Small town with a big heart.
Bank holiday weekend in Ukraine usually coincides with the UK holiday, so it was an excellent excuse for a doubleheader weekend in the central regions of this vast country. We would firstly head down to Oleksandriya for the Premier League game between the hometown team and Desna Chernihiv before heading on to the Cossack heartland of Zaporizhia for an amateur match between Motor and Yarud. It was going to be our first doubleheader weekend so a test for our spirits. However, on Saturday morning we headed off in search of new adventures.
Train trip madness
Our five-hour train trip from Kyiv left early morning, but everyone was in high spirits. The 5USD ticket price allowed a few people to start knocking back drinks from the off, and our carriage had run out of beer within a few hours. One of the benefits of the slow train is the extended breaks at stations across the route. We were fortunate enough to stop for a while at the appropriately named Smila, as it allowed me to stock up on cans of lager for the remainder of the journey. It is a real throwback stopping at these towns as you get the local traders offering all sorts to the hungry passengers on these long-haul trains.
The third class part of the train that we had selected was quite unique and certainly worth everyone one of those dollars. Legs were dangling from bunks, and the occasional whiff of urine sobered up even the drunkest of passengers. The journey passed quickly enough through endless sunflowers and sweetcorn fields intermixed with Soviet machinery. As we headed further south, the temperature did turn up a notch or five on this August day, and we were glad of putting on shorts. Before we knew it, we had arrived in Oleksandriya in the central Kirovograd Region.
Welcome to paradise
Oleksandriya is a small rural town that has had a recent resurgence based thanks to the agricultural boom in Ukraine. The two local football groups merged five years ago, and the new club has spent the last few years in the Premier League of Ukraine. The club still acknowledges the merger by using the swallowed club as its main sponsor – understandable, as it is a large agricultural firm. With the Europa League draw coming up, the club provided extra intrigue as they may end up facing a team from the UK. Anyway, our arrival in town was greeted with……. nothing. Our little yellow Lada taxi took us without stopping through it. Nevertheless, the Biker Pub Hotel was a great find – one of the best owners we have met in the country. The hotel was very modern, in a relaxed way and located right by the ground.
We had a quick change into our Vyshvanka gear (it is traditional Ukrainian clothing, customarily worn on national holidays) and headed for the stadium. It was a quaint little place, which holds around 7,000 and set within a more massive Sports Complex. After quickly getting a couple of tickets, we headed for the food area where we met our first local guys who were starting their lunches. We grabbed a couple of refreshing beers and started on the sandwiches while chatting with Alex, who kindly shared some fish with us. He explained that their European matches would be held in Lviv around 6 hours west from Oleksandriya. UEFA wouldn’t let them keep the games at home – something about the place being tiny. It is disappointing that many of their supporters will be denied the chance to watch home games. I felt a positive and warm vibe around the club and was happy to purchase a scarf from the gift shop in support of the home team.
As kickoff approached, a decent crowd had assembled. We reckoned that it was about 5% of the whole town, to give you an idea. The stadium was a beauty; two long stands ran along the sides of the pitch and went ten rows back. Behind the goal was a collection of smaller stands. However, in the corner, they had a group of pine trees, giving match day a unique charm. Supporters were scattered around the ground, with all stands being responsibly full. I was happy to spot the food court in our part of the stadium nonetheless. Being the Premier League, we had to get permission to put the flag up, and it drew quite a bit of attention. At one stage, I even had to show it into the matchday camera so a faceless individual could make the final decision. I think they were confused as it belonged to neither home nor away supporters.
Well, you could imagine a St George’s being hung up in the middle of Ukraine. A few of the local Ultras were very proud to introduce themselves as hooligans once they noted the flag. However, we spent more time chatting with Vlad and Vassily (more about them later). We also met a guy at the end of the match who spoke at length about the UK snooker scene. I always enjoy how fans take the time and introduce themselves once they know our background. The noise was coming from a large group on the other side of the pitch. However, one man near us got angry with a discreet smoker trying to ease his nerves in the second half.
Vlad and Vassily were sat near us in the main stand, and the Sheffield United references on the flag intrigued them. We had a brief conversation before the game about football in general, but they were very kind and offered to take me for a drink at half time. Sadly, football is alcohol-free these days, so we had a more sobering beer, but I took the opportunity to explain the project. We spoke at length about the lack of finances in Ukrainian football, but I told how I am seeing many positive things on the journey. We met a few people, including the club photographer, who invited us to attend the after-match press conference in the main clubhouse.
It was quite a surreal experience post-match as we were whisked around the pitch at lightning speed. Only for a Ukrainian star of their recently victorious U20’s squad were we allowed a quick pause. I am only aware of the team’s success and that a number of the key players have earned moves to Western European leagues. Therefore, it is pleasing to bump into the players who have remained at home. As we made our way to the press office, it was also inspiring to see some of the younger supporters waiting for a glimpse of their heroes in a way not seen elsewhere.
Make way for the press
After skipping through the security checks, we were inside, I have to be honest – we had no idea what we were doing. However, we found the press room where a number of the congregated journalists were already waiting for the coaches. An enjoyable conversation about the pros and cons of the future of Ukrainian football ensued. It was sad to note the negative tone of the local press. There appears to be an accepted sense of financial weakness for the long-term future. The perception remains despite evidence elsewhere suggesting that there are unexplored avenues for clubs to grow across the country.
First in for the press conference was the coach of the victors – Desna Chernihiv. The assembled press quietened as he walked in and expressed his happiness with the result. It was nice to see him smile as he looked a miserable chap. I was then caught off guard as I was invited to offer my own questions in English to him. Without anything planned, we engaged in a bit of banter about possible European adventures in the future. Following this, the home manager walked in quickly – apologized to everyone for the dire performance and left. No time for questions to be posed about the forthcoming Europa League draw, that intrigued me. Anyway, what an experience! We floated out of the stadium complex on a cloud and headed off into town for our evening’s entertainment.
We did manage to find a couple of restaurants in town that were incredibly cheap. These restaurants gave us a view of the Independence Day celebrations in the town square – sadly, not many locals had come out to watch. Accepting the offer of a quick drink with our hotel owner, we had a decent night’s sleep and were back at the train station early the next day. A stroll around the nearby market gave us a few snacks for our next journey down to Zaporizhia. We had made a better selection for our Sunday transport – the intercity. Introduced into Ukraine for the Euro 2012 football tournament, they really are worth the extra few quid for comfortable seats and cleanliness.