In many leagues across Europe, there are a number of teams who seem to have made it their habit to earn promotion one season, only to be immediately relegated the next. This cycle may last a mere two years, or continue indefinitely – the club unable to find a playing squad good enough for the top flight, yet by very definition proving too strong for the second tier. In England, fans of West Bromwich Albion endured such a fate until recent years, whilst in Russia the honour belonged quite spectacularly to Kuban until Dan Petrescu hauled them into the top half in the 2011-12 season and laid the foundations for the work since performed by Yuri Krasnozhan and Leonid Kuchuk.
With increasing amounts of money entering the global game, such a pattern should come as little surprise – having tasted the riches of the elite, clubs which have spent within their means should have ample funds left to deal with a relegation and re-enter the top flight, but have not enjoyed those same riches for long enough to cement their place at their country’s top table. The English leagues are likely to witness this more often due to the notable rise in ‘parachute payments’ gifted to recently-relegated sides in the future, but with financial catastrophe apparently only ever round the corner, there appears to be little alternative.
In Russia, with the aforementioned exception of Kuban, the phenomenon of the yo-yo team has not become too deeply ingrained into the sporting club. Alania are currently giving it a good go, dragging Mordovia with them in the process, and should be a reasonable bet for promotion next year unless their financial woes catch up with them in the meantime. Tom Tomsk, having themselves been saved from economic oblivion on a number of occasions by a government with an unusual interest in the Siberian city, were relegated last season, and could have promotion sealed by Tuesday if they overcome fellow relegated side Spartak Nalchik and SKA-Energia Khabarovsk fail to win at Sibir.
However, they will not be the first side to clinch their promotion from the First Division, having been beaten to the punch by a side which the Premier League has not witnessed since 1996. When they were relegated them, Uralmash Ekaterinburg collapsed as a drop, dropping down again the following year into the murky waters of the regional Second Division, a labyrinth from which it took seven years to properly escape. By the time they did, they were renamed as simple Ural, and despite having the resources of the entire Sverdlovsk Oblast to their name, promotion has been a long time in coming.
It has, however, been widely predicted for many years. Since their return to the First Division in 2005, their league finishes read like the ultimate nearly men, a club which has had the ability to break out of the second tier but has struggled with consistency. Beginning with a respectable 7th place in their first seaosn back, they went on to record placings of 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 7th and 6th in subsequent years, always hanging on the edge of the promotion battle without quite managing to kick on and win it.
This year has been different. From the opening weeks of the campaign, Ural established themselves as a dominant force in a division stripped to the bare bones after the late and controversial withdrawals of a number of clubs just days before the big kick-off. Quickly they ascended to the top of the pile along with Tom, and more recently they have been able to pick up the points as their title rivals stuttered. On Monday afternoon, Edgar Manucharyan’s solitary goal against Baltika Kaliningrad proved enough for three more points – points that took them a massive 16 points clear of their rivals from Khabarovsk in 3rd. They may have played a game more, but with the Pacific Coast club having just 15 points left to play for, the celebrations could begin.
To say the promotion is deserved would be an understatement – Ural have dominated the First Division this season, and have been particularly difficult to score against, conceding just 16 times thus far. Furthermore, their attack has been formidable – 57 goals scored is six more than Tom, and 22 more than any other side – in a league which has remained quite tight all season. Despite their free-scoring style, only Spartak Gogniev has reached double figures for the Ekaterinburg side, highlighting a forward line which has been all too happy to share the goalscoring burden.
Two defeats all season – only Tom and Nalchik have managed to beat them, the most recent loss coming back at the start of September – and a strong showing against Anzhi in the domestic cup provide further proof that if ever Ural were ready for the Premier League, the time is now. With Gogniev leading the line and ably supported by the likes of Manucharyan and former Anderlecht winger Anatoli Gerk, the creative force of Gerson Acevedo in midfield and a defence led by the prolific Denis Tumasyan, they have proved themselves far too good for the second tier, and with a fighting chance of survival next season.
It is that survival instinct – the club recently became the first in Russian history to play a competitive game indoors, using the 3,000-seater Ural Arena to combat the harsh winter weather – which may need to be evoked if the Ekaterinburg side are to prevent themselves from falling into the yo-yo club trap, but their promotion push appears well timed. Top flight clubs such as Volga, Amkar and even Rostov and Krylya Sovetov are all struggling for money – although the latter has recently been purchased by a wealthy vodka company – and whilst there has been speculation in the past that Ural’s previous failures were related to a known inability to compete in the Premier League, there appear to be few such concerns at the moment.
It is difficult to predict how Ural will fare in their first season back in the big time, as so much will depend on how they are able to strengthen their squad over the summer months. However, for a city the size of Ekaterinburg – the fourth largest in Russia – to have regained a Premier League representative, and for another club east of the Volga to have acquired top flight status, can only be promising for those looking to redress the balance among the nation’s elite. Whilst Alania seem to have failed in their own bid for safety, in their current state Ural have probably the best chance of a newly-promoted club since Krasnodar to establish themselves in the top flight. Whether they take it or not will only be down to them.