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.
In this hypothetical pub quiz which seems somehow obsessed with the intricacies of Russian football, the following question is asked: which is the eastern-most football club to have ever participated in the top flight of a European league? Depending on your geographical definition of Europe, you may well opt for a Turkish side, maybe even Israeli if you opt for UEFA’s liberal boundaries. Russia would be the obvious answer however, and after much deliberation you would plump for the side representing Vladivostok, Luch-Energia, who played in the Premier League for three seasons from 2006 onwards.
You would still be wrong however, despite the well-educated and informed nature of your answer. Remarkably, it is not only the Russian Far East’s biggest, most important and well-known city that has managed to gain representation at the highest level. That honour, and the answer to the hypothetical question initially posed, belongs to Okean Nakhodka, who sit some 50 miles further along the coastline.
Nakhodka is by no means a large city, falling outside of the top 100 in Russia in terms of population. As a port, it pales in comparison to its most famous neighbour, however for some time it was infinitely more accessible to foreign visitors into the country – under the Soviet Union, Vladivostok was home to the USSR’s Pacific Fleet and a highly militarised port city, resulting in its closing off from foreigners. As a result, the eastern terminus of the world-famous Trans-Siberian Railway lay not in Vladivostok, as it does today, but in Nakhodka. As the only available access point in the Soviet Far East, the closing of Vladivostok came as a huge boost to Nakhodka, which until 1950 was not even recognised as a town. Visitors brought tourism, money and an incentive for the government to invest, its maritime industries growing as rapidly as its population.
Not only did the government boost Nakhodka inadvertently by closing off its greatest economic rivals, the Soviet authorities also invested directly in the growing city by presenting it as the eastern window through which to view the USSR as a whole. As the numbers of visitors grew in the 70s and 80s, so did the importance of demonstrating a model city – and, as every country with a high importance on sport, teamwork and physical education knows, a model city needs a local football team.
Okean were formed in 1979, remaining to this day the only fully professional sports organisation in Nakhodka, and first took part in all-Union competition as representatives of their native Primorsky Krai after half a decade of local domination. The 1986 season saw a surprise 5th place in their 14 team league, but their bright spark could not be maintained, Okean finishing second from bottom the following year. With the all-seeing power of hindsight, that 1987 campaign was perhaps more important for the arrival of Oleg Garin, a locally-born striker acquired from neighbouring Vladivostok who would go on to make more than 200 appearances for his home club before transferring to Lokomotiv Moscow and establishing himself as one of the top goalscorers in Russia.
As Garin supplied the goals, so Okean began to steadily climb their ever-expanding Far Eastern league, culminating in a 4th place finish in 1989 which would see the young move out of their immediate surroundings to participate in what was known as the ‘buffer’ league. Still divided geographically, this new step on the ladder would serve as a feeder to the top flight, with a whole host of flagship clubs from the various Soviet republics joining some of Russia’s leading regional clubs in the 22 team league.
Some sides found themselves hopelessly outclassed at this level – Spartak Andizhan managed to concede a huge 113 goals in their 42 matches – but Okean dealt with the step up admirably. clinching 3rd place in the inaugural season, ahead of far more established clubs and earning a second season at that level. 1991, the year before the Soviet system would come crashing down, saw Okean competing against sides from Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, Bukhara in Uzbekistan, Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and Pavlodar in Kazakhstan as well as a spread of Russian opponents, and this time the result was decisive. Dropping just a single point at their coastal fortress and with Garin finding the net no fewer than 25 times, the Nakhodka side won the league by three points, earning them a place in the Top League.
Of course, in the political upheaval that followed, it would be the Russian and not Soviet top flight in which Okean would ply their trade, but they had earned it none the less. Although this time their Vodnik stadium was not the impenetrable it had been, they earned enough points at home – including a 5-2 thrashing of defending Soviet champions CSKA Moscow, their biggest defeat of the season – to make up for more ordinary away form, and Garin’s 14 goals were enough to keep the club alive. 13th was their final position, and while more traditional clubs such as Zenit St Petersburg, Shinnik Yaroslavl and Kuban Krasnodar all suffered the pain of relegation, Okean Nakhodka survived against the odds.
In the off-season, Oleg Garin was lured away to Lokomotiv, where he continued to score at a rate of a goal every three games, winning two Russian Cups and making a handful of UEFA Cup appearances for the Railwaymen. Unable to replace his goals, Okean struggled in their second top flight season, and their participation in a relegation tournament hinged on the final game of the season. Unfortunately for them, two of their three relegation rivals faced each other, and after some dubious delaying tactics were able to reach the conclusion which saw them both safe. It proved to be academic anyway – Okean lost their game, and would join 14th and 15th place in a mini-league with the three regional winners of the First League.
Perhaps demoralised by the final day shenanigans, perhaps simply not strong enough, Okean slumped to relegation, picking up just a single point – from a goalless draw with Lada Tolyatti – and shipping 14 goals in their five matches. With no star striker, no need for the government to boost the area, and diminishing local interest in a club outside the top flight, the wheels soon fell off for Okean, and after two lower midtable finishes in the First League, 1996 saw them finish 19th and relegated. Their defence changed from one of their strongest assets to a porous liability – a 6-1 home to defeat to Fakel Voronezh and 5-0 embarrassment at Torpedo Volzhsky particularly embarrassing – and their spell as one of Russia’s top sides was well and truly over.
Pavel Palatin arrived to manage a side effectively made up of local youth players for the 97 season, finishing one place above the drop despite three more huge defeats. A mild recovery followed, but even the First Division soon seemed like a pipedream. For a brief moment, the team came alive again – the legendary Garin returned, first to play and then to manage, but 2nd and 3rd place in successive season was not enough. He left to Krasnoyarsk, the team slipped slowly downwards, and with no money, poor players and no hope, the 2010 season finished with Okean winning a pitiful two of their 30 matches, the amateur divisions calling them home.
Today, Okean Nakhodka are back where it all started – competing against their neighbours in the championship of Primorsky Krai. unheard of outside their own city and with little to show for those glorious years at the Russian game’s top table. Their appearance in hypothetical pub quizzes is not likely to be much consolation.