Around 12 months ago, the few fans of Shinnik Yaroslavl were worrying. Their team found itself sliding gradually down the table of Russia’s second tier, teetering perilously on the edge of the dreaded relegation zone and facing the very real prospect of life in the highly unglamorous Second Division, the bread and water to the milk and honey they enjoyed as recently as 2008 in the Premier League.
Alexander Pobegalov has been at the Yaroslavl club since December, his third spell at his hometown club following a single season inn 2010-11 and a longer period between 200 and 2004. He first came to prominence as the club’s assistant as far back as 1992, and barring a five-year spell in which he spread his wings to manage elsewhere – Ural, Volga and Luch have all employed the 57-year-old – Shinnik have been his only professional club.
As such, Pobegalov is a man who understands the Yaroslavl sporting scene, a scene that is dominated by tragic hockey club Lokomotiv, and left somewhat deflated by an entirely rational decision to leave the city off the list of host cities for the 2018 World Cup. Shinnik, even during their Premier League heyday, have never been the dominant attraction in a city renowned as much for its golden cupolas and eponymous founder than any sporting prowess.
The World Cup rejection has resulted in a decided lack of progress on Shinnik Stadium, a 20,000+ seater monolith that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor structurally sound enough to host a tournament of global repute. The truth is, however, that there is simply no need for a stadium that large in the city. Shinnik draw crowds of between 4,000 and 6,000 for most home matches, and the ground’s South Stand – the most recently renovated aspect of the venue – sits a short bus ride away from the playing surface due to the athletics track dominating that particular end of the stadium.
Nevertheless, despite a chronic lack of support symptomatic of life outside the top five or six clubs in the Russian game, Pobegalov’s Shinnik have managed to adapt to their unfortunate set of circumstances far better than the sides around them, and are now applying real pressure on the sides above them in the First Division table.
At the moment, there are just three. Mordovia, a club from the unheralded city of Saransk which has, for various political reasons, been earmarked as a beneficiary from the upcoming World Cup. Mordovia reached the top flight for the first time last season, falling quickly back out of it after a poor year. Alania are in many ways the opposite of Mordovia – an historic club with a national title to its name, the side boasts strong local support but absolutely no financial backing, with the very real threat of liquidation hovering should an end of November deadline to find a sponsor not be met. Third are Arsenal Tula, a resurgent side under the apparently precocious managerial talents of former Spartak star Dmitri Alenichev, and whose own resources, particularly in terms of attendance, are far superior to Shinnik’s.
To be in one of two coveted promotion play-off positions – although it is worth noting that no club has yet usurped a top flight side via the two-legged ties – midway through the season is impressive, although the more cynical observer may well note that, for a club relegated as recently as five years ago, they should by right be challenging for a return to the Premier League.
Shinnik, however, are not a simple team to fathom. In their first year down they managed an unspectacular 6th, before slipping to 10th in the elongated 10-11 campaign. Despite the apparent decline, in the wake of Lokomotiv air tragedy, Shinnik helped to unite the city and surged to a 4th place finish the following season, surpassing expectations before seeing a year of hard work go up in smoke with a 3-0 first leg defeat to Rostov.
It all seemed a little too good to be true, and so it soon proved. Shortly after the new season began in catastrophic fashion, it was revealed that the board, in conjunction with regional government – a regular key player in the affairs and funding of provincial Russian clubs – had staked too much of their capital on promotion to the top flight, leading to deep cuts in the playing budget that left the future of Shinnik as a second tier club in doubt. Yuri Gazzaev was dismissed over the winter break with the Yaroslavl side struggling badly, and in the end it was Pobegalov’s calm hand that guided them to relative safety.
With the finances now looking a little more respectable – although by no means able to compete with the likes of Mordovia or even Ufa, the Bashkir club chasing them down for a play-off spot – Pobegalov would have been forgiven for attempting to stabilise the situation and settle for a consolidatory campaign. This year may well pan out that way, but the local hero is all too aware of the pitfalls that freewheeling in the First Division can bring. A league rife with financially-based withdrawals and phoenix clubs by the dozen, complacency is lethal in a competition nobody wants to stay in.
So, despite a budget lower than the one which so almost proved successful two years ago, the Yaroslavl man has assembled a squad combining the old and the new. Staying firmly in place are the veterans of the side – strikers Eldar Nizamutdinov and Konstantin Dudchenko, and defensive counterparts Alli N’Dri and Valeriu Catinsus. All four have been at the club since the start of the 2011, increasingly rare examples of players willing to bed down at a second tier club rather than bouncing around in search of promotion. Dudchenko at 27 is the youngest of the quartet, and their experience and leadership has been key to the club’s recent success.
Yet Pobegalov is not a one-dimensional manager. For every 34-year-old Vladimir Korytko, there is 23-year-old Sergei Belousov. For every Catinsus, 35, there is a Evgeni Steshin, a 21-year-old youth product now cementing a first team berth in defence. For every Nizamutdinov, 32, there is Artur Maloyan, 24, a young striker from Spartak’s academy who has previously been farmed out on loan to Ural and Anzhi when both were in the second tier. The blend is finally right.
Tomorrow, Shinnik have the chance to prove to the world that they can once again mix it with the big guns of the Russian game, with the visit of Spartak in the cup almost certain to provide the Yaroslavl side’s biggest crowd of the season. The absence of the visitors’ star striker, Armenian hitman Yura Movsisyan, will give Pobegalov a hope of pulling off what would be a remarkable upset, but Spartak are comfortable favourites to negotiate what should be as close to a derby as Shinnik currently participate in.
That Shinnik have once again rebounded is testament both to the city’s apparently enduring character, and to the ambitious pragmatism of manager Pobegalov. Promotion remains a dream, and unless Alania do withdraw from competition they, along with Mordovia, will be very difficult to chase down and overhaul. The play-offs, of course, remain a distant last chance weighted by circumstance in favour of the Premier League sides.
Before fans of the side get too carried away, there is a warning to be found for teams attempting to reassert themselves after relegation from the top flight. In the previous round of the cup, Shinnik earned their tie with Spartak by overcoming Khimki 2-1 at Rodina, a game which will have flown under the radar of all but fans of the two sides involved. As Shinnik went down in 2008, Khimki enjoyed their final successful survival attempt – in 2009 they too were demoted, and last year, after two previous 13th place finishes, succumbed to the drop and now find themselves 4th in the Second Division West, behind such titans of the game as Textilshchik Ivanovo, Torpedo Vladimir and newly-founded side Tosno. Shinnik may have done well to be looking up following their drop in stature and cut in funding, but Khimki are living proof that there is still a lot further to fall should things go wrong.