Often, Russian football can be remarkably predictable. The teams expected to finish at the wrong end of the Premier League table often end up occupying the relegation places, and the teams who suffered the same fate the previous year often bounce back up. There are exceptions to the rule – often related to finances or implosion, such as in the case of Khimki or Alania Vladikavkaz – but generally speaking, season previews will expect the likes of Tom Tomsk, Mordovia Saransk and, in recent years, Arsenal Tula, to be at one end of the table or the other, depending on the league they find themselves in.
But it is perhaps in the exceptions that the more interesting stories can be told. When the aforementioned Arsenal came to prominence, they did so on the back of a rich yet turbulent history, a bright young manager in Dmitri Alenichev and, to get them off the ground in the regional leagues, a whole host of decorated former Spartak players who were convinced to take one last shot at glory. Their stay in the top flight was short, but their story was memorable – far more so than the likes of Mordovia.
With the introduction of the play-offs, there is now more room for such teams to make their breakthrough. While generally speaking it has been the Premier League sides who have held on to their place, both Ufa and Torpedo Moscow managed to upset the apple cart and take their more illustrious opponents to task. The latter have now faded into the shadow, buts the Baskhir club maintains its top tier status.
What is rarer still, however, is the team that comes from nowhere to win automatic promotion. While Leicester City gather the support of millions as they seek to claim what would be a remarkable English Premier League crown, the Russian second tier can boast a team which, in a roundabout fashion, can claim to be equally unlikely champions.
The team in question is Gazovik Orenburg, the unheralded side from an unheralded city not a million miles away from Russia’s border with Kazakhstan. So far from the spotlight are Gazovik that the club is not deemed worthy of mention on the city’s English Wikipedia page – something quite extraordinary given the presence of women’s basketball and table tennis. Whereas previous upstarts Ufa could point to links with Andrei Kanchelskis, a distinct cultural identity and a title-winning ice hockey club as their neighbours, Gazovik – incidentally one of Ufa’s sister cities – struggles for notoriety, most famous for its role in an 18th-century uprising and being the site of various Soviet wartime industries. The tourist board, one imagines, is not the busiest.
And yet, two thirds of the way through the 2015-16 season, little Gazovik sit on the brink of promotion to the big time. A massive 11 points clear of chasing Tomsk and 12 above Arsenal in third, before the winter break they managed now fewer than 21 wins from their 27 matches, scoring more goals and conceding fewer than anyone else in Russia’s second tier. In Artem Delkin – hitherto a regional journeyman among clubs in Ural region – leads the league in goals scored and, barring a spectacular collapse, they will almost certainly be lining up against the likes of Zenit, CSKA and Spartak in the Premier League next season.
The Orenburg team are, of course, familiar with spectacular collapses – although not necessarily on the field. The club are celebrating only their 40th anniversary this year, and thoroughly failed to make an impact on the Soviet football scene, spending the majority of their time flitting between the Second League and the amateur ranks. The rearranging of the league system with the collapse of the USSR gave Gazovik a spot in the regional leagues, but a miserable rock-bottom finish saw them give up their professional ambitions once again – they would only return in 1998.
So what has happened in the past 18 years to transform Gazovik from a bunch of amateur also-rans into one of Russia’s elite 16 clubs? Well, in many ways the transition has been remarkable for its complete lack of spectacle. Once the club won their place in the Second Division, and in particular the Ural/Volga zone, they set about making it their home, spending the next 13 years in the very same division and with largely the same set of of opponents. A great deal can change in 13 years of football, but for Gazovik, very little must have changed in that decade.
That is not to say there were no signs of progress. Six years of midtable were followed by a shocking slump to 17th and near relegation under Viktor Fedulov, but for the next three years Gazovik were on the charge. In a run which must have had supporters cursing the closed nature of the Russian regional leagues, the Orenburg side finished runners-up on three successive occasions, Aleksandr Averyanov’s side narrowly missing out as Nosta Novotroitsk, Volga Ulyanovsk and then Volga Nizhny Novgorod – another side to have reached the top flight since – all clinched the title ahead of them. In 2007, they missed out by just a single point to Ulyanovsk, and the following year FC Nizhny Novgorod, who finished below them in third place, were elected to fill a vacant spot in the second tier. When the following year they slipped to seventh place, it seemed the chance of promotion had gone.
Even when promotion came, it was followed by swift relegation, and so the fairytale seemed to fizzle out before even beginning. Yet that brought Robert Yevdokimov to the club, where he has remained ever since. Bouncing straight back up from the treacherous Second Division, the former journeyman player – he racked up 10 clubs in a 17-year career – has made his home in Orenburg, and has taken the club to new heights. Returning to the second tier, consecutive fifth-place finishes and a run to the semi-finals of the national cup competition have laid the ground for this, the season in which all comes together to reach the promised land.
So how exactly has Yevdokimov been able to shape his team of challengers? Cynics could rightly point to the club’s sponsorship deal with the local branch of Gazprom and loan signing of former Rostov and Rubin man Inal Getigezhev as evidence of financial backing, however this is true of many teams with local government support, and would be unlikely to place Gazovik as one of the top spenders in the division, at least when compared to Premier League teams relegated down.
Furthermore, in Gazovik’s squad there is, newly-signed Getigezhev aside, very little in the way of top flight experience, and there are far more players who have paid their dues in the lower reaches of the Russian game than those who have taken a step down from the top. They have not been boosted by impressive home support – the average attendance at Gazovik Stadium is around 2,200, just under half capacity – and in chairman Vasily Stolypin, a man whose financial hands are tied very closely to Gazprom’s revenues, which are hardly booming at the present time, they do not have a Suleyman Kerimov or Evgeni Giner dipping into their pockets on a regular pockets.
What may be possible, although in the Russian game any such tale must be viewed with the utmost suspicion, is that after years of slow building, Gazovik have finally reached a position in which their infrastructure, coaching staff and playing squad are ready to take the next step on a purely sporting level. It is unusual, perhaps even unlikely, and they will be favourites for relegation next season should they complete their promotion. However at this early stage, their achievement, when it arrives, should be heartily applauded.