Chapter 12

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.

tactics v amkar

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.

result amkar

results after amkar

league after amkar

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.

rastagaev praise

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.

perminov transfer

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.

tactics v shinnik

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?”

“No boss.”

“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.

result shinnik

shinik goal times

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.

league after shinnik

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.

result anzhi

Our unbeaten run comes to an end in spectacular fashion on the last day of the season as I field a mixed starting XI.

result kuban

division top end

division bottom end

league route

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.

spartak

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.

prem win

The Russian FA flexes its muscles and shows its disapproval with the Siberian fairytale in its farcical team of the season.

rus team of year

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.

paiva player of year

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”.

surov leaving

Looks like the promising future of Man Utd’s Tony Adams (38) is in doubt too.

tony adams man utd

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.

pav profile

pav signing

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.

Chapter 11

His gun pokes against my stomach, prodding with inspecting precision at my gut, like a medical probe, a needle looking for an injection point or an extremely pervasive dildo.

“Give me your wallet. Now.”

I can’t glance away from the gun below me but I need to look my accoster in the face. I bring my head out from my scarf and feel the cold spectre of the Tomsk evening air grope my prickled skin.

“Oh my god. You’re Tom Tomsk’s manager! Petra, it’s our manager!” A woman staggers out of the darkness with a machete in one hand and a contaminated needle in the other. After picking my face out in the streetlight she bounds over and hugs me, I dodge the needle and evade the machete as she throws her limbs around my back. The gunman shakes my hand and nods approvingly.

“Paiva! Great player”

“Yes!” I reply, matching his giddy nod. I realise at this point I’ve shat myself ever so slightly and I can only imagine that this window where I am stench-free is closing rapidly.

“Best team we’ve ever had. Best fucking team man.” The woman speaks with a rasping croak, a croak formed from a thousand cigarettes and possibly some degrading sex work.

“Thanks, I’ll tell the guys the people of Tomsk approve.” I nod and grin again in a textbook display of an uncomfortable Englishman that has shat himself.

“When was the last time you guys lost?”

The assailant’s question stumps me, a whirlwind of excitement stirs up my bowels even further and I start to recognise the streak that we find ourselves on.

“Uralan…” I finally speak “It was Uralan, in July… 11 games ago”

Later that night, as I drift off to sleep in fresh underwear a smile stretches across my face. 11 games unbeaten.

 

After the unexpected rise of Lada, somebody had to fill the gap in the bottom three and that team is today’s opponents. Professional Russian football side and near impossible spelling test; Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk.

Can I use it in a sentence?

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk are shit.’

For all their survival concerns Neftekhimik do at least hold the bragging rights coming into this clash. In the reverse fixture they beat us 2-1 in Nizhnekamsk courtesy of a last minute Gerasimov winner. With heartbreak and revenge on our mind, there’s very little work done on the opposition and we steam into the fixture with all the momentum of Putin’s forces ploughing through the vanquished Chechen rebels. I can read Russian now so I like to keep across the national papers. This Putin guy is good but I’m not sure if he’ll win the election next time round in ’04. We’ll see.

tactics neftek

Due to yet another knock, I’m without Fedor Tuvin but my concerns alleviate as we take the lead via Sergey Shatokhin on 35 minutes. Before Sergey and I have finished our elaborate personal handshake pitchside, Neftekhimik equalise exactly thirty seconds later. The goal comes from 19 year old powerhouse (strength 20) Alan Baliev. This 19 year old Ogre is proving way too much to handle and early in the second half he puts Neftekhimik in front. Like Stalin in Finland, we now find ourselves in a battle we don’t need to be in.

By 81 minutes, we fire 5 shots their way and every single one of them is on target, but we still trail the Nizhnekamskians 2-1. Physically we’re losing out to just about every member of the opposition, so slick, short passing is the order of the day. We ease off the pressing and allow them to make mistakes for the few moments when they have the ball. The tactic works with 4 minutes to go as Shatokhin doubles his tally and levels things at 2-2. If football matches lasted 100 minutes we would have won this 3-2. You can scrutinise the rulebook all you want, but it says in no uncertain terms they definitely last 90 minutes.

result neftek

The real kick in the Bolsheviks is most of our immediate league neighbours also lose out on points. A remarkable day rounded off in Gaz-Gaz as league leaders lose out at home to lowly Baltika. Today could have seen us edge ahead of Uralan and into third.

results after neftek

league after neftek

We skip training on Monday to aid the majority of players who are left with plenty of bruises from the Neftekhimik battle. Just as well as we can barely afford to keep the club open every day anyway. By the time our next fixture rolls round Yury has fired seventeen more members of staff from canteen workers, to charity managers, to the elderly blind woman that washes the kits. Every little helps.

tactics nalchik

The meeting with Spartak Nalchik carves three men into Tom Tomsk folklore as they single handily bring us all 3 points. Alex Surovtsev in goal (Av rating: 9) stops everything that comes his way. Nalchik’s strikeforce consistently got the better of our backline but Alex was unbeatable.

Sergey Rastagaev, brought in during the transfer window as insurance in case Marcelo left us (which he did) has an average rating of 7.88, the highest in our side. Nalchik weren’t able to deal with his quarterback style of play. Pinging balls into the dangerzone for a young Portuguese maestro to slot away.

Joao Paiva picks up both goals in the game and the man of the match award, his sixth of the season. The boy has found some special form and Yury and I have a very brief discussion about how we keep the elite of world football from discovering him. Fortunately, the last time a scout visited Siberia was 1964, and even that was in not so much a professional capacity, more of a political prisoner, enemy of the state type thing.

result nalchik

results after spar nilchik

In spectacular news for Tomsk fans, it’s 1-0 to the Arsenal in their matchup with Uralan. Tomsk have their highest ever league position.

league after spar nilchik

Congratulations to Gaz-Gaz (full name Gazovik-Gazprom ©) for their guaranteed promotion. As I begin to dial the Gaz-Gaz area code I quickly slam the phone down and check the fixture list. Shit.

Last time we played Gaz-Gaz it was a 3-3 thriller that left the neutrals entertained, Gaz-Gaz relieved and me with a stress related illness. That fixture sealed the fate of former goalkeeping regular Nik Togonidze. Back then we were anonymous Siberian hosts from obscure lower-mid table. Now we sit just 2 spots behind Gaz-Gaz with the best form in the league and an undefeated run that spans a staggering 13 games.

“Russia is watching you today” I stand by the dressing room door looking at my players. “Do you know what Russia expects? She expects your run, your streak that has captured this country’s imagination… to come to an end. She expects talent and physicality to stand victorious over heart and determination. She expects normality to return and those pesky Siberians to fall silent for another year. She expects that the fate of Tom Tomsk is up to her to decide. She expects us to fail. Do you know what I say to that?… I say Mother Russia is a presumptuous bitch that doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

The dressing room explodes with cheers and primeval roars, players shove and slap one and other with sobering motivation. Studs smack on the tile below and scrape on walls as defenders strap up their legs, midfielders test the limits of their shinpads and stretch every facet of their muscles, ready for the kilometres they’re about to endure. The graceful teenage forward sits quietly with his thoughts, meditating in a corner of the dressing room that is warmly given to him by his colleagues out of magnanimous respect.

tactics gazgaz

Tom Tomsk fly out of the traps and grab a goal within 10 minutes through Sergey Shatokhin. The league leaders are immediately rumbled and I watch as players dart over to their tracksuited boss who passes notes and desperately tries to adjust to the unwelcome tempo. Unfortunately for us it works as they get a goal back via their left-back. Minutes later I’m tearing up the grass in my technical area with my fists as they get another and take the lead. With 5 minutes to go before half-time I watch carefully as the greatest solo performance I have ever seen unfolds before my eyes.

Great players can change games they say. I find the truly exceptional ones can define a game entirely. At 8.40pm on Monday the 30th September 2002 in Izhevsk, Russia. A Portuguese teenager, by the name of Joao Paiva went on a rampage, the likes of which will rarely be seen again. 3 emphatic goals over 300 captivating seconds sends us into the break with a 4-2 lead. The talisman returns to his solitary corner of the dressing room and we stare at him in disbelief. The second half is a grateful, commanding performance from the rest of the team, determined to make sure Paiva’s efforts don’t go to waste. And they don’t. Full time. 4-2 to those pesky Siberians.

result gazgaz

Just before I head down the tunnel the Gaz-Gaz manager walks over to me with a beaming smile on his face and grabs my hand. “Come. Come look.” He points upward with his arm clenched round my shoulders. I blink as the scoreboard burns my retinas. As my eyelids flutter in pain a particular result is scarred onto my eyeballs. 2nd place Shinnik…

latest_shinnik

It’s fair to say that if you’re going to have a party, don’t invite Baltika. They beat Gaz-Gaz in Gaz-Gaz (Izhevsk) a few weeks ago and now they humble Shinnik in Shinnik. I check the league table and congratulate the Gaz-Gaz manager on winning the division.

league after gaz gaz

I do the maths and try to understand why we’re second despite having an inferior goal difference, I try to understand why we’ve gone ahead, I start to contemplate on whether we’ve gone ahead on goals scored.

Then I realise I don’t give a fuck.

We stand together on the brink of a Siberian fairy-tale, the fate may be in our hands but the path ahead is treacherous. Amkar Perm lie around the corner but on the horizon is vengeful Shinnik. The date with destiny it would seem is the 12th October.

fixtures

As I get back into my apartment I find a briefcase on my kitchen table with a note on top.

‘Great result. Love Yury x’

cash injection

Chapter 10

“We’re broke” said Yury as he lowered the drawbridge over his moat.

finances

I couldn’t understand it. I’d steadied the ship, I’ve shifted out just about every over-earner this club had. Sure I lost approximately £191,350 in a catastrophic recruitment policy and racked up tens of thousands of pounds in medical bills and therapy sessions following Marcelo’s disappearance but that was water under the bridge.

New contracts and signing on fees had no doubt attributed to the financial crisis that affected Tom Tomsk but I had to keep this to myself. For the remainder of this season, we’ll haemorrhage cash just to keep spirits high. In an unselfish attempt to save money I fired a physio and rented a coach and opted to drive to next opponents Lokomotiv Nizhniy.

Lokomotiv Nizhniy are on a runaway train to relegation. Their season had quickly derailed in June and now they’re desperate to get back on track. We had every chance of railroading them this weekend and distinguishing any light at the end of the Nizhniy tunnel. Train metaphors aside they’re shit.

I get up early on the Thursday and start the engine of the coach to make sure it’s warm by the time my boys arrive. I don’t know the way to Nizhniy so I run into the club office and ask office manager Tomasz for the Tom Tomsk Tom-Tom. He hands it over and I put in the details. It’s a brisk 40 hour drive through the Russian countryside but it saves around £38 per head on travel. Following the draw with Arsenal I can’t help notice my settled eleven are running out of steam and it’s time to call on the backup brigade. As the players enter the coach I hand out the team lineup to each player. A mixture of shock and relief amongst the lads as they see an unrecognisable side. A ragtag, hodgepodge motley crew made up of the unproven, the elderly and former restaurant staff.

tactics loko

Nizhniy like to set up with a 4-1-3-2, it’s the most creative formation we’ve seen since Rubin Kazan and before that I can’t even remember. Within the opening minutes Nizhniy pick up two yellows in an attempt to rile my second string. I turn to speak to my assistant about changing our approach.

“Gennady. Gennady where are you?” Gennady Stepushkin takes it upon himself to go missing midway through the first half. Unbelievable.

“He’s playing boss.” Replies  my coach Vitaly Bregvadze

“What?”

“He’s captain, you picked him yesterday.”

Sure enough Gennady is running the game and drilling the inexperienced boys around him. I applaud and quietly take my seat. Just before half-time we double our shot tally in the space of 2 minutes and it seems we’re finally starting to cause trouble. At half-time I give the guys time to take a breather, they’re tactically aware enough, we just need to make the breakthrough. I notice Sergey Shatokhin (first team AMC) discussing with his stand-in Vlad Savchuk how to break through their backline. Paiva is talking Lukic through some attacking drills, Tuvin has my midfield three hanging on his every word as he lectures them on their shape. I feel like a leader of a wolfpack whose cubs have started to fend for themselves. Vitaly and Gennady give a short speech and with thirty seconds to go they turn to me.

“Anything to add boss?”

“You’ve got this boys. Go get em.” I deliver a wry smile and walk out first, I trip on the doorway but not emphatically enough to fall so I walk it off. They wait until they’re out of earshot before bursting into laughter. That’s respect.

On 53 minutes, after 7 shots on target we take the lead through Vlad Savchuk. The performance of Tom Tomsk is marred only by the unimpressive Vasily Yanotovskiy, he’s replaced shortly after the goal and despite many more attempts we fail to increase our lead. It’s a convincing 1-0 as you’re ever likely to see. 38 year old assistant Gennady Stepushkin played the full 90 minutes and the only damage he had done to himself was a little bit of cramp and severe chest pains. What a trooper.

loko result

From the teams above us, only Gaz-Gaz and Shinnik are able to pick up all three points, immediate league rivals and next opponents Kristall Smolensk drop points. As I enter the 34th hour of the drive home I give myself a small pinch on the arm. I confirm with some inward acceptance that I’m not dreaming.

results after lizny

league after izny

Last time we played Kristall Smolensk we had lost the game within 16 minutes. They were 8 places ahead of us in the league but now we sit above them on goal difference. How times have changed. Whilst walking through town to head to the game I see a homeless man shouting the word ‘bullshit’ at strangers, I can’t help notice he looks exactly like former captain Alexey Schigolev. I avoid eye contact and pick up the pace.

After finding the club accountant fitting a hose to the end of his own exhaust pipe I wonder whether the financial crisis will get the better of our remarkable season. I talk him out of it and give him free tickets to the game. He tells me to stop giving away free tickets.

Every seat is full. Scarves of ‘We believe’ have all but sold out and the stadium is packed and firmly in breach of health and safety legislation, still with half an hour before kick-off. The dressing room shudders in the bowels of the stadium and my well-rested chosen eleven are on the brink of their most important game of the season. There’s nerves sure, but there’s confidence also. Smolensk have come off the back of a hard fought 2-2 draw with Amkar Perm, they’ve got a patched up right back in Konstantin Dymarchuk who took a knock last matchday. My wolf cubs can smell a kill.

tactics smol

As soon as the game starts I call out ‘Tomsk, Wolfpack!’… The players looked over to me with confusion, not knowing that I’d drawn this stylistic wolf iconography myself… “Wingbacks! Fucking Wingbacks!” I cried. Ivan Trofimov and Dmitry Sleptsov quickly shift from conservative defenders to flying forward thinking wide men and young Ivan tests the vulnerable Dymarchuk early on and whips in two deadly crosses within the opening ten minutes. Smolensk change their shape and bring Dymarchuk inside and that’s when Alex Sharov is able to play a slick pass through both shellshocked centrebacks. Paiva latches onto the end of it and slots it away for his 20th goal of the season.

Dymarchuk is then shifted back and forth as the herd of Smolenskians desperately try and shield their wounded pack member. We come in at half-time and for all their defensive vulnerabilities Smolensk are asking some serious questions of our keeper Alex Surovtsev but he’s answering every single one of them. The atmosphere is extremely hostile for Smolensk as they come out of the break first and await our arrival. We bide our time and let them overthink their task ahead. After being forced out of the dressing room by the match day staff we make our way to the pitch. Smolensk Manager Vlad Puzanov is bellowing in my direction, his face is flushed with anger and I shoot him a smile. The same wry smile I gave my boys in Nizhniy. A smug Siberian ‘Fuck you’ to the doubters and sceptics. After a very brief ruckus, Puzanov is sent to the stands and now Smolensk are out on their own on the Siberian plains, leaderless, riled… and Sergey Shatokhin is onto their scent.

Dymarchuk moves back to the middle and Sergey is able to knock it past him with ease, as the two are locked in an embrace, Shatokhin continues to bring the ball forward, dragging Dymarchuk into a trap. The Smolensk defender can’t let go and Shatokhin keeps Dymarchuk by his side, just as they reach the perimeter of the penalty area, Shatokhin pulls the trigger and brings a burst of pace. He edges ahead of Dymarchuk and the stranded defender has no other choice, he pulls Shatokhin to the ground and we get a penalty.

Sleptsov gets his 5th of the season, adding to his 100% penalty conversion record. Smolensk reply as best they can but they fail to beat the in-form Alex Surovtsev who is chasing back to back clean sheets. He not only picks up another clean sheet but he also comes home with the Man of the Match award.

result smol

It’s a good day for the top four as not only do we all pick up wins, but the unlikely new members to Russian Division One elite; Tom Tomsk have cut the chasing pack adrift. It’s a four horse race to the finish. Good news for Lada fans as they secure a 2-0 victory and haul themselves out of danger.

results after smol

league after smolensk

Smolensk are in for further misery and we have another chance to solidify our position as their next opponents are league leaders, Gaz-Gaz. Uralan travel to Arsenal and Shinnik have what might as well be a weekend off (Khimki).

We’re looking to do the double over today’s opponents; Baltika. Last time round it required a Paiva hat-trick and last minute heroics to take all three points but today with confidence at an all time high I’m hoping we can get this game put to bed in less dramatic style. Minutes before kick-off I’m handed news of Marcelo as he pops back into life on the football radar. I shudder and practice breathing techniques to deal with what feels like post-traumatic stress. I dismiss the news and head out to the dugout.

marcelo

tactics baltika

It’s comprehensive and complete. All the chaos and razzmatazz of this reverse fixture is instantly dismissed as early Paiva efforts are both successful, the Portuguese teenager gets his 22nd of the season and increases his record against Baltika to Played 2, Scored 5.

result baltika

As expected Smolensk are unable to take advantage of being on home soil and they fail to win for the third game in a row. The gap below us widens.

results after baltika

league after baltika

Instead of partying with the rest of the team, I owe Alex Surovtsev a dinner date for getting 3 clean sheets in a row. It’s initially quite awkward as he has agreed to leave the club this December (no chance he’ll get a flight out of Siberia in December) so we avoided talk of the future. But after a few glasses of Pinot Noir and being serenaded by a ukulele band; Alex really opened up and I can’t help feel that I acted too rash all those weeks ago when I accepted a bid for his services. I had pushed him out after the rise of troubled shot-stopper Dmitry Yekimov, but during our dinner I make a solemn vow, if he can give me everything for the remainder of this season, he’ll play every single minute.

Chapter 9

Paiva slides the contract back across the table, the fresh ink glistening off the early morning sun that reaches through my office window. He smiles. I smile. He offers his hand. I offer a hug. It’s a hybrid between the two as our right hands clasp and I pull him inwards. I squeak discreetly in pain as his rock hard nipples (heating not working) press up against my stitching, as he leaves the room I check for signs of internal bleeding and re-read this masterful piece of paper. I walk down the corridor to HR and wave it aloft like a smug, less consequential Neville Chamberlain.

paiva contract

Joao Paiva wanted a meagre £300 a week, a goal bonus of £10 (bless him) and a minimum fee release clause of £210,000. I countered with £475 a week. A goal bonus of £35, an assist bonus of £35 and no clauses of any description. It’s a momentous day.

On the flight to Astrakhan, home of Volgar nestled between Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, I start thinking about the 19 year old Rotor centre-forward, Vladimir Zelenovskiy. My disastrous negotiations with him in the early days of my time with Tom Tomsk had rendered any further dealings with him highly unlikely. But as I thumb through the newspapers I not only see that David O’Leary has just been appointed Man Utd manager, but also Rotor are languishing at the bottom of the Russian Premier Division. I decide to seize the moment. I stand to my feet, make my way to the cockpit and tell the pilot to turn the plane around and fly to Rotor immediately.

zelenovsky

By the time I’m cleared by Russian special agents and the Civil Aviation Authority from the ruthless airport interrogation facility at Astrakhan (home of Volgar) we’re about 4 hours away from kick off. Despite having no sleep due to being restrained by the government on suspected terrorism grounds, the level of confidence 3 wins on the spin gives you going into a fixture is worth its weight in crude Siberian oil. The bookies still don’t look favourably upon little old Tom Tomsk in this particular clash. Last time round Volgar thumped us 3-1… at home… with ten men. The scepticism is very well-founded.

Russian First Division teams have a lot in common with one and other, as a rule of thumb – you’ll usually face a team that plays 442 and over 70% of the playing staff will be called Alex. Volgar are no different and with the dynamic Alex Krotov one half of the front two, I’m not looking forward to the questions he will ask of our defence. His current record against us is Played: 1, Scored: 2. The team talk is light and straight to the point, we have to keep it tight at the back today or we will face the consequences when playing teams in the top half.

tactics v volg

I stop my stopwatch on 11 minutes when we concede first courtesy of 19 year old Anatoly Melnik. We last a further 11 minutes disaster-free and then concede another, Alex Krotov boosting his record to Played: 1.22, Scored: 3. At a rate of conceding every 11 and a half minutes we’re on course to lose this one 8 nil. I throw my abacus at the subs bench and start barking orders. We can’t even get on the ball to execute my commands, so I get the boys passing in a direct style and we hoof our way to half-time at 0-2.

I open the door to the dressing room and casually pace up and down in silence. A cold, judgmental silence. Through the walls we can hear jubilant celebration, cheering, I’m pretty certain albeit I couldn’t translate every word – some excellent Russian ‘banter’ and worst of all; laughter. I turn to my boys “Can you hear that? Can you fucking hear that? They’re laughing at you.” Nobody says a word for 15 minutes. We sit and listen. The group of lads I send back out there are foaming at the mouth (figurative, not a medical concern).

Volgar goalkeeper Alex Korobko doesn’t know what has hit him (also figurative, although he was later hit by a bottle of piss) as we send 5 shots his way within 10 minutes. Within 20 minutes we even get one back courtesy of Paiva. 10 minutes after that we bring things level through loanee centreback Andrey Otyutskiy. As I prowl the touchline I swivel to the bench when I hear a voice say “I can do something here boss.”

“And you are?”

“Alex Kavetskiy”

“…”

“I’ve scored 2 goals this season. I’ve played 7 times”

“…”

“You came to my daughters Christening last month.”

“You any good Alex?”

“I’m OK.”

I bring on Alex Kavetskiy in the 76th minute as the game is poised at 2-2. Volgar are noticeably shaken and my boys are undoubtedly stirred. In the 84th minute a knackered Rastegaev thumps the ball forward and Mr. Kavetskiy climbs above the Volgar centrebacks and loops a header over the keeper. 3-2.

I coolly scream “Shit we’re winning” and bring on two defenders for my two advanced forwards. I inform the lads that I’ll fine anyone a week’s wages if they try anything creative at all. I finally ask Gennady (my assistant) to observe the game and describe what’s happening whilst I hide behind the dugout.

DEFEND

TEAM INSTRUCTIONS

Gennady is visibly appalled by the gamesmanship we show, he’s exasperated by how we’re able to smash the ball out of the area without a consideration for mounting any kind of attack. As Gennady utters the words ‘This is what the beautiful game has come to’ I hear the final whistle and I storm the pitch in celebration.

result volgresult volg2

I fly back via Rotor and Zelenovskiy agrees to come join us once the transfer window re-opens in December.

zelenovskiy accept

A week later it’s fellow Siberians Metallurg Krasnoyarsk at home. After the usual derby day antics of goading the opposition in the press, fan violence, arson attacks and the murder of a Krasnoyarsk fan in a Tomsk shopping centre I spark my own little controversy by dropping goalscoring, loanee centreback Andrey Otyutskiy. He’s replaced by Anatoly Oprea, a man who when I initially signed him had no groin muscle – but is now fit as a fiddle.

tactics v metall

Once the game gets underway that evening (3pm Kick off, delayed due to bomb threat) I can’t help feel that we’re going to inflict some damage here. Within FIVE minutes we’re 2-0 up, goals from Paiva and Tuvin. Krasnoyarsk’s reply comes from their formidable striker Sergey Bulatov, his 13th of the season. Paiva however isn’t taking any prisoners as he finds the net two more times before half time. At the break it’s 4-1 to the boys in green. At half-time we finally get round to celebrating Dmitry Sleptsov’s birthday with cake and ice cream. We head out for the second half. Krasnoyarsk aren’t going without a fight and they get a goal back in the 57th minute. In the 63rd minute, my debutant Anatoly Oprea headbutts a Cameroonian man by the name of Samuel Didier Biang. He manages to draw a significant amount of blood in what I hope wasn’t a racially motivated attack. Must remember to ask him about that. Oprea sees red and we’re down to 10 men.

oprea red

Like Samuel Biang’s nasal cavity, this game is wide open. The tension is getting too much and like Samuel Biang’s jaw, we’re hanging on by a thread. I kick Gennady Stepushkin’s Zimmer frame from under him and send him on for Paiva to keep this game under control. We get out the game alive, unlike 3 more Krasnoyarsk fans. RIP.

result v metall

board krasnoyarsk

The Russian FA aren’t willing to listen to my appeal for Anatoly Oprea and rightfully or wrongfully they hand the racist centreback a 7 game ban. 7 matches for a violent hate crime… It’s political correctness gone mad!  I pat Anatoly on his bald, tattooed head and send him on some cultural sensitivity courses for the intervening time. The little scamp. 

oprea ban

In more unfortunate news, Fedor Tuvin my midfield maestro takes a knock in training and will be about for a couple of weeks. It does at least give us the chance to catch up on the sidelines and he hints at the idea of a new contract despite signing for us this season. Following the Paiva deal, I’m looking to secure Tuvin and make sure these contracts are ironclad. It’s been 7 hours and 15 days since Marcelo took his skills away and I won’t risk another repeat.

tuvin contract

The Metallurg win marks our fifth in a row and we march, heads held high into our next game against Rubin Kazan. Last time round it was a late equaliser from a Dmitry Sleptsov penalty that salvaged the point for us at home.

tactics v rubin

This, as they say, is a game of two halves. The first half is an immaculate display from Tom Tomsk that sees us lead 2-0 at half time, goals from Shatokhin and Volgar Hero/Fedor Tuvin replacement; Alex Kavetskiy. After a strong start this season, Rubin Kazan are milling around 10th with a fraction of the drive they showed early on. I look at the lads and asses energy levels, we need a breather and we’re in full control. Nothing is getting past Yekimov today as he’s finally come good with an above average performance. I make a deal with the players, for every backwards or sideways pass I’ll give them 100 Rubles, roughly £1.

result v rubin

I’m about £1,300 down but the second half is a non-event.

One week later…

tactics v ars

“Boring, Boring, Arsenal!” rings out around the stadium in the 76th minute of our clash with Arsenal Tula at home. It’s tense and could go either way at 1-1 but Arsenal Tula aren’t taking any risks in their play and they roll the ball around the back whilst looking at the big clock in the stadium, little do they know it hasn’t been running since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Paiva has already secured his 19th goal of the season (another £35 for him) but I can’t see him getting any more out of this. The lad is exhausted and he and I both know I don’t have any kind of replacement. The only spark is coming from Shatokhin and the entire stadium holds its breath as he falls in the box in the 77th minute. Flash forward 30 seconds and the Amkar Perm loanee; Sleptsov does the usual trick and sends the keeper the other way for his 4th of the season.

I’m not going to shut this game out I tell myself. I’m not going to put my home support through that. These boys have enough about them to maybe get another. They want 7 wins in a row. And my god, so do I. Yekimov pulls his groin whilst executing a superb rabona goal kick, my applause is cut short as he signals to the bench. Local boy and incompetent arsehole Alex Surovtsev replaces him.

We seem safe but nerves start to settle in as fans desperately call for the final whistle. I shout myself hoarse by the time the Arsenal attacking midfielder Ivanov bursts past Ivan Trofimov on the left flank. There’s a man free in the area, I have no voice. They can’t hear me. Like Kate Winslet awash in the Atlantic Ocean as a rescue boat sails by my voice simply won’t carry and I’m also fucking freezing. A muted despairing cry eeks out of me before Arsenal frontman Vitaly Veselov climbs above Surovtsev in goal and levels it right at the death. The run comes to an end, not a bitter one by any means, just a dignified acceptance that we’re human after all.

result ars

Later that night I take a long deep breath before studying the league table. The sceptics can cast their doubts but the people of Tomsk are beginning to believe.

leagueleague2

form

goalscorers

Oh and congrats to Dave. Or should I say, congrats to Man Utd in securing his services.

oleary manutd

Chapter 8

“You’re stable for now, there’s some fairly severe lacerations to your abdomen, not to mention some substantial bruising around your genitals”

I glance downward as best I can and acknowledge the swelling with the very slightest sense of satisfaction until the pain overwhelms me. My head rolls back to the pillow, I gargle blood and what tastes like oil in the back of my throat, with no energy to lift my head, I swallow it with a wince. 

“The psychological department are looking to evaluate you also” the doctor continues, his face is crumpled and folded with concern. “We think you’ve had a mental breakdown.”

My eyes swell up and fill with tears, I nod back to the doctor.

“What happened?” he whispers, whilst placing his clipboard next to the flowers from Joao Paiva. He takes a seat on the bloodstained barrel of vodka sent from Yury.

I turn and gaze towards the window, I realise it’s not a window, it’s in fact an oily landscape of Siberia with a well-detailed woman painted in the foreground. She has her tits out.

“It started about 2 weeks ago. We were about to play Shinnik at home.”

Of the 17 league games remaining, a staggering 11 of them are at home. It seems that the tough times are behind us. The next opponents are Shinnik, like Smolensk, Gaz-Gaz and Uralan; these guys are pushing to go up, sailing breezily into the sun-drenched promotion spots. During which I’m bailing water out of a rotten barge in shark-infested waters, all the while holding Lada and Khimki under with my last remaining paddle.

My fears for the Shinnik game land firmly at the feet, the golden feet that is, of two men Alex Bychkov and Alex Vereschak. Alex and Alex are the Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole of Russian (first division) football. A match-made-in-heaven strikeforce that account for over 80% of Shinnik’s goals this season. On the eve of this home game I get some news. Alex Vereschak hasn’t made the flight to Tomsk due to injury, I throw my Vereschak voodoo doll up in the air in celebration and get a good night’s sleep.

tactics v shin

By far my most settled side of the season enter the game with gusto and confidence, the majority of which deteriorates as we concede first yet again. The goal comes from the remaining half of the Alex doubleact. We offer very little riposte until the stroke of half time when we secure not one, but two goals from our illegal foreign worker – Marcelo. One, a powerful header following a Shatokhin long ball. The second, an audacious lob from outside the area. Marcelo and Shat have got the game by the scruff of its neck.

At half-time it’s clear that Paiva can’t get into it, I get him to press deeper into their half and allow Marcelo more space as my Uruguayan is proving too much to handle for the visitors. Shat continues to cut open their back line with pinpoint passing, I give Marcelo more freedom to move forward. This move proved all too hasty, by getting Marcelo on the ball more merely leaves us more exposed at the back. As soon as our pitiful defence is even slightly tested, the scoreline will shift against us. Inevitably, it does so as Alex (you guessed it) Bychkov secures his second of the game. For the remaining half hour it’s tit for tat, and with a booking to accompany a late glaring miss, it’s shit for Shat.

shin result

I’m visibly flummoxed as I do the press rounds. I know how strong Shinnik are but we have to start picking up some consistent form from somewhere. I call a training session for the next day to the shock of some of my personnel. It’s nothing too strenuous, no brutal tactical drills but we’re going to have an inquest into what exactly these lads want to get out of this season.

The young captain, Alex Sharov speaks first. He talks about his personal efforts, he talks about his will to win and that he worries that out here in Siberia he’s going unnoticed. It’s selfish sure, but it’s something. It’s ambition.

Nice guy Sleptsov says we need to believe we can win, despite any defensive frailties, we need to believe it.

Protsenko praises every individual, I marvel at his ability to look every single one of them in the eye and tell them just how great they are. How much they can achieve. How important they are to Tom Tomsk.

Finally Paiva speaks, he’s briefly interrupted by Stan Kharlamov. I tell Stan to shut up and then ask him what he’s even doing here. We watch him get onto his bicycle (his wife took his car when she left him last week) and leave. Paiva starts again, it’s broken Russian at best.

“I love Tomsk. We can do something special here. I believe”

I lead the applause that lasts for a good minute. We start chanting “I believe” whilst jumping up and down in a large group huddle. The only thing that tarnishes this momentous day is getting home to hear that Dutch legend Patrick Kluivert is undergoing shoulder surgery and he’ll be out for 6 months. I eventually get over it and drift off to sleep. I have a very brief and very intense nightmare that Marcelo has left the club. I awake and quickly call Vitaly Bregvadze, he tells me everything is fine.

tactics v loko

It’s Lokomotiv Chita at home and we are like rabid dogs in the dressing room. We can’t wait to get out there and show them, show the people of Tomsk that we can do something special here. We score first. We score first. Hell we score second. They score third. But fuck it; we score fourth. The game is totally in our hands, we toy with the opposition until they threaten with an 80th minute goal. I take the shackles and straightjacket off my old friend Aslan Bitarov and park him in front of my shite goalkeeper and see the game off.

result v loko

Chants of ‘I believe’ continue in the dressing room after the match. We’re desperate for the next opponents. Like a fragile Gazelle that has unknowingly wandered into a Lion’s den, Lada are next on the fixture list. Lada are based in a town called Tolyatti. Aside from being the home to an awful football team it also seems to be a shithole. In a pre-match interview when asked about the area I respond saying ‘It has character’.

tactics v lada

Lada don’t surprise me with their 442, they don’t even surprise me with their pitiful attendance of 6,000. They do however surprise me with the opening goal of the game on 15 minutes from their not-entirely-shit centre forward Oleg Salenko, former Valencia and Glasgow Rangers ace. His record for the Russian national side is nothing to sniff at with 6 in 8. My Oleg daydream ends as we get back in the game and then some, courtesy of a brace from Paiva, goals coming in the 32nd and 35th minute. After being slightly unnerved on the 50th minute with a Lada triple sub we manage to pass the ball around for fun as we see out the game and seal not only the double over Lada, but we now have back-to-back victories.

result v lada

As I’m clapping the away support (41 of them) I notice a banner that reads ‘я верю’. I turn to my captain Alex Sharov and ask him what it means. He looks up at the banner, smiles and turns back to me, placing his hand on my shoulder.

“It means, ‘We believe’”.

Training on the Monday passes me by in what feels like a warming Hollywood montage about togetherness and fighting against the odds. There’s larking around, fun and games, a little bit of playful tickling amongst the coaching staff and just all round Tomskfoolery. The transfer window is due to close this week and for once, I’m not tempted by replacements or adjustments to my playing staff, the boys are doing me proud.

As I drive through the pouring rain to the outskirts of town to meet Yury and his other family for drinks at a former government building that Yury has secured for a fraction of the cost due to his relationship with the current mayor (somewhat mirroring the ascent of Roman Abramovich during the fall of the Soviet Union after he snapped up Government assets in a corrupt negotiation with Boris Yeltsin causing untold poverty and suffering to large numbers of the working and middle classes within the country and irreparable damage to its economy and domestic prosperity but what-fucking-ever let’s just skim over that) I can’t help feel that Tom Tomsk really could do something special.

The rain pelts down as the straight, unwinding road continues onwards to the outskirts as I feel my phone ring. It’s Marcelo.

“Marcelo! To what do I owe the pleasure!…. What?….. You can’t…. Where are you? I’m coming to speak to you…… Marcelo please….. I can change…… Just stay where you are…… Marcelo!”

marcelo leaving

My phone slips downward, my body feels weak and my head is spinning, there, in front of me, its hair half burned and tail frayed, stands the donkey. The donkey that survives on the edge of its existence out here in Tomsk, living from meal to meal, striving to endure the local population. I’m heading straight for it, I try to brake but my phone is wedged firmly under the pedal, the donkey and I lock eyes, within a heartbeat I swerve off the road and downward into a ditch. I black out.

deadline passed

“That would explain why you were shouting Marcelo for 44 hours”

“Yes” I reply to the doctor, “Yes it would”

“Would you like the match on?”

I look towards the television and back to the well-wishing gifts stacked up against my bedside… The flowers from Paiva, the chocolates from Alex Sharov, the collection of Russian literature from Vitaly Bregvadze, the 6 foot teddy bear from Fedor Tuvin, the pistol with one bullet loaded in it from the underpaid receptionist – I forget her name. Dozens and dozens of thoughtful presents and wishes.

“Yes. I would like to watch the match.” I conclude.

 

The visitors to Tomsk this week are lowly Khimki, we humbled them in the reverse fixture 5-1 but my players know as well as I do that these circumstances are somewhat different to the unbridled optimism of the early season fixtures. I speak to Gennady Stepushkin (assistant) about our set up, it must remain the same. He asks about how to replace Marcelo. I vomit briefly but efficiently before replying down the phone that Rastegaev can fulfill the defensive midfielder duties and Yanotovskiy can come in to join my middle three. Alex Sharov (capt) can sit in the middle and dictate play.

“And Gennady.”

“Yes boss?”

“Give Yekimov a stint in goal.”

“Yes boss.”

tactics v khimki

I watch on as my boys start with an explosion of activity that immediately proves too much for Khimki. We manage 5 shots on target within ten minutes. By the 20th minute we get our first goal of the game, buried in the top corner by Joao Paiva. In celebration the cameras zoom in on him and he pulls his shirt up to reveal a message that reads, ‘This one is for you, Boss’. I cry tears of joy and scream “That’a boy!” at the top of my lungs. The next goal comes 12 minutes later from the magic wand that is the right foot of Fedor Tuvin, he also reveals the same writing under his shirt. I burst into applause and ask nurses to leave the room as they insist I keep the volume down.

Khimki don’t threaten our goal until the 75th minute and sure enough when a goalkeeping crisis is in full swing, it doesn’t take much for them to get one back. I curse Yekimov as my heart rate increases to 140bpm and my blood pressure to 170/90. Urinary catheter: Full. Vital signs: ‘OK’. In the bleary haze of panic I watch as Paiva once again takes matters into his own hands and seals the victory with his second of the game and our third. His shirt reads ‘This one is also for you, Boss’.

result v khimki

It’s 3 wins in a row. Tom Tomsk sit in 8th.

Chapter 7

I sit alone in the dressing room with my head in my hands.

gazgazresult

My Georgian goalkeeper comes back in, pretending he’s left something behind. He stands still in the centre of the room, waiting for me to look up to him. I don’t.

“I’m sorry boss”

I stand up and put my jacket on hastily.

“Not now Nik. Not now.”

Gaz-Gaz are the league leaders, a classy footballing side destined for promotion and we battered them. Absolutely battered them. We would have taken all 3 points were it not for the utter ineptitude of Nik Togonidze. He stands there, anxiously swaying from side to side, waiting for a further discussion but I just breeze past him and out to my press interviews.

A week later we’re back on the road, this time to Spartak Nalchik. The transfer window is two days away and I remind the players of that during our pre-match briefing. For some, this could be the last chance to impress. I can see the players nervously looking around for Nik Togonidze, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Big Nik didn’t travel with the matchday squad. Nerves and gossip begin to spread around the dressing room as I go for a pre-match piss. I feel for Nik don’t get me wrong. Nalchik is based just a few miles from the Georgian border and I know he had family coming to watch the game. But I can’t stand for that kind of performance, Nik has cost us 3 points and this punishment is ample enough.

tactics v nilchik

I felt the boys had something to prove, I sensed there might be a boot up the arse to give us that extra edge. But I was wrong. The shining light is an inspired performance from stand-in Goalkeeper and Nik Togonidze replacement Alex Surovtsev.

nilchik result

It’s matches like these when I can measure the true professionals among this group of lads. Protsenko consistently puts a shift in, Shatokhin always turns up and gives us a certain spark, I text them both after the game assuring them they’re part of my plans for the future. I accidentally send the same text to Stan Kharlamov but then follow it up with a text that reads, ‘Soz. Ignore.’ He doesn’t take it well.

kharlamov training

It’s here. It’s finally here. I run downstairs in my pyjamas (I slept in my office) and leap with gay abandon through the corridors and into reception.

“Has he been? Has he been??” I yell with excitement

“Who?” grumbles the underpaid receptionist.

Then I spot him, my olive-skinned Uruguayan gracefully drifting across the car park towards me, dodging the broken glass and dogshit, he makes his way up the steps and into reception.

“Marcelo!” I hug him and offer a kiss on the cheek, hoping, praying that this is somehow part of Uruguayan culture: after hours of research through the night I unfortunately discover it isn’t. Apart from that, the day has been a good one.

Anatoly Oprea (CB) has arrived for £40,000 from Kristall Smolensk. He’s nursing a little graze (comprehensively torn groin muscle) and has been out for 3 months, but now he’s just weeks away from full fitness and I’m able to secure him at a bargain price.

oprea

Sergey Rastegaev (DMLC) is a left sided holding midfielder that was, and I’m not ashamed to tell him this, a backup plan in case the Marcelo deal fell through. Or in fact if Marcelo takes the first flight out of Tomsk after receiving his signing on fee. Despite this, Sergey has skills of his own and I dare say he’ll feature right in the middle of the park for me.

rastegaev

Marcelo. (DMRC) Wow. Just wow. As I watch him undergo his medical and wave flirtatiously through the glass I begin to worry that my plan, if it fails, could cost me my job. Smuggling undocumented foreign workers like Marcelo into the country on suspicious PAYE contracts that are about as watertight as a tin can at an Alabama gun show, could be seen as reckless. I bang on the glass and wave again. He waves back.

marcelo

Gennady Stepushkin, another defensive midfielder – but not one I plan to deploy in said role all that often. Gennady is my new right hand man, after a brief introduction, a couple of jokes and some insightful tips about Russian home insurance I immediately promote Gennady to my assistant.

step-playerstep-staff

Sergey Zhukov (0 apps this season) Victor Sebelev (2 apps this season) and Valery Konovalov (0 apps this season) are all shifted out that same day, bringing in around £180,000 for the lot. The day just keeps getting better when semi-professional Russian side, Luch give me a call enquiring about Victor (there’s no i in team but there’s three i’s in Victor Isaichenko) Isaichenko. I jump in my car, drive straight to his house, bundle his wife, two children and fragile Grandmother into the back of my car and step on it all the way to the airport. That’s another £150,000.

In a fortunate quirk of the fixture list, we secure a week’s holiday in the beautiful Krasnodar along with back to back fixtures. Firstly a cup game, followed a few days later by a league encounter. We arrive on the 1st of July and watch a couple of World Cup matches poolside (France 2-0 Ireland, England 0-2 Argentina, Quarter Finals) the lads wind me up about the England result. At night we gaze out over the water into neighbouring Crimea at conspicuous military activity, mass social unrest and the pretty harbour.

Whilst at the hotel, the Yugoslavian restaurant manager talks me through the footballing career he once had. After four pints I offer him £90 a week, the number 11 shirt and a starting position in the cup game. Bregvadze tries to stop me, I ask him if ‘he wants a piece of me’ he backs down. The restaurant manager agrees.

lukic

The first action on my hangover is an internal call to Bregvadze’s room and an apology, he accepts and we share breakfast in bed. There’s two things you need to know about Kuban Krasnodar, they play 442 and they never ever draw (played 15, drawn 0). Finally my team looks refreshingly different. As promised to Vladan (restaurant manager) he starts in behind Paiva. Marcelo is straight into the starting XI without question. As expected Rastegaev slots into the middle, sandwiched between the flair of Tuvin and the expertise of Sharov (capt).

tomsktactics

Surprise, surprise for the unforgivable 12th time this season we concede first. Yet just three minutes later Konstantin Gordiyuk, Kuban centre-half shoves Paiva with such force it sends my Portuguese starlet to the floor and sends Mr. Gordiyuk for an early bath. We go into half time with the extra man and a couple of mediocre chances under our belt, but undeniably there’s some dismal performances from the new lads. This is a difficult one to play, I can’t steam into these delicate new recruits like I would the others. If Alex Perminov had played like Marcelo and Rastegaev had this first half, I’d be waterboarding him in the showers right now. I keep it light and positive. Marcelo is legally obliged to up and leave should I piss him off. That’s the situation I find myself in.

Second half we get a goal back, a captain’s goal no less from Alex Sharov. Then in a surreal moment in South-East Russia, a Scotsman by the name of John Rankin puts Krasnodar back ahead. After already taking off Vladan (the restaurateur) I’m now hauling off Marcelo and Rastegaev with polite smiles. I replace them with Shatokhin and the 37 year old Assistant Manager, Gennady Stephushkin… That’s the situation I find myself in. Shatokhin really shines and brings us back in the game by winning a penalty in the 67th minute. As much as he is a nice guy, I need to tell Dmitry Sleptsov that he can’t just keep running up and taking penalties, albeit he slotted this one away with aplomb. In the 90th minute yet again Paiva leaps up from a Protsenko(?) corner and wins it for us once more. A habit that I’m more than happy for him to continue. Before you know it we’re back around the pool watching the World Cup.

kubresult1

The following Tuesday it’s Krasnodar, the sequel. Luckily for new boys, Marcelo and Rastegaev I have no backbone and they are shoved straight back into the team despite their disastrous debuts. A couple of days before this fixture I got into an argument with Ognien Lakic after he failed to make the bench following the improvement in the condition of Vlad Savchuk, a man that single-handedly beat Lada all those months ago. I send Ognien back to his parent club and bring in a centreback by the name of Andrey Otyutskiy, on loan from Dinamo Moscow. A high profile loanee indeed.

kubresult2

In another game where Kuban Krasnodar went down to 10 men and their Scotsman John Rankin scored, we showed what we were capable of. Four sumptuous goals and an immaculate display from anyone but the backline. At the end of the game I give John Rankin my number, if he just wants a chat, I’m here. If he wants to sign for us, even better.

I have a spring in my step throughout the entire week. Watching the new group of lads in training is a joy to behold. Having an assistant makes dealing with pre-match setups so much more straightforward. Yury (chairman) couldn’t stop calling to praise me over the back-to-back Krasnodar victories. Over the two games with Kuban Krasnodar we amassed 30 shots. But this week in training it’s about defence, I can’t go through this campaign with these ridiculous scorelines. We can’t keep shipping goals like this, we can’t expect to build on this form when we let just about everything through. Next up with our new defensive discipline we’re away to 4th place Uralan. Bring it on!

uralanresult

In the 52nd minute of the game, following their fourth goal, I took my goalkeeper off. Something for the football historians to look back on and ruffle their brows. The more than adequate performances for the majority of the team is outweighed catastrophically by the abhorrent, unacceptable display shown by Alex Surovtsev. The very next day I agree for him to be transferred. He’ll leave in December at the end of his contract. The man that replaced him on 52 minutes played an absolute blinder and kept us fighting. But it’s fair to say Dmitry Yekimov has some problems of his own. I thank him, give him a leave of absence to get his head together and I start to rebuild.

yekimov

Chapter 6

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned”

My words, heavy with judgement hang in the air before seeping through the chamber, into the pious ears of a local clergyman. His voice croaks back through the darkness, heeding my call.

“Yury? Is that you?”

“Pardon?”

“No nothing, I thought it was someone else. Continue my child. The lord is listening.”

“I have rid a young man of his livelihood father. I have compromised the financial security of an innocent local family, through my own hubris and pride. Can the lord forgive such an act?”

I swear in Russian and slam the phone down hoping that my message to the Russian FA is heard and noted. Next opponents are the utterly incomprehensible Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, mid-table buddies of ours. Our third away game in a row. For a Siberian team on the edge of the planet all we ask for is a little respect and understanding when assembling our fixture list.

Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk looks like it a typo, perhaps the result of somebody accidently sitting on a keyboard, but in fact they are named after the town Nizhnekamsk, a district belonging to the Republic of Tartarstan. Fortunately for my air miles but unfortunately for my team, The Republic of Tartarstan is in the arse end of nowhere. During a casual training session, Krazzi tells me his contract is coming to an end, my chief scout has been one of my closest allies in the early tests of my regime, I tell him it’s no big deal and we’ll meet on Monday to discuss. I cobble together a light, tactical session on Friday and brief the team for our travels on the Saturday.

The flight is horrendous. Trying to get from Tomsk to such a place like Nizhnekamsk is a logistical nightmare. In a total travel time of 19 hours we arrive in the early hours of Saturday morning. The lads sleep as best they can but I feel that I never really sparked them up even during the pre-match teamtalk. Neftekhimik like to keep the ball to feet and I want to upset that by dropping Aslan Bitarov, a man that seems to play in slow motion and replace him with the more agile Eduard Baryshev to close down their play. The gods of football may have cursed our fixture list but they have returned Paiva to full fitness two days earlier than expected.

formation v nef

We’re inundated with chances against us. Peppered with shots and fortunate near misses we count our lucky Tsars that we’re even able to break against them. We have an answer momentarily but the game is end to end and everything they offer is getting through. Perminov in the defensive midfield role is nothing but fucking permeable as Neftekhimik break through our line and score the opener on the half hour. Vitaly Kakukin grabs the goal and I go to scribble his name down as I can’t help but admire his talents. I can’t find my notebook so I ask Ognien Lakic to sit still whilst I scribe it on the back of his neck for future reference. Just as the fourth official is signalling the added time, Tuvin swings in yet another peach and my favourite person in the whole world welcomes his return with a goal. We’re back in the game.

At half-time I give an encouraging team talk and congratulate a few players on keeping us where we are. It’s thrilling for the neutrals but this game is too open. I need to shut it down and I know just how to do so.

“So get out there lads and see them off. Alexey, can I just have a word?” I usher Perminov into the bathrooms, grab him with reasonable force around the throat, and scream in his face for twenty seven seconds. He spends the remainder of the game on the bench and Sharov drops back out of position to plug the leak.

We shut the game down, we bring a sense of order to the proceedings but our tiredness is undeniable and as the game stretches on as Neftekhimik bring the chaotic tempo back, Paiva drops to his knees with exhaustion. The local fans wake up and we’re back in a fight. Worst of all following miscued goalkick I try and volley the ball back into play, I miss the connection and twist my ankle on my standing leg, cue jeers (from both sets of supporters). The match continues and we just can’t hold on. It’s admirable, it’s inspiring, but ultimately football matches last 90 minutes. Not 89.

nef result

On Wednesday, whilst limping through the canteen I bump into Krazzi. My heart somersaults and falls into my bollocks as I realise I didn’t turn up on Monday. I offer him a quick chat about his contract but he’s not in any mood to forgive me. Once more the club seems stale, my chosen few are crawling through every training session. I need the transfer window, fast. More urgently I need a home game, and I get it.

krazzi-reject

Baltika, more aimless wanderers of the infinite limbo that is the mid-table. Not that Tom Tomsk can call themselves that anymore. We’re all-out flirting with the relegation zone and suddenly we’re being mentioned in the same sentence as ‘Lada, Khimki and Sunderland’. Perminov is going on the bench, there’s no discussion about it, I opt to play Sharov deeper and out of position than resort to the utter incompetence of Alexey Perminov.

Baltika are undoubtedly the entertainers of this league, they’ve scored 21 and conceded 20. They’ve racked up two 4-3 scorelines already and they turn up today with their usual carefree 442. As promised to my backroom staff, our shape remains the same.

baltika formation

As expected, the game is out of control. Within ten minutes it’s 1-1. Paiva bringing us level in the 9th minute. We seem to be operating a shoot-on-sight policy that leads to two Tuvin efforts hitting the crossbar within the same minute. On the half hour mark we take the lead as Paiva secures his second goal of the game. I turn to Bregvadze to discuss how we can hold this lead.

“Vitaly, how can we hold this lead?”

“It’s 2-2 boss” I turn from Vitaly to see Baltika celebrating at the corner flag.

“Shit”

Half-time. We’re all gasping to draw breath and work out where to go from here. We’re smashing chances their way and they’re sending them straight back but it seems we control the possession. And with ease. Baltika aren’t even fighting for the ball, just looking to counter and ruin our homecoming. If they want to give us the ball, we’ll take it. In the second half we’re throwing everything we have at them. The crowd are booming and chanting as long range efforts and intricate build up play fall by the wayside. Flares begin to fizz within the stands and by 80 minutes the whole place is sensing a climax. In the north-east corner of the stadium I can see extra stewards running towards some violent exchanges between both sets of supporters. I swap like for like as Yury Zelenov makes way for Vasily Yanotovskiy, a permanent feature in the opening games but due to some late nights and nasty rumours involving local sex workers, he’s been benched in recent weeks.

Joao Paiva keeps looking in my direction, drawing in deep, exhausted breaths into his barely developed lungs, I can see his spindly legs wobbling underneath him. I look to Ognien Lakic and then back to Paiva and shake my head. I can’t take him off, he may be knackered but they can’t handle him. He takes it well and continues to threaten the Baltika goal. The fourth official puts up the board on 90 minutes. 4 minutes added. Baltika start launching the ball into the stands, cutting our players down and conveniently forgetting how throw-ins work.

In the final 2 minutes we start to string passes together, back and forth, back and forth. Hypnotising the Baltika midfield, tearing and peeling their defence away from their marking duties. Yanotovskiy, clearly the most energetic player on the field starts to carry the ball more, playing one-twos between Shatokhin and Paiva. The ball is pinged into the dangerzone by Yanotovskiy and Shatokhin is beaten to the ball, it’s half cleared back to Yanotovskiy who pumps it back to Shatokhin who’s able to chest the ball down to Paiva. Joao Paiva connects a half volley with a deafening, crisp thud and rockets the ball onto the underside of the crossbar and into the back of the net.

I feel like the City of Tomsk has just shifted by about 5 feet such is the power of the eruption in the stands, Paiva dashes towards the south-east corner of the stadium and is swallowed by the jubilant home support, the last I see of him are some flashy pink boots under a portly local with vomit on his jacket.

A few substitutes go streaming down the touchline in celebration along with Bregvadze. I grab Alexey Perminov and shout over to my captain, Alex Sharov who is mid celebration. “Alex – off!” Sharov comes jogging over and chucks the captain’s armband the way of Bitarov. I turn to Perminov “Fuck this up and I’ll kill you” I hold him by the back of his collar and throw him onto the pitch. After about 5 minutes of rapturous celebrations we gather ourselves. Perminov sits in the hole obediently and hacks down anybody in a blue shirt for the remaining minute and Baltika are defeated.

baltika result

goal times baltika

It’s time to scratch an itch that has been irritating me for some time. I get back to Tomsk and finish off the last of my Vodka welcoming gift from Yury and have a glance at the League Table following a vital 3 points. I hope to be staring into the void of mid-table oblivion. Instead I find myself looking down, into the darkness and the creaking trap door of relegation.

league1league2

“The Lord’s judgement is clear on this my child. In Matthew 6:15 it is said ‘if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.'”

“I understand. Thank you father.”

I clutch my bundled jacket and creak out of the chamber and into the vacuous emptiness of the church itself. My sigh, albeit hushed an inward reverberates off the ancient walls (circa 1951) and back to me.

“My child!”

I turn to see the father, plagued by old age but nonetheless nimble in his desire to speak further with me. I watch as he strides toward me, his gown blowing up around him like a significantly less-promiscuous Marilyn Monroe. He grabs the back of my neck and whispers into my ear.

“The Lord also says that Schigolev is overrated dogshit and a backstabbing cunt. Up The Tomsk”

He shoots me a wink and pats me on the arse.