This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
Or, if you prefer to call them by their longer title, FC Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast – although Ural are based in the city of Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, the football club represents the entire region, which in itself carries a Soviet name – Ekaterinburg was known as Sverdlovsk in 1924-1991, named after the diminutive Communist leader who died at just 23 years of age in circumstances no-one is entirely sure of. Thankfully, Ural’s own history is somewhat less convoluted than that of their name and city.
The official foundation of modern-day Ural is said to have taken place at some point in 1930, when a graduate from the city’s physical education institute decided to set up a team made up of workers from the local heavy industry factory. Three years later, with the official opening of the factory, the team was formalised, taking on the beautifully Soviet moniker of Uralmashzavod – Ural machine factory. With the national league not taking shape for another three years, Uralmashzavod used that time to compete in regional championships, finally clinching the Sverdlovsk title in 1936.
Despite that early success, they did not immediately join the all-Union competition until after the war – the Ural region underwent almost constant development in the pre-war period due to the strategic importance of its mountainous defences, and so it is likely that time needed from training and long-distance matchday travel was simply unaffordable as international tensions mounted. Nevertheless, with Soviet troops reaching Berlin, Uralmashzavod took their first steps onto the bottom rung of the Soviet footballing ladder. Winning just five leagues games in their debut season, they quickly fell off again.
Undeterred and with a new name – the much easier to pronounce Avangard gracing their shirts – the Sverdlovsk side returned for three seasons from 1947-49, achieving midtable consolidation before again dropping out of the league, due not to performance but to the constant restructuring of regions and zones in the lower tiers of Soviet football. The club’s record in the 1950s can be taken as a microcosm of the Soviet football system as a whole – from 1953 to 1959, the club played in no fewer than six different competitions, all at the same level and with geography the recurring problem.
Thankfully they settled in the 60s, but not before changing their name to Mashinostroitel for a couple of years before deciding to stick with Uralmash, the moniker which would see them through until the 21st century. In 1962 they finished top of their zone and ensured promotion to the second tier. Uralmash would stay there for six years, a poor first season soon forgotten as they established themselves as one of the top teams in a vast league. In 1968, they won their own 21-team league before winning a four team mini-league against the other three league winners. Champions of an 84-team league, Uralmash had finally made it to the top flight.
Victor Marenko was the man to take them to the promised land, but he was also the man to lead them out of it. Despite an impressive win over a strong Neftchi Baku side at home and a league double over Krylya Sovetov, Uralmash managed just 19 goals in their 34 games, ultimately ending up on the bottom of the pile and being relegating straight back to the second tier.
It was the start of a torrid few years for Uralmash – after two poor seasons in the second tier, the third brought another relegation, and the club would once again play at the third level of Soviet football. Vladimir Potin’s side won the league at their first attempt, but the club began to yo-yo, bouncing regularly between the second and third divisions. Relegation in 75 was followed by promotion the following year, and in 1980 Uralmash once again returned to the regionals. They settled into Zone 2 alongside the likes of Rubin Kazan and Krylya Sovetov, weak precursors to their modern editions, and it not until the mid-80s did Uralmash threaten to escape.
They did so emphatically. After winning their regional league only to fall at the final hurdle in 1988, a convincing league title two years later was enough to send them back into the second tier. But they did not stop there – with Kornei Shperling at the helm, Uralmash took the First League by storm, taking 3rd place behind champions Rotor Volgograd and Tiligul Tiraspol. Even if the Soviet Union had not disbanded, Uralmash would have earned the right to play top flight football once again.
They continued their excellent progress in the Russian top flight, finishing a solid 9th thanks largely to the goals of league top scorer Yuri Matveev, a striker who spent four spells at the club, scoring 75 goals in 176 league games and retiring to the club’s coaching staff. In 1996 Matveev moved to CSKA Moscow, and as he failed to make an impact in the capital, the side which had worshipped him in previous years dropped out of the Top League. The following season, after a torrid First Division campaign, Uralmash, along with fellow top flight demotees Textilschik Kamyshin, suffered a second consecutive relegation.
Thus began dark times for the club, who would again change their name to the current Ural in 2002. The expected immediate return did not arrive as other clubs’ budgets exceeded that of the regional government-run side, and it took until 2004 for them to finally break out of their regional league malaise – promotion had been achieved two years earlier, but immediate relegation put hopes of revival on hold.
Since their return to the First Division, Ural have established themselves as perennial contenders, never dropping out of the top eight in what is arguably Russia’s least predictable football league. In 2007 they reached the Russian Cup semi-final before being beaten by Amkar Perm, and in the transitional season of 2011-12 managed to earn a reputation as the division’s draw specialists, playing to no result in 21 of their 52 matches.
It has been rumoured that Ural could not actually afford to be promoted, the necessary budget increase needed to sustain a Premier League club falling outside the capabilities of the local authorities. However, it would be wrong to claim that the Ekaterinburg side are not aiming for promotion, and with their current squad it is hard to argue that they are not contenders. With enigmatic forward Anatoly Gerk, Chilean playmaker Gerson Acevedo and a goalkeeper named Yashin in the side, they have the ingredients to make the charge their fans desire. With one of the better attendances in the First Division, they will be hoping to return to the Premier League before too long.