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.
If, in a hypothetical quiz, you were asked to name the oldest football team in Russia, which side would earn your guess? Surely one of the Moscow sides, but which one? Dinamo, propped up by the much-feared secret police, CSKA and their military background, or Spartak and their claim to be the people’s club? All would be understandable answers, and all would be comfortably wrong. The correct answer, for those curious, lies in the club badge above this paragraph. More than a century since their foundation, Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuevo continue to play in Russia’s Second Division, and outdate their more illustrious counterparts by at least a decade in the case of Dinamo and Spartak. Yet despite their outstanding longevity in a football league which sees clubs vanish and re-appear at a rate of knots, they remain unknown to the vast majority of football fans within Russia, let alone outside it.
The reason for this is simple enough – try as they might, Znamya Truda have never been a particularly successful side. Remarkably enough for the oldest football club in a country as vast and diverse as Russia, they have not once reached the top flight of the national league in either the pre-, post- or just plain Soviet era. For the vast majority of their existence they have trundled along in their country’s second and third tiers, reaching a handful of finals after winning their regional league, but never able to build on that momentum and establish themselves any higher in the pyramid.
Their crowning moment, along with a Russian Second Division title won in 1998 and a promotion six years earlier – successes which saw them drop out of the second tier at just the first time of asking on both occasions – came in 1962, when tiny Znamya Truda reached the final of the USSR’s national cup competition, where they faced off against the far more distinguished Shakhtar Donetsk. Although the Ukrainian side were worlds apart from the domestic giants and European contenders that bear the name today, they still entered the final as comfortable favourites. Shakhtar finished the season 8th in the top flight of Soviet football, Znamya Truda ended up 4th in their regional division.
In front of more than 100,000 fans at Luzhniki Stadium, Znamya Truda struggled to come to terms with both the huge crowd and the superior ability of the opposition. Despite an impressive run to the final, which saw them defeat Dinamo Leningrad, Spartak Moscow and then Spartak (now Ararat) Yerevan in the semi-final, the lower league side were simply overawed. Goalkeeper Khomyakov spilled a cross as early as the 5th minute, and Shakhtar forward Valentin Sapronov took full advantage with a half volley from the penalty spot. Less than a minute later the lead was doubled – Khomyakov, who would be replaced at half time – saving the first shot but unable to prevent Vital Savelev converting his own rebound from close range. The underdogs did not concede again, but the damage was already done, and they would have to be content with their runners-up medals.
That historical high point, low as the players must have felt at the time, was as good as it has got for fans of the Banner of Labour – a literal translation of Znamya Truda – with the club not threatening to repeat that heroic run to the final any time soon. The side’s long, if uninspiring history was started as so many football teams were, by an Englishman, more specifically Harry Charnock, one of the many foreign specialists in the country seeking to improve their lot in Russia’s developing factories. Although by 1909 a number of works teams had sprung up – Petrograd, as St Petersburg was still known, even had its own league – none of these were in any way official. Znamya Truda, known as Sports Club Orekhovo (KSO) at their inception, were the first to establish a charter, subjecting their team to the law and setting out a series of goals.
These included the proliferation of this eccentric ‘English’ sport to the Russian masses, as well as attempting to popularise other signs of culture – tennis, croquet, and similar interests of the British aristocracy. The Club operated in a similar way to a modern rotary club or similar society, hosting events and raising funds, and in 1910 they invited a previously undefeated British side for a friendly. The Russian side won 4-0, and went from strength to strength, a mix of Russians and foreign workers – Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart played for the club in its early years – and from 1910-13 the fledgling Moscow league title went to the side based 50 miles east of the capital, known colloquially as ‘Morozovtsy’ as a tribute to the Russian factory owners who set the city on its textile-producing route in the late 18th century..
With the game gaining in popularity rapidly, best shown by army team CSKA being founded in 1911, so did the success of Russia’s first football team diminish. A series of name changes – Krasnoe Znamya, Zvezda, Krasnii Textilshchik, Spartak – failed to bring anything more than the occasional foray into the upper reaches of the Soviet regional divisions. Indeed, it would take until the 1990s and the fall of Communism for Znamya Truda, maintaining their brilliantly Bolshevik name, to once again taste the next level.
In 1992, they managed promotion thanks to the rule which denied reserve teams entrance to the First Division. Znamya Truda, as simple Orekhovo, finished seven points behind Spartak Moscow’s second string but took promotion, failing to secure it the following year by winning less than a quarter of their matches. In 1998, under the Spartak banner, they romped to the title by 11 points over their nearest rivals, but this time finished rock bottom of the second tier, winning a miserable two matches in a 42 game season and winding up a huge 37 points from safety.
That embarrassing relegation was something the club never quite recovered from, even dropping into Russia’s amateur ranks for three seasons from 2004-6. In the long 2011-12 campaign, extended to 45 games by the change in calendars, Znamya Truda conceded 99 goals in the Second Division West, picking up just four wins, two of which were back-to-back after runs of 17 and 14 games without success. Remarkably, they were not relegated – a surprising goalless draw at 4th placed Dnepr Smolensk providing the point that put them one ahead of Volochanin-Ratmir Vishny-Volochek and condemning the longest named team in the league to relegation.
Five points from the opening three games of the 2013 season gave Znamya Truda’s fans hope of something a little more respectable next time round, but there is enough pride in their ancient history to compensate for the odd 6-0 thrashing by Lokomotiv Moscow’s reserves. As a city, Orekhovo-Zuevo may not be particularly remarkable, but it remains proud of its revolutionary past, industrial heritage and relatively strong identity in the face of the all-powerful capital. Its football team are, and will always be a part of that history – the Banner of Labour rarely flies high, but it is nevertheless a proud symbol of this distinguished city.