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.
The position of football manager has never been one to rank highly in terms of job security, particularly in the modern game. In the Russian leagues, this is no different – at the start of the 2012-13, Dinamo Moscow’s Sergei Silkin left the club after just three league matches, with the previous year Yuri Krasnozhan left Anzhi Makhachkala without even taking charge of a competitive fixture. With results expected immediately across the country, there is very little room for error.
The same was true in the Soviet era, although often for different. Of course, poor performance did indeed result in managerial changes midseason, but far more common was the end of season switch, promising talents from smaller local clubs being fast-tracked onto the sideline of the region’s bigger sides, whilst those plying their trade within a particular society – Spartak, Dinamo, Lokomotiv and the like – would often find themselves moved around from club to club in the off-season, often staying in place for just one or two seasons.
Tellingly, the clubs which managed to avoid this constant swapping of managers were the ones who would go on to be more successful. Although obviously aided by their existing positions at the top of the national game, the likes of Nikolai Starostin, Konstantin Beskov and Oleg Romantsev at Spartak Moscow, Valeri Lobanovsky at Dinamo Kyiv and Mikhail Yakushkin at their Moscow counterpart all managed great things after being given the time to reshape their clubs to their method of thinking, applying the same tactics and training regimes across the board and having a lasting impact which went far beyond the first team squad.
Spartak Nalchik, a club based in the mountainous North Caucasian of Kabardino-Balkaria, a region which suffered more than most from the collapse of the USSR as its internal tourism all but dried up, are a peculiar example of both how and how not to deal with your team’s managers. All the hallmarks of Soviet merry-go-round are present in their early history – first mentioned as playing against a local Dinamo club in 1936, Spartak took part in local competitions until the 1950s, when they finally gained access to the all-Union championships. Dmitri Chikhradze took the reins in 1953 and 1954, being replaced quickly but returning a decade later with club in Class B, the third tier of the game. Inheriting a team which had finished 15th the previous year, Chikhradze dragged Spartak up to 6th before winning the league and promotion the following season. The decision was then made to move Chikhradze upstairs – ending his managerial involvement and losing the momentum gained.
Still, Spartak recorded an impressive 10th place finish the following year, with hometown hero Vladimir Eshtrekov leading the line up front and being commended with the title of Master of Sport of the USSR for his efforts, a commendable achievement to match that given to the championship-winning team of the previous year – although Russian sides were competing at a much higher level, Spartak’s league triumph nominally made them champions of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Again the manager changed, again the momentum was lost, and this time there the results showed as much – until the reorganisation of the league system in 1971, that 10th place would remain their highest finish.
Viktor Kirsh made a mockery of their relegation by default, winning promotion at the second time of asking, before he too cleared his desk and made room for another manager. The pattern would repeat itself for much of the club’s Soviet-era history, with similar results – relegation saw Ivan Zolotukhin arrive to win promotion yet again, again leaving immediately afterwards and again condemning Spartak to relegation under a new boss. It was not until 1983, when cult hero Eshtrekov took charge of his local team, that something resembling stability emerged in Nalchik.
His legendary status afforded him a little more time – six and a half years in total – and in that time he turned Spartak into the nearly men of the Soviet third tier. Three times his side broke into the top three of their regional league, but failed to clinch the title which would have allowed to compete for promotion, and so remained in the Second League. When he was finally dismissed after a poor first half of the 1989, the club collapsed again – in 1993, despite the movement of non-Russian teams to their own new leagues and a reshuffle of domestic football, Spartak were still floundering at the third level.
It seemed unlikely that Spartak would ever learn, and increasingly possible that the constant changes of manager would keep Nalchik’s leading football trapped in regional obscurity forever and a day. However, in 2004, more by luck than judgement they found an answer as local man and former player, reserve coach and assistant Yuri Krasnozhan was promoted to the top job, becoming the ninth manager in a dozen years. The rest, as they say, is history.
Krasnozhan made an immediate impact, taking charge of the unheralded and under-financed club, by this point established in the First Division, and embarking on a remarkable run which many observers were simply waiting to stop. It didn’t, and at the end of the season the side which had finished 15th and 12th in the last two seasons ended as runners-up to Luch-Energiya Vladivostok, claiming the second promotion and the most unlikely of places in the Premier League.
Still lacking the big money sponsorship afforded to more than half of the top flight, Spartak were everyone’s pick to head straight back down. However, Krasnozhan continued to work miracles, his tactical acumen and man-management skills boosted by some shrewd moves in the transfer market. With the likes of Roman Kontsedalov and Brazilian forward Ricardo Jesus coming in on loan, Spartak defied the odds and survived comfortably, avoiding the drop for four consecutive years. Having learned from their past errors, Krasnozhan was understandably retained as manager.
In the 2010 season which followed, Spartak got off to a blistering start, leading the championship until the 9th week of the season before slipping off the pace. Still, they would finish 6th, above traditional elite club Dinamo Moscow, and narrowly missing out on a place in the Europa League – all this with a striker on loan from Rubin Kazan, Vladimir Dyadyun, leading the line with 10 goals. It remains Nalchik’s finest sporting achievement, and is unlikely to be beaten on the football field.
Krasnozhan was tempted away to Lokomotiv Moscow the next year and endured an eventful 2011 – sacked after a promising start due to suspicions of match-fixing, appointed as manager of the newly reformed Russian ‘B’ national side, and then joining and leaving Anzhi in the space of three winter months – but 2011 was even worse to his old club. Even the return of fan favourite Eshtrekov could not halt their slide, nor could the other two managers employed in a desperate bid for survival. Seven wins from 44 games proved insufficient, Spartak stayed on the foot of the table, and relegation was almost inevitable.
Without the resources to match even the stronger First Division sides, a return to the promised land seems difficult without the genius of Krasnozhan to guide them. Still, the Nalchik club should have at least learned something regarding managerial changes after the success of the Krasnozhan era, and have gained some notoriety which should make it easier to attract players of a sufficient standard to avoid complete disaster. First Division football looks like occupying Spartak for some time, but if truth be told, the second tier is probably the right level for them.