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.
There are very few clubs in world football which can claim to be the subject of a genuine geo-political anachronism. Berwick Rangers in the lower reaches of the Scottish divisions is perhaps the one to join the likes of Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Newport County in the English system, for British fans, with San Marino and Vaduz flying the flag for micro-republics in foreign league systems.
Gazovik Orenburg are not one such club, having plied their trade firmly in the Russian league system since their foundation in 1976. In terms of their age, they are something of an outlier in the Russian game – most clubs can either trace their rich histories back to the 1930s or beyond, whilst others can claim membership of a number of sides, often provincial, who sprang up in the early 90s with the fall of Communism and the advent of the new Russian football system. In the mid-70s, few people were setting up football clubs outside of Orenburg.
With regard to the geographical situation, Gazovik, had political wrangling produced another result, could have found themselves competing with the likes of Kairat Almaty, Irtysh Pavlodar and Shakhter Karagandy for the Kazakh championship. For a brief period between 1920 and 1925, Orenburg acted as the capital for the Kyrgyz Autonomous Republic is what is now independent Kazakhstan. Soviet national policy, ethno-cultural differences and various interest groups ensured that at the end of that period the region became the Kazakh Autonomous Republic – the capital moved to Kyzylorda, a part of modern-day Kazakhstan, and Orenburg returned to Russian hands. When the Central Asian seceded in the early 90s, Orenburg was left in Russia, the last major city before crossing into the newly independent territory.
Had Orenburg become Kazakh, there is every chance that Gazovik would have multiple national titles to their name, with Kazakh football some distance behind the Russian leagues in terms of infrastructure and quality. As it stands, Gazovik have yet to ever reach the Russian top flight, and indeed have only ever made two appearances at a national level, spending most of their time trying desperately to escape the labyrinthine Second Division.
Seven years they would hang around in the vast division, before being expelled in 1983, removed from professional competition and being forced to spend the next seven seasons in the amateur ranks. With no professional side, interest in the game in Orenburg dwindled, and it would be the next decade before Gazovik re-emerged. When they did – again in the Second League – there was little to shout about, finishing in a lowly 15th position and then dropping to 18th in the final season of the Soviet era.
Unlike many sides, Gazovik were not a club that benefited from the restructure that followed the collapse of Communism. Whereas a number of sides found themselves fast-tracked into the top two leagues, having never set a foot in anything before regional competition, Gazovik wound up in the Russian Second League, and once again their exploits resulted in failure. Survival in their first season was achieved only at the expense of Idel Kazan, who disbanded after the campaign, and the following year they slipped from 17th down to 18th, suffering yet another relegation from the professional game.
One thing that Gazovik cannot be accused of, however, is a lack of persistence. Banished to the Third League and the regional nightmare contained within, they would doggedly chip away at the teams above them until the 1997 season, when they finally earned the right to once again take part in Second League play. This time, with the club learning from previous attempts, Gazovik developed into a side more difficult to beat, first establishing themselves in the Ural/Volga zone and slowly growing into a unit capable of challenging for promotion. Other sides came in and out of the league, but Gazovik remained a constant until, at long last, under Alexander Korelev, they finally achieved what no Gazovik team had ever managed before – promotion to the second tier, and the opportunity to represent their city on a national level.
Of course, Russian football is short of fairy tales, and the Orenburg side’s adventures on an all-Russian level lasted just a single season. Faced with a mammoth 52 game league campaign as the league moved in line with the European calendar, Gazovik found themselves fighting for their lives at the wrong end of the table. On the final day of the season they travelled to Baltika in Kaliningrad knowing that a win would see them safe. Instead, Marat Shogenov’s goal proved simple consolation in a 2-1, leaving them as one of four sides on 59 points.
Defeat at any other side would have given them a chance, but Baltika proved a step too far – despite finishing the season with a positive goal difference, last place in the head-to-head ranking with Khimki, Volgar Astrakhan and their final day opponents meant relegation for Gazovik, and a return to the badlands of regional league football and crowds smaller even than those endured in the provincial stadiums of the First Division.
Since then, the pattern has remained the same – promotion at the first attempt to escape the Ural/Volga zone in which they have spent so much time, and then an attempt at consolidation in the second tier, the conclusion of which remains to be seen. As the winter break takes hold in the 2013-14 season, Gazovik sit an impressive 9th in the First Division, eight points behind the promotion play-off places and six above the final relegation spot – the very definition of midtable. Robert Yevdokimov’s team boasts a goals record identical to that of relegation-threatened Rotor – 25 for and against – and with eight games in each of their results columns, they have proven themselves to be one of the stronger also-rans in the division.
Nevertheless, with plenty of games still to play, and a history of struggling at the higher levels, more cynical observers might suggest that it is only a matter of time before Gazovik find themselves sliding the wrong way down the second tier table. Their natural level – nowadays probably somewhere between the second and third tiers may cause problems for the Gazovik fan constantly faced with either elation or despair, but what does seem certain is that the Orenburg side, robbed of Kazakh dominance by Soviet policy, are not a club to just give in and disappear.