I stare blankly in the mirror whilst Shatokhin asks me if everything is OK. I don’t answer and he continues to piss, before waggling his genitals efficiently and strolling out the bathroom without washing his hands. I’ve told him about this, but I still remain deathly silent. Staring into the empty abyss. I’m stumped. We’re 1-0 down in Shinnik at half-time. How did we get here?
Amkar Perm have absolutely nothing to play for, nothing but wages, bonuses and self-promotion. Oh and pride. I’m mildly embarrassed as they turn up to our stadium, which is named ‘Trud’, however some vandals have experimented with the anagrammed potential of the word and we’re yet to order a new sign. Amkar have a wonderful stadium with all the mod cons, Trud is falling apart at the grand old age of 44.
But today is all about keeping ahead in the title race. We hold a questionable lead over Shinnik in what the Russian FA have confirmed is down to goals scored. Shinnik have the enviable task of travelling to Smolensk and taking on 9th place Kristall Smolensk who are coming off a humbling 2-0 defeat to Kuban Krasnodar.
Amkar send out a 442, with 5 members of the starting XI called Alex and 2 called Oleg. It’s Russian football at its finest. I stick with the boys that have delivered a run of 14 games without a defeat. Then I realise that on loan right-back Sleptsov is owned by Amkar Perm so I quickly swap him out with Dmitry Sharpilo. We give the Amkar boys a Siberian welcome that they won’t forget in a hurry.
Within 30 seconds we’re 1-0 up through Paiva, thanks to a gracious ball from Sergey Shatokhin. By the 10th minute Perm are down to 10 men and Captain Alex Sharov slides the ball home to double our lead. We light up cigars in the dugout and listen to the goings-on in Smolensk. There’s nothing between the two sides (Shinnik and Smolensk, not Tom Tomsk and these lot) from what I can tell on the radio, Smolensk defender Dymarchuk who suffered so severely against us, is having the game of his life.
At half-time I ask Paiva if he wants a rest and we can listen to the Shinnik game together, he’s not sure but we agree he can come off on the hour. Players are begging to come on; Perminov puts his hand up, I tell him to shut up and get back to work (he cleans the toilets for 100 Rubles a day since he lost his place in first team, it’s a bargain, he asked for 300 a day and some bread for his family, but I was able to talk him down). Vasily Yanotovskiy has impressed me in training recently but I’m going with a proven goalscorer in Savchuk to come on and try and do a job up front.
Amkar Perm get a goal back and to be honest I’m not even sure if they know how they scored it. The final whistle blows and the stadium falls silent as we watch the scoreboard and wait for the Shinnik game to come to an abrupt end, it does so.
Smolensk 0-0 Shinnik. Tom Tomsk are within touching distance of the Russian Premier League, a few fans make their way onto the pitch but security are there to encourage them to calm down.*
*the use of tasers is not endorsed by Tom Tomsk or any of the club’s representatives. Any life altering injuries and psychological trauma that stemmed from the actions of security on 6th Oct 2002 is not recognised to be the fault of Tom Tomsk FC nor are they liable in any way.
Sergey Rastagaev finally gets the praise he deserves with the local media, in this case a radio show that operates out of a bomb shelter under the local slaughterhouse. I’m quick to second the sentiments of the media to the delight of the Tom Tomsk fans.
Speaking of delight, somebody has finally come in for Alexey Perminov. Once the transfer was finalised we threw a party in the clubhouse which was great fun, the club secretary made the mistake of inviting Alexey and his family, which was initially fairly uncomfortable, but he agreed to leave immediately. All in all I think he took it well.
Spirits have never been higher and they need to be sky high coming into this key fixture v Shinnik. Win this and it’s done. That’s the message. That’s the key. Sure there are some hungover faces in the dressing room but we’ve got momentum, we’ve got belief, we’ve got Paiva. We arrive in Shinnik to the unfortunate news that their lethal front men will both start, the stadium is a cauldron of noise and smoke as a fiery chasm of flares spiral skyward as we walk out onto the fateful turf.
It’s fair to say, we’re not at the races. We’re not even anywhere near the races. Whilst we’re able to keep their forwards under control, the Shinnik midfield are playing for fun and my middle three are totally outnumbered and to be honest, outmatched. The sweeper-come-attacking-midfielder Alex Kulchiy puts Shinnik ahead on 12 minutes and still we can’t adjust or hustle him out of the game. I’m checking my manuals, I’m tearing up my notebook, I’m calling the League Managers Association’s helpline. Nothing. I’ve got nothing. The entire season has come down to this moment and I’ve gone completely blank.
I stare into the mirror at half-time as Shatokhin leaves the bathroom. I feel like, for half a second I see myself. Not now, but in the future. An aged, unfulfilled man with a weary dullness behind my eyes. Within a moment the image is gone and I see myself now. Young. Hungry. And there’s a glint.
“Wash your fucking hands Sergey!” I boom over the dressing room and Sergey paces back over to the bathroom tentatively, like a mountaineer scaling over sharp rocks.
“Protsenko, you’ve got kids right?”
“Yeah, 2 boss.”
“What you gonna tell them about today?”
“I don’t know boss.”
“What you gonna tell your grandchildren about today? About your career? Have you won anything?”
“Have any of you won anything? Do any of you have any stories for your kids? For your grandkids? What have you got?”
The players look around awkwardly, my coaches give me a look that reads, Where are you going with this? And What are you getting at? And Is this another breakdown? I continue regardless…
“I tell you what you’ve got. Forty-five minutes. You’ve got forty-five minutes to give yourselves a story. A reason. A purpose. Something more than spent wages and old photos. We won’t go out on a whimper. I refuse to be forgotten in the fucking wilderness. And you should too. Now go. Change the game. Change the future.”
By the time I get out onto the pitch the game is already underway and Dmitry Sleptsov, our right back is hobbling off injured. Perfect. I tell Ivan on the other wing to pump forward, I walk over to Vasily Yanotovskiy and grab him by the shoulder. I whisper into his ear, “Don’t worry about defensive duties OK? Just cause trouble down this side.”
I throw him on. We manage to match them for intensity and the game starts to level out but we’re still making zero chances. The home support begins to simmer down as the game crawls along at a tedious pace. Through a frustrating possession game, the Shinnik goalscorer starts to lose his head with some cynical challenges. His head becomes further involved in the game when he butts it into the face of Alex Sharov and sees an immediate red card. It’s a bizarre series of events, but they’re down to 10 men and the stadium mumbles and fidgets with unease. Shinnik shut up shop and we just can’t break them down.
By 85 minutes I’m surveying the bench but I know there’s no options here. I’m already pleased enough with my only sub, Yanotovskiy who seems to be on a zip wire on this right hand side. By 89 minutes Yanotovskiy picks up the ball at right back and charges forward yet again. He knocks the ball past two flailing Shinnik midfielders and charges past the dugout. “Go on Yan!” I scream after him as if he’s a greyhound that could win me £100 and save me from a night on the streets.
He scoots into the edge of the box. Paiva wrestles himself free in the area, Yanotovskiy passes it across. Intercepted. It’s fumbled back out and Yanotovskiy reaches the ball again first and smashes the ball low and into the bottom corner. 1-1. He darts towards the bench, pointing at me. His celebratory run is stopped by Captain Alex Sharov who ushers his men back into their own half for kick-off.
The home fans are rumbled and I’m quantifying league permutations in my head as Yan breaks down Shinnik possession and grabs the ball again. He bursts down the wing and whips in a cross. Intercepted and out for a throw. I look up and see that we don’t have a single player in our own half but for goalkeeper Surovtsev. I go to scream. I think about it. And I swallow it. They want to change the future, momentum has taken us this far.
Rastagaev throws it to Yan, who else. Yan beats the Shinnik left back and smashes a ball across the box straight into the path of the most deadly forward in Russian Division One. I see the net ripple, I feel the wind rush past my ears, I hear the jubilant screams of the substitutes and coaches running behind me, I smell the wet grass of the pitch as I sprint down to the corner flag and to the scene of the Tom Tomsk celebrations. I repeat the phrase ‘You fucking beauty’ eight times before diving into a pile up of Siberia’s heroes.
Ivan Trofimov knees me in the back, Fedor Tuvin bites me on the cheek, Sergey Shatokhin’s infamous genitals are in my face and I’ve never been happier. It’s the smash and grab of a generation and Tom Tomsk are going up.
The Tomsk party continues through the night and into the next day, my mouth is dry and worn out from continuous press interviews and live TV hits.
The entire week is a blur, we somehow edge past Premier Division side Anzhi in the cup with a second string XI. Former restaurateur Vladan Lukic even grabbed a goal in a performance that is another gold star day for goalkeeper Alex Surovtsev.
Our unbeaten run comes to an end in spectacular fashion on the last day of the season as I field a mixed starting XI.
The cup ‘run’ is also put to bed after we’re swept aside against Spartak Moscow, in what was a tremendous day out in the capital and great experience for the boys.
What is most remarkable about this chaotic season is that the magic has extended into the elite division of Russian football. The minnows have grasped the Russian game by the throat, as Krylja Sovetov somehow clinch the Premier Division title and beat out the Moscow giants.
The Russian FA flexes its muscles and shows its disapproval with the Siberian fairytale in its farcical team of the season.
As expected, the Portuguese forward and Division One top scorer, not good enough for the Russian Team of the Year is selected by the Tom Tomsk fans.
We give heartwrenching goodbyes to men that have helped us achieve our dreams. Andrey Otyutskiy returns to Dinamo Moscow, top bloke and five goal penalty extraordinaire Dmitry Sleptsov returns to Amkar Perm. Alex Surovtsev boards a train to new side Zhemchuzina and I run after it along the platform, steam billowing out as I cry out the words “I’m sorry Alex”.
Looks like the promising future of Man Utd’s Tony Adams (38) is in doubt too.
Krazzi brings in 4 young teenagers in the transfer window and we finally crack a deal we’ve been discreetly trying to push through for months. Following the relegation of Rotor we take the path of callous opportunism. Picking through the corpse of Rotor FC we find that young Russian startlet Roman Pavlyuchenko’s release clause is activated. Tom Tomsk react first in what is a tremendous acquisition for the club.
Delighted with our progress Krazzi finally puts pen to paper for £90 a week to see this project continue.
The achievements of this season are totally unprecedented, back in my flat I can’t help grip my 3 wood driver whilst holding a vodka in the other hand. That day on the golf course I gave myself a few weeks left in charge. I knew no Russian, I couldn’t hold the dressing room and my club captain staged a comprehensive walkout. Now for the first time in its history the Russian Premier Division will play host to a Siberian club, and we will turn up to spoil the party.