Image from fcalania.euro.ru

Alania and the Miracle of ’95

Today’s More Than Arshavin comes from a close friend of mine, Keith Huckle. Keith doesn’t have a blog or indeed write about football, but he probably should. His enthusiasm for the game, Russia, and the Caucasus in particular have encouraged me in a number of ways over the years – getting MTA going, correcting countless factual errors, and being an excellent travel companion whether negotiating the Moscow Metro or swearing at hotel staff to get a room in KrasnodarKeith went to the 2011 Russian Cup final as an Alania fan, and today’s extended blog explores his adopted team’s finest moment.

Image from fcalania.euro.ru
Spartak-Alania’s title success in 1995 was both unexpected and unrepeated.

Any discussion about modern Russian football, regardless of how it begins, quickly turns to the topic of money. The influence of money on the Russian top flight, just as it is throughout the world, is obvious and far-reaching. Whether it is Anzhi tempting some of the stars of the world game or the Russian Railways Ministry building Lokomotiv their stadium, money talks. Ultimately, it was money which allowed Zenit St. Petersburg and Rubin Kazan to become viable alternatives to the Moscow clubs in the annual fight for supremacy. However, it was neither of these clubs who broke Moscow’s stranglehold on the Russian Premier League. Instead, in true fairy-tale fashion, it was a provincial side from the Russian south that crashed the capital’s exclusive party, relying on the collective rather than the individual. Not only did they become the first non-Muscovite team to win the league, but in doing so they, temporarily at least, stopped the juggernaut that was Oleg Romantsev’s Spartak Moscow. Their star would never hit the same heights again, but for the fans of Alania Vladikavkaz, the 1995 league championship is something which they still cannot believe they won.

The capital of the North Caucasian republic of North Ossetia, Vladikavkaz was founded in 1784 as part of the Russian Empire’s expansion into the Caucasus. But the region and the people had seen far greater times, as the modern name of the republic (North Ossetia-Alania) betrays. Home of the Alans, who created their own nation and controlled the central part of the Northern Caucasus and the vital trade routes to the south, from the 9th century until their demise at the hands of the Mongols, while the even earlier predecessors to the Ossetians was the Sarmatian Empire. Today the Alans a fundamental part in the distinctive Ossetian identity, the only Christian people in a sea of Islam. The wave of nationalism which surged around the Soviet Union and eventually contributed greatly to its demise saw the addition of the Alania to the team name; the team which won the 1995 league title was called Spartak-Alania. Before this, the team competed for most of the 1970s and 80s as Spartak and even further back, the club was briefly known as Avtomobilist and the snappy Lenin United Workers’ Club.

The club was founded in 1921 by, as one story goes, by two young British communists called Armstrong and Campbell and would go on to spend most of its time in the Soviet 1st League (the second league of the Soviet Union, beneath the Top League). Twice the team was relegated to the 2nd League and twice it was promoted to the Top League, most fortuitously winning the 1st League in 1990 and surviving in the Top League as the Russian Republic’s only non-Muscovite representative in 1991, thus securing their place in the newly created Russian Top League (which would go on to become today’s Premier League) following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Alania immediately became a force in the Russian top flight, finishing 2nd in the inaugural season. Next season brought 6th place and the following year the club came 5th under new manager Valeri Gazzaev, suggesting a solid enough team, but one lacking enough quality to push on and win the league.

A 2-1 win early on in the 1995 season away at Spartak hinted at what was to come, with Alania overhauling Dinamo Moscow at the top of the table after 10 matches. Dinamo’s title challenge took a massive blow with Alania’s 1-0 win over them in Moscow; following this result they faded badly, eventually finishing in 4th.

Six games in, Alania lost 1-0 at home to Lokomotiv Moscow in what was to be their only home defeat. But Alania recovered well from this setback, roaring into an 11 point lead at the half way stage. Two games later, Alania travelled to Moscow to play Lokomotiv with hopes of at least preserving their advantage over the Railwaymen. But this wasn’t to be as Lokomotiv ran riot, putting four goals past the usually watertight Alania defence in a 4-1 win and cutting the gap between the two to only 9 points. Alania’s form began to drop off at this point as nerves started to take effect, but neither Lokomotiv nor Spartak could take advantage, meaning that Alania’s hard fought 1-1 home draw with Romantsev’s men left them three points clear of Lokomotiv and 10 clear of Spartak with four games to go, effectively ruling the reigning champions out of the race. Ural’s shock 2-1 win at Lokomotiv and Alania’s rampant 4-0 win over Tyumen saw the gap widen to 6 points with only two games to go. Lokomotiv knew they had to win their penultimate match to have any hope of winning a maiden title, a task which they managed, hammering Krylya Sovetov 4-0. But it was to no avail, as Alania too emerged victorious, an impressive 2-1 away win over CSKA Moscow securing their first ever league title. A final day 0-0 draw with KamAZ may have been a disappointing result on the field, but nothing could dampen the spirits of the supporters as the final whistle heralded a pitch invasion.

On paper, Gazzaev’s team was solid at best. While they had the best defence in the league, 21 goals conceded in 30 games isn’t particularly special for league champions, while their goals scoring rate of just over two goals a game is also far from extraordinary. Leading goal scorer, on-loan Dinamo Tbilisi striker Mikhail Kavelashvili managed just 12 goals that season (just under 20% of Alania’s goals), with midfielders Bakhav Tedeyev and Mirjalol Qosimov scoring 10 goals apiece. However, only 6 outfield players failed to score, and the majority of Alania’s defenders made respectable contributions; Gazzaev had built a team, not a group of individuals.

Of the title winning side, there was an impressive mix of players who went to more fashionable clubs, players that tried and failed, and players that sank into mediocrity much like the club over the following seasons. Goalkeeper Zaur Khapov went on to become Lokomotiv Moscow’s number two goalkeeper during their title winning seasons and defender Omari Tetradze left for Roma in 1997 (eventually winning a total of 37 caps for Russia), while Murtaz Shelia, another defender, left for Manchester City in 1997. Midfielder Igor Yanovksiy also left for foreign lands in 1998, swapping Vladikavkaz for Paris and, following the end of his loan deal, Georgian striker Kavelashvilli too went to Manchester City at the end of the season. Only seven members of the title winning squad were to win more than 10 caps for their countries, and one of these, Sergei Gorlukovich, won the majority of them before his time at Alania. Ali Alchagirov and Georgi Botsiyev both left the club for Spartak Nalchik, while Oleg Kornienko made the most exotic move, leaving Alania for Kazakh club Zhenis Astana in 2000.

Two main factors stand out when looking at Alania’s remarkable league win. Firstly, the composition of their squad. In an era when it is common for clubs to not field any players from their region, let alone city, an impressive six players started their careers at one of the Vladikavkaz clubs (Alania are by far the largest club in the city and retain strong links with the city’s other representatives, such as Avtodor) and another nine came from the greater Caucasus region. Two of these came from Spartak Nalchik, a club which also has close ties to Alania even today; at the 2011 Russian Cup Final, a vocal contingent of Spartak Nalchik supporters were in with the Alania fans, cheering on their Caucasian brethren against CSKA Moscow. Interestingly, Terek Grozny fans were also present, but in nowhere near as many numbers. Two Georgians, an Azeri and two players from Abkhazia and South Ossetia respectively also turned out for the team in 1995.

Of the rest of the squad, an Uzbek and Kazakh national were integral members and the remainder were made up of other Russians. Six of the title winning side went on to return to Alania following their initial departure, further proving that the 1995 win was built upon a strong relationship between the team and its city, as can be seen by Alania’s impressive support, the second intriguing factor in their title win.

As followers of Russian football know all too well, match days are blighted by poor attendance; in the 2011 season, no Premier League team averaged over 20,000, the closest being Zenit’s 19,703. There are a plethora of reasons for this, but they are a subject for another blog. However, as befits a club long known for its loyal and vociferous support, Alania were able to rely on an average home attendance of 33,467 for the 1995 campaign, no doubt a factor in their intimidating home record. Indeed, between 1993 and 1996, Alania only lost 4 league games at home as attendances rarely dropped below 26,000. Undoubtedly, Alania benefited from the same phenomenon which saw the likes of Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan regularly dine at the top table of the Soviet game; they represented an intensely proud region which undeniably spurred their players on to achievements far greater than their ability. Until the rise of Terek Grozny and Anzhi Makhachkala, Alania were seen as the flagship North Caucasian club, a source of pride for the embattled region.

Unfortunately and not entirely unexpectedly, Alania’s success did not last. Another impressive league campaign ended in a 2nd place finish as Spartak resumed their place at the top of Russian football. Alania’s performance in the Champions League was extremely poor; a 10-3 aggregate loss to Rangers saw them crash out in the qualifying rounds; perhaps a sign of their true level. Regardless, the dismantling of the team had begun and the following season Alania sank to 10th. They would remain in mid-table obscurity, unable to compete with the newly rich clubs of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan, until their relegation and bankruptcy in 2005. A brief return to the top flight in 2010 was a false dawn, but the cup final appearance showed that Alania is a club with still has life in it. Now with Gazzaev as club president and his son, Vladimir, as manager, Alania sit top of the First Division and are confident of a return to what many see as their rightful place; the pre-eminent North Caucasian club, competing for honours amongst the more fashionable Moscow and St. Petersburg clubs.

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