ghost-writer Tim Rich, and so some of the most interesting stories feels almost like conversational asides. For those with a taste for the tabloid, for example, at one point Andrei finds himself fighting a pub full of Tottenham fans with Alexei Mikhhailichenlo before using his pace to escape the situation, while another story recounts how, on a warm weather training break in Marbella with Manchester City, Steve Howey holed himself in his hotel room surrounded by dozens of cans of lager and refused to come out for a meal. Indeed, the cultural differences between British and foreign footballers and coaches is a recurring theme, illustrated as Kanchelskis’ career takes him to a range of different clubs, including Fiorentina and Rangers, where Dick Advocat is portrayed as an arrogant, petty disciplinarian who showed favour to the Dutch players in his squad and insisted everyone wore a v-neck jumper.
But as his powers wain, hampered by several injuries, Kanchelskis also finds himself playing in Saudi Arabia (and playing chess with one of the crown princes) before returning to Russia to play for a series of lower league clubs. He bemoans how backward Russian football has become, with incompetent coaches and corrupt owners, but nevertheless Kanchelskis appears to be someone who sticks at things; he becomes a manager, first taking a job at a club called Nosta Novotroitsk on the border of Kazakhstan, in an environment reminiscent of Mad Max. Based in a town dominated by steel plants, it’s apparently not unheard of for workers to throw themselves into the 400 degree blast furnaces, their bodies eviscerating almost instantly. Clearly, post-Soviet Russia isn’t always a great place to live.
This is an interesting if perhaps not the most memorable autobiography. For many United fans, and indeed Everton fans, too, Kanchelskis is a player whose star burned very brightly, if briefly, in an era when the Premier League was very much ‘a whole new ball game’. Now divorced – his wife left him for a famous Russian pop star – he clearly still has a lot of friends in the game (Ryan Giggs writes the foreword, while Joe Royle writes the afterword), but you do wonder whether Kanchelskis ever dwells on what he could have achieved if he hadn’t been so poorly advised to leave Old Trafford when he did, and injuries hadn’t affected the pace that made him such a wonderful winger originally. Russian Winters feels like the book of someone slightly cut adrift from contemporary football, an icon from a particular moment in time who is content to settle into middle age and remember the good old days. It probably happens to us all.