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.
Consistency in football is a rare thing, and something to be both admired and aspired to in the right circumstances. One of the sport’s natural appeals is its fluidity, the organic way in which fortunes can turn in an instant and change the course of a match, season or club’s entire history. For a club to have transcended a reliance on the temporary is to be applauded, but only if their newly-found consistency is a positive one.
As a nation, Russia has a reputation in the West as being consistently dictatorial, whether under the divine rule of the tsars, iron-fisted ideology of Stalin or Putin’s oligarchy – hardly a track record to be looked upon with longing eyes. On the football field, Russia’s strange blend of dramatic change – name changes at the drop of a hat, wholesale structural changes and single sponsors transforming clubs – and preservation of the status quo – the Moscow clubs’ domination for decades and a refusal to adapt to a changing, TV-driven market – ensure that it remains one of Europe’s most enigmatic football leagues.
However, whilst the likes of Zenit and Anzhi have been turned into title contenders overnight and the likes of Alania are threatened with both footballing and financial oblivion, there is at least one club which has managed to remain at roughly the same level for a substantial period of time. In one of the many major cities lining the mighty Volga, the wonderfully named Krylya Sovetov – Wings of the Soviets in literal translation – of Samara have yet to drop out of the Russian top flight since its 1992 inception, and spent much of their Soviet era existence at a similar level.
What’s more, their past consistencies have provided a model which the club has followed – to a point – into the modern era. Whilst their is little doubt that football was played in Samara prior to the war, Krylya Sovetov officially came into being in 1942, perhaps a gesture of solidarity in the face of Nazi invasion or simply as an outlet for the city’s non-combatants to rally around. They did not have to wait long for the club to join the ranks of the Union’s elite teams, becoming champions of the second tier as fighting finished in 1945, their first competitive league season.
There they would stay for a decade, and for the vast majority of that time under the calm and unspectacular guidance of Alexander Abramov. Their finish of 4th place in the 1951 season remained the Wings’ best achievement under the collapse of the USSR, but it was a platform on which they failed to build, sliding gradually down the table before Vyacheslav Solovyov took them down in 1955. Despite the setback, and in a move which many contemporary clubs could learn much from, Krylya opted to keep faith with their manager, and in a vindication of that faith he responded by leading them back to the top flight at the first attempt.
Solovyov did eventually leave Samara in 1957 after two years of stagnation at the wrong end of the Top League. Instead of shopping around for the next bright young thing in management, the club instead turned back to a man they knew very well indeed – a certain Mr Abramov. This time however, their faith proved a little misguided, the former manager overseeing three more years at the club before departing – 10th, 11th and ultimately 16th a relegation an unfortunate way for the local hero to depart.
Whereas many sides at this point would be determined to see a quick fix, the far-sighted bosses at Samara again seemed to opt for the long game. In stepped Victor Karpov to steady the ship and achieve instant promotion back to the elite level, before a disappointing first year back saw them manage just 17th in the league, hanging on to top flight status by the skin of their teeth.
At this stage, the level of trust placed in Karpov becomes evident in Krylya’s record. Despite failing to finish higher than 10th, and in the 1966 season managing just four wins all year in the league, the new manager was quickly allowed to become the old manager, taking his place in the dugout for nine years until the apparently inevitable relegation at the end of the decade. What’s more, the club’s faith in Karpov was reflected in his treatment of his players – in those nine seasons only four names claimed the club’s top scorer award, highlighting a consistency of personnel almost unheard of in the modern era.
From the profile so far it may appear that such faith and consistency is to be valued above all else, but the next chapter of Krylya’s story suggests that discretion is of great importance if a club is to be successfully run. The Samara side’s faith in Karpov may have saved them the problem of finding a new manager every couple of years, but their failure to seek improvement had lasting consequences. It took six years for the club to find a way to the Top League, but three seasons down the line they were once again in the second tier and in trouble.
The 1978 campaign allowed them a return to the top flight, but the next two years saw catastrophic performances and back-to-back relegations, dropping the Wings into the third tier for the first time since their establishment. Over the next 11 years they failed to recover, reaching the second tier on just two occasions, and in both subsequent campaigns they were immediately relegated, all appeal to more talented players lost as they struggled at the lower levels. Despite their consistent failure to achieve promotion and stability, the club used just four managers over the period.
By chance their 2nd place regional finish in 1991 proved enough to parachute Krylya Sovetov into the newly-formed Russian Top League, and there they have remained ever since, continuing a policy of stability and managerial faith until relatively recently. Once regular fixtures in the top half of the table – 3rd place and an infamous cup final defeat to Terek in 2004 their finest hour – they have since slipped into decline, spending more time looking over their shoulder at the relegation scrap than dreaming of European adventures.
Their most recent managerial switch – appointing Gadzhi Gadzhiev, the man who masterminded their 2004 successes – shows hints of a tendency to look backwards, but also to place faith in the known rather than the unknown, a policy which values stability and safety rather than peaks and troughs of success and failure. For these reasons Krylya Sovetov are a side unlikely to ever trouble the nation’s footballing elite – despite their recent buy-out by a wealthy vodka company – but equally should not fall too far from their current position. Unless something dramatic happens, the Wings of the Soviets will likely remain in their place for the foreseeable future. As their name suggests, history is important in Samara. As their name suggests, change is not always welcomed.