Those of you familiar with the Russian may also be aware of the situation which has overshadowed Siberian club Tom Tomsk for the last few years – a complete inability to remain financially solvent, only for Vladimir Putin and his government to repeatedly rescue the club by ‘asking’ energy companies to come forward with the money needed to keep Tom afloat. Given the number of Russian teams which fall by the financial wayside on a yearly basis, Putin’s personal preference for Tom seems somewhat unfair, however his insistence on the importance of football in the Siberian city means that it is unlikely they will ever suffer the same fate.
Those detractors will of course have taken some solace in Tom’s ultimate relegation from the Premier League last season. Having completed a remarkable league record stretch of 12 games without scoring a goal – a streak which renders Dinamo Moscow’s recent plight a mere trifle – the raft of new signings arriving over the winter break turned up too late to save their Premier League status. They did at least manage to avoid the ignominy of finishing 16th and last, a fate instead suffered by Spartak Nalchik, but a defence which conceded no fewer than 70 goals over the campaign and a misfiring front line were ultimately enough to secure their downward passage into the First Division.
At this point, it was wondered whether Putin would retain his interest in the ailing club, given their sudden withdrawal from the footballing spotlight and the President’s general indifference when it comes to the sport. However, for the time being at least, the sponsorship deals have remained in place, and an active transfer window signalled the club’s intentions. Scotland international striker Garry O’Connor signed for the club in a public show of ambition – the former Hibs and Birmingham striker’s last act in Russia was to score the Cup-winning goal for Lokomotiv Moscow – and manager Sergei Perednya has been given the freedom to go out and replace the players who decided to leave the club in pursuit of top flight football.
Those arrivals, combined with the ones who stayed, provide a solid spine for the Siberian side, who after a brief Premier League battle with Sibir Novosibirsk, remain the biggest club in the vast region. Belarussian international full back Sergei Omelyanchuk has taken the captaincy since his arrival in the last winter transfer window, whilst the likes of Alexander Dimidko and Renat Sabitov make up a midfield which is identifiable as one of the strongest in the division. Up front is again their only area of concern, with the club previously over-reliant on the less than prolific combinations of inexperienced Kirill Pogrebnyak, veteran Anton Khazov and perennial loanee Nikita Bazhenov. With O’Connor’s arrival, the hope in Tomsk will be that the Scotsman can solve their issues in front of goal.
Thus far, the plan seems to be working. With the sole exception of Neftekhimik Nizhemkamsk, with whom Tom shared a pulsating 3-3 draw on Wednesday which saw an incredible three penalties awarded, no side has found the back of the net with greater regularity than the Siberians. Since an opening day defeat to Rotor in Volgograd which no doubt set off a few alarm bells in the minds of the more pessimistic Tomsk fans – Rotor are after all one of the many newly-promoted sides in this year’s First Division – Perednya’s side have gone unbeaten in six matches, the highlight of the urn undoubtedly a 2-0 win away at big-spending and high-flying FC Ufa, the side who currently top the standings. However, a win for Tom in their game in hand would see the Siberian side leapfrog their Bashkir rivals to the top of the First Division standings, a position which seemed unlikely back in January with the club staring down the double barrel of relegation and liquidation.
Whilst the season remains young, there is nevertheless a certain optimism around the club that an immediate return to the Premier League could yet be on the cards, an outcome which would surprise a large number of observers who are all too used to seeing relegated teams fail to replace their departing players and slip into obscurity in the middle of the First Division table. Given the route apparently being taken by Sibir – two years ago they recorded a famous first leg win over PSV Eindhoven in their Europa League qualifying tie, and yet today they sit 10th in Russia’s second tier – their neighbours will be more than happy with the progress made so far.
Nevertheless, Tom are not alone at the top of the First Division, and there will be plenty of other sides challenging them for the two available promotion places. The aforementioned FC Ufa are a young, ambitious club whose budget outstretches much of the division, and with Igor Kolyvanov at the helm they will be looking to maintain their early season form. Rotor are another newly-promoted side to have started well, and a return to the top flight after a lengthy absence provides a great incentive to the historic side. Add perennial contenders Ural Ekaterinburg and a league as unpredictable as it is financially dangerous, and promotion is by no means assured.
The challenge for Tom, then, rests in balancing their ability to hold together what is undoubtedly one of the stronger squads in the division, and holding off the seemingly inevitable financial crash. At the moment, the sponsorship deals are in place to prop the club up, but if costs continue to grow as the squad is improved, those local authorities tasked with running the club may be forced to take action once again. In the last few years Tom have been stuck in a cycle of bust and bail-out, and the added complication of flitting between leagues i s not one which the club will want to deal with. If they are to reach the top flight, they need to be able to survive there on their own terms, or there is little purpose in them being promoted. Out of the spotlight, the First Division should in theory provide a chance to solve the fundamental problems which have plagued the side in recent times. Unfortunately, given the volatile nature of the second tier, salvation of anything beyond performances on the field looks highly unlikely.