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 Russia like so few other European countries, the sporting landscape can be fundamentally changed by a single man, one-off event or chance occurence – by now we are all too familiar with the Romantsevs and Kerimovs of this world to know that individual power is not something unknown to the nation that pioneered the principle of collective leadership the political elites. However, whilst the fortunes of entire cities can be earned by a single man, it is worth remembering that they can be lost in equal measure.
Like so many cities in Russia, Nizhny Novgorod is big enough to demand top flight representation, something which they currently enjoy in the former of Volga Nizhny Novogorod, as of the 2012-13 season the result of an amalgamation between Volga and FC Nizhny Novgorod, the latter being beaten by the former in the previous year’s promotion/relegation play-off before collapsing into their city rivals as financial difficulties got the better of the newer club, which was only founded in 2007.
However, in the structured chaos that so often made up the USSR, they was very rarely room for Nizhny Novgorod at football’s top table. Torpedo formed in what was then known as Gorky, the city renamed to honour the famous writer, in the year of the inaugural Soviet championship, but only managed to reach the highest level on a handful of occasions. Four separate seasons in the Top League were all that Torpedo could muster, a 13th place finish in 1954 their finest hour as it became apparent that Nizhny Novgorod simply could not compete with the likes of Moscow, Kyiv, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku.
This was, all things considered, not that surprising. For the majority of the Soviet period, Gorky was a closed city, with special permits required to visit or move to the area, and access completely forbidden for foreigners. The reasons for this classification, of which many towns and cities were also subject to, were many, but the essence of the decree surrounded the fact that Gorky was home to a significant military production and research facilities, and the Soviet authorities did not wish their state secrets open to the public.
It was partly those restrictions which contributed to the closure of Torpedo as a professional club in 1984, by this time having played under the name of Volga for some 20 years. The club unsustainable and with few achievements of note, it made little sense to continue with the glass ceiling already reached. The club reformed from 1997-2001, making the briefest of appearances in the Russian First Division, but at the turn of the century enough was finally enough – the old club now content themselves with amateur football in their local league.
By that time the new Volga were on the way up, plying their trade in the Second Division regional league. However, as they did so they overtook the other old Nizhny Novgorod club, a side which, although never troubling the top flight in the Soviet days – indeed, they only began to take part in national competitions with any regularity after 1987 – had contributed a great deal to the development of the sport in the city through its well-respected football school.
That club was Lokomotiv, on their way down after a brief spell in which the historic city finally had something resembling sustained representation at the top level. After the Soviet collapse and abandonment of the Gorky name, Lokomotiv’s performances in the dying embers of the USSR were enough to grant them a place in the new Russian Top League from the outset. An impressive 6th place in that historic season still represents the city’s finest footballing achievement, and secured at least one more season in the top flight, something which Torpedo had never managed.
They would remain there until 1997, before returning for a two-year swansong to take them through to the new millennium. The architect of their continued success, which saw them reach the final four of the now-defunct Intertoto Cup in 97, was one Valeri Ovchinnikov, and in many ways it is his association with Lokomotiv that defines the club – his arrival sparked sustained success, his departure signalled the start of its demise.
He arrived in 1989 after a brief spell in charge of Estonian side Sport Tallinn to little more than a slight intrigue among the more dedicated Lokomotiv fans. That season, his side reached the Soviet First League and stayed there for the rest of his country’s lifespan, the key factor in their acceptance into the Russian top flight. Their record finish the following year saw Lokomotiv end the season above such household names as Torpedo Moscow, Rotor Volgograd and Rostselmash of Rostov, and established Ovchinnikov as something of a legend in the eyes of the fans.
In 1994, with the club still a fixture in the top flight after some obvious underhand tactics in the final round of the 1993 season – facing Zhemchuzhina Sochi with both clubs in danger of relegation, the sides stalled their game until other results came in, allowing both teams to avoid the drop – Ovchinnikov took the unusual step of taking on the presidency of Lokomotiv as well as his managerial duties. Whether or not this was influenced by the success of Oleg Romantsev at Spartak Moscow fulfilling both roles simultaneously is unclear, but it led to a period of prolonged top flight football for Nizhny Novgorod nevertheless.
Even relegation in 1997 did little to halt Lokomotiv, Ovchinnikov’s men bouncing back at the first time of asking by finishing runners-up to champions Saturn Ramenskoye. 1999 was a safe but unspectacular year, but before long the limitations of Ovchinnikov and his club began to became known. Without the investment needed to take the club to the next level, maintaining its current position would be almost impossible. Combined with the president-manager’s complete control, there was nobody to turn to for assistance, and nobody who knew the club sufficiently to relieve him of one role or the other.
Despite the departure and return of Ovchinnikov to the manager’s post within a month in the 2000 season, Lokomotiv could not escape relegation, finishing 11 points from safety and joining Uralan Elista in the second tier. With his empire crumbling around him and his players deserting for richer clubs, Ovchinnikov could not see a way out. After goalless draws against Rubin Kazan and Amkar Perm opened their 2001 campaign, he left the dugout. In came Valeri Sinau for his first manager’s job in three years, but the damage was done – without Ovchinnikov, the Lokomotiv engine was quickly derailed, slumping to the foot of the table and staying there for the rest of the season.
The debts mounted, the players continued to leave, and for the 2002 season Lokomotiv were denied a professional license, forced to play in the amateur leagues for a year as the club was effectively reborn. The club did make an attempt at a comeback, three years in the Second Division their reward, but with Ovchinnikov gone and the money dried up, there was simply nothing left to run on, and Lokomotiv closed its doors as a professional football club, now putting out amateur sides in the Nizhny Novgorod regional leagues.
Thankfully, the citizens of Nizhny Novgorod have a new team to follow, and the pain of Lokomotiv’s demise will be tempered by the rise of Volga and their continued representation. However, the former club are a clear sign of what can happen when a team becomes over-reliant on one man, whether or not money is involved. That is why Suleyman Kerimov is putting a team in place at Anzhi, and why Rubin Kazan’s future when Kurban Berydev eventually leaves is uncertain. In Russia especially, anything can change.