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.
A mere four hours from Moscow on the express train, almost nothing in Russian terms, you would perhaps expect Yaroslavl to be a hub of activity, a thriving pseudo-suburban business centre which is the perfect base for the entrepreneurial types asked to leave the capitals and take their cash to develop some of Russia’s more provincial cities.
To an extent this is true – Yaroslavl is by no means a sleepy provincial capital, but neither is it the next big thing for Russian business as its location could perhaps make it. Instead it sustains itself by virtue of its rich history, a focal of the Golden Ring tour, a trip made by increasing numbers of tourists each year, as people’s interest in Russia’s past grows beyond the Soviet period. 2010 saw the city celebrate its 1,000th year, a city-wide festival and holiday culminating in spectacular fireworks over the Volga and illuminated fountains on the embankment. A year later, local ice hockey team Lokomotiv reached the final four of the KHL play-offs, cementing their position as one of Russia’s top sides. It was a good time to be in Yaroslavl.
That all changed on 7th September 2011, when the plane carrying Lokomotiv to their first game of the season crashed shortly after taking off for Minsk, claiming the lives of everyone on board. A hockey city to the last, Yaroslavl was stricken with grief, becoming the site of a national tragedy and a huge loss to the international sporting world. The club vowed to fight on, competing with effectively its youth team in the VHL, one step below the KHL. Lokomotiv continued to draw fans in, but at the same time another local sports team suddenly gained the weight of expectation.
That club was Shinnik – a name which translates literally as ‘tyre worker’ – a football team taking part in the second tier of Russian football, who suddenly noticed a small increase in attendances as Yaroslavl’s population rallied round their ‘other’ sports team. Under Yuri Gazzaev, cousin of legendary manager Valeri, Shinnik did their best to raise the city’s spirits, improving on a disappointing 10th place in 2010 to finish 4th in the transitional season. That earned them a place in a promotion/relegation play-off against Rostov for a spot in the Premier League, but a 3-0 defeat in the first leg ended any hopes of top flight football.
Shinnik have never been a club to attract huge attendances, nor to come close to greatness. Indeed, with Lokomotiv making a return to the KHL in 2012, it is likely that Shinnik’s attendance will once again fall back to the 3,000 or so hardy souls that take their seats at their eponymous 23,000-seater stadium each week – for the 2018 World Cup, this will be increased to 40,000. However, in many ways Shinnik can claim to be the perfect provincial football club – scraping by without ever threatening liquidation, motoring along quietly while achieving enough sporadic success to justify their existence to the Yaroslavl natives.
Founded in 1957 as Khimik, the name was changed three years later to reflect the city’s pride in its nationally-important tyre production. By this time the Yaroslavl side was already established in the second tier of the Soviet football system – at various points in history known as Class B, Group B, Group 2 or Class 2 before the authorities finally settled on the much easier First League in 1971 – where they would stay for the overwhelming majority of the Soviet period. Indeed, they only reached the Top Division for a single year in 1964, Aantoli Akimov unable to prevent blue-and-black striped side from dropping immediately out of the top flight at the first attempt.
Fast forward to the post-Soviet era, and Shinnik’s role in the Russian league system has been largely similar, although with a little more movement between the divisions. Entered into the Russian Top League by the new league set-up, Shinnik finished second from bottom in the inaugural 1992 season and once again found their home at the second level. 1996 saw promotion again, and the following year they sprung one of the few surprises in their history, reaching the giddy heights of 4th in the top flight. However, with the departure of manager Anatoly Polosin the club failed to maintain their high level, finishing just 14th the next year, and being relegated again a season later.
This time it took just two years for them to bounce back, promoted back to the newly-renamed Top Division in 2001, floating around midtable in the freshly-rebranded – ‘Top Division’ lasted just a single year – Premier League. Alexander Pobegalov oversaw three strong seasons which included a 5th place league finish and Cup semi-final the following year, but Oleg Dolmatov failed to adequately replace him and two years after taking the helm led his team back into the First Division. Promotion followed immediately, as did another relegation, and since 2009 Shinnik have sat at the top end of the First Division, waiting for the almost inevitable short-term return to the top flight.
The truth is that Shinnik have found their level in this limbo between the Premier League and First Division, even if more recent seasons suggest they are closer to the second tier than the top flight. Play-off defeat to Rostov was taken in the fans’ collective stride, with nobody genuinely expecting them to win promotion, and over the short off-season there was little grumbling as they prepared themselves for another season of low attendances and middling performances. The football at Shinnik will never light up the pitch, their players will never win individual awards, and the chances of a trophy at the highest level are slim at best.
However, perhaps now it is a sense of stability and security which the city of Yaroslavl needs more than anything – something which could sadly evaporate given the current concerns over the club’s internal politics and finances. With the wounds from Lokomotiv’s tragedy still sore, the agony of relegation is not worth the ecstasy of promotion, and as long as Shinnik do not fall any further, the fans will remain content to use their football team as a social club, mixing with the city’s great and good as they amble through another mediocre season in the First Division and watch their better players drawn away by bigger wages at weaker teams. Shinnik may not be the hyper-ambitious football club of the times, but given its setting, that is no bad thing.