Barring catastrophic results against both champions Mordovia Saransk and struggling Dinamo St Petersburg in their final two games of the season, Arsenal Tula will be playing Premier League football next season.
Promotion, if and when it is achieved – Dmitri Alenichev’s side hold a five point lead over Torpedo Moscow with just six available – it will represent an incredible achievement from a club dragged back from the ashes just six years ago, and which has never before experienced top flight football in either the Soviet or Russian league systems.
The closest Arsenal ever got was in 1969 and 1998, at which point the provincial side achieved fifth place in the respective second tier. On a sporting level, Tula boasts little of note – its football team has never made waves, it boasts no professional ice hockey team of note, and indeed the only local legends in the sporting arena seem to be those involved in bare-knuckle boxing – and would easily be skirted over when looking at a map of Russia’s vast nation, yet its football team are about to complete one of the country’s truly impressive journeys.
As with many clubs in Russia, the tale of Tula is one of emergence, mediocrity, financial meltdown, collapse and rebirth. Arsenal have been revived in a number of guises over the years, and have existed in their current form only since 2008. In 2012 in was decided to take the amateur club into the professional game, and with the help of a number of former Spartak Moscow heroes – including boss Alenichev and once-disgraced goalkeeper Alexander Filimonov, still playing at 40 – raced through the regional Second Division to take their place in the second tier.
At that point, however, many of the semi-retired Spartak old boys called it a day, leaving only the manager and the goalkeeper looking for redemption. It was to the surprise of the vast majority, therefore, when Arsenal burst into life at the dawn of the current season, winning eight of their first 10 games and drawing the other two, scoring almost at will – thrashing SKA-Energia Khabarovsk 5-1 and Shinnik Yaroslavl 4-0 – and appearing invincible.
However, in Russia few things remain simple, and all of a sudden their freescoring spree came to an end. From being unbeaten in 10, Alenichev’s side recorded just one win in their next eight matches, falling from their lofty perch, handing the league lead to a rampant Mordovia side which has yet to relinquish it, and running the risk of disappearing from even play-off contention. All things considered, even a midtable finish would have been a successful season for a club newly promoted into the league, but following their impressive start it would have been something of an anti-climax for all involved.
Instead, Alenichev moved to show why there are those in the Spartak crowd who would happily welcome him to their dugout following the departure of Valeri Karpin. Since the end of October, Arsenal have tasted defeat just three times in the league, and while Shinnik would gain revenge for their 4-0 thrashing with a 5-0 return, the club have continued to pick up results, a 1-0 win over rivals Torpedo and 3-2 victory at home to Spartak Nalchik putting them on the brink of making history.
To increase the appeal of the Tula fairytale, the side has made their serene progress without the wealth of a Sergei Galitsky at Krasnodar or the backing of an international energy giant such as Gazprom at Zenit. Mordovia, the champions, have benefited disproportionately from the World Cup bid and have little attraction for the outsider, but Arsenal have continued to make their own way in front of growing crowds – with an average of 10,700 fans they are far and away the best-supported side in the First Division – and have brought the fans back each week by attacking, relentlessly.
A glance at the table shows that while their defence is not the greatest – conceding more goals than any other side in the top 12 – they have blasted their way to the brink of promotion, netting 61 times in their 34 games. Ignoring the six goals given to them as a result of technical victories, they have proved that, in a low-scoring league, attacking football can still pay dividends.
They have also achieved their goals without following the tried and tested policy of snapping up rejects from Premier League giants. Top scorer Andrei Kutin is not a Spartak cast-off but a veteran of the lower leagues, arriving after a prolific spell at Metallurg Lipetsk and a career which has also taken in Tyumen and FC Yelets. Diminutive midfielder Vladislav Ryzhkov did ply his trade for Spartak to 2010, but since then has turned out for Kuban, Volga, the defunct Zhemchuzhina Sochi, Sibir Novosibirsk and Shinnik before making way to Tula. Goalscoring full back Sergei Ignatiev, who has seven of his own this season, has spent most of his career in his native Chelyabinsk before signing via Tyumen, Sibir, Baltika Kaliningrad and Torpedo Vladimir. This is no team of elite youngsters accidentally turned away, it is a hardworking squad of journeymen coming together and achieving spectacularly.
Arsenal may not secure promotion against Mordovia on Sunday, with the champions continuing their strong form until the end of the season. However, with the odds very much in their favour, Arsenal will have the backing of the vast majority of neutrals – even more if their nearest rival were not a side as storied as Torpedo. The Moscow club will undoubtedly have their time with their new-found support, but for now, Arsenal will be the sidde looking to spring a surprise in the Premier League next season. They can only hope to make a better fist of things than Mordovia on their previous attempt.