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.
Siberia is a harsh place to spend a lifetime, even in the technologically-altered world of the 21st century. No about of central heating and special insulation can combat the effects of temperatures capable of plummeting below -50 Celsius in the depths of winter, especially in a part of the world which does not count itself amongst the financial elites of the world. For the citizens of Tomsk, one of the largest cities in an area not entirely dissimilar in size to China, existence has never been easy.
The same can be said of its football team, founded in 1957 as Burevestnik and now known by the fair simpler Tom, although any resemblance to Scottish Highland League side Keith ends at their name. The Latin inscription at the bottom of their newly redesigned badge roughly translated as ‘of its own kind,’ that is to say, unique. Whilst there will be other sides who doubt the legitimacy of this claim, there is certainly the evidence to suggest that Tom do belong in a category of their own. If ever a club symbolised the development of football in the new Russia, it is Tom Tomsk of Siberia.
For 34 years of Soviet rule the people of Tomsk followed their football club, and for 34 years they were rewarded with precisely nothing in the way of success. Although they did manage to establish themselves as one of the better teams in the sparsely populated Russian Far East – hardly a remarkable achievement given the level of competition – those three decades of competition failed to bring even a regional title, runners-up spots in ’58, ’65 and ’71 the closest they ever got to a title. The rest of the time, they drifted about in the Soviet Second League, occasionally being moved groups as part of organisational changes but never winning their way into the upper echelons of the game. Outside of Tomsk, they did not register in the national consciousness.
The chaos of 1992 saw Tom placed in Russia’s second tier, a level higher than they had ever reached under the old Soviet regime. Under the watchful gaze of Vladimir Pomeshchikov, a former player who remains at the club to this day and has spent the last 25 years in Tomsk at various capacities, Tom survived the first season but crashed in the second, condemned to relegation and the regional tiers. Surprisingly Pomeshchikov was allowed to stay on, but after a near miss at promotion the following year, 8th place in 1995 was not enough for the men in charge, and the one-club man retreated back into the shadows of the coaching staff.
Since then, the fortunes of the football club, in almost every possible way, followed a direct correlation with the amount of money being pumped into the coffers as a result of sponsorship deals. It did not take long for Tom to earn promotion back to the First Division, a club of their size too big to blend into regional tier life, but what has followed has been a series of ups and downs caused and controlled by the team’s often precarious financial situation.
Unsurprisingly for a region so rich in natural resources, it is energy that has controlled the fortunes of Tom Tomsk since the fall of Communism, and it was the arrival of a lucrative sponsorship in the early 2000s that allowed manager Valeri Petrakov, who has spent five years at the club in two separate spells, to take them from midtable mediocrity in the First Division to the brink of the Premier League. Still, goals were the issue, and with the club’s top scorer failing to hit double figures for two straight 42 game seasons, so did Tom fail to find the top two finish they needed for promotion. Successive 3rd spots was not enough, and Petrakov was out.
In came a new backroom team, and in came striker Denis Kiselyov. He would only score 28 goals in almost 100 league appearances from the Siberians, but 17 of them came in his first season, the missing element which saw them clinch a spot in the top flight. The goals dried up but the money didn’t, the managers changed again and Tom survived in 10th place, holding down what should have been a long-term Premier League place.
It was not to be. 2008 saw the arrival of veteran coach Valeri Nepomnyashchy to perform a fire-fighting job, dragging Tom to 13th and the narrowest of seasons after a miserable campaign. The following year the sponsors bailed on a sinking ship, their own financial concerns outweighing those of the football club, and in the summer of 2009 Tom were dead in the water. Huge debts, no sponsorship and a team locked into a downward spiral, they were weeks away from extinction until the intervention of one man.
Thankfully for Tom, that man was the President of the Russian Federation, one Vladimir Putin. Citing the desperate need for a first class football team in Tomsk – prevention of alcoholism mentioned amongst other things – he ‘encouraged’ a number of regional energy firms to get behind their team. Unsurprisingly, the deal went through, and Tom survived with new sponsors emblazoned across their white shirts. A huge Putin banner featured prominently at their Trud stadium, a small price to pay for survival.
Nepomnyashchy continued to perform, Belarussian striker and one-time Blackpool loanee Sergei Kornilenko now the main source of goals as Tom used their new funds to secure further midtable finishes, despite possessing one of the weaker squads in the league. However, a poor start to the 2012-13 season set the alarm bells ringing, and then, a familiar scenario began to take shape – Tom were over budget, under-financed, and walking a fine line between existence and oblivion. An incredible run of 12 games without a goal did not help matters, and Tom plummeted to the foot of the Premier League table. Over the winter break their very participation for the rest of the season was cast into doubt, and their loyal supporters feared the worst.
So, it appeared, did Putin. Again. In stepped the President-to-be, this time the club was placed under the management of the regional government, and a number of energy companies again stepped forward to help. With new money and new hope, Tom changed half their squad in a single transfer window, gained the help of a few promising youngsters in the form of loans from Moscow, and quickly began to earn points.
However, it proved a case of too little too late, and Tom now find themselves one of the richer teams in an unpredictable First Division. Immediate escape is key – spend too much time outside of the top flight, and no doubt the ever-imminent financial crisis will strike again. In the interests of fairness it is a shame to see one side so blatantly propped up by political interference – nobody is quite sure of why Mr Putin is so set on Tomsk’s footballing representation. Still, few people cross the President and get away with it, so expect Tom to hang around for a little while longer.