A trip to the south introduced to Brits of the past.
Over a hundred years ago, a group of British traders, exporting products from the Black Sea region to parts of the Empire, started playing football while spending time ashore in Southern Ukraine. Little by little, the local population began to join in with the games to the extent that the port city of Mykolaiv established a formal team in 1920. Ninety-nine years later, this British football enthusiast headed south on a Friday evening train to find out more about this club on a southern outpost of Ukraine. Situated between Kherson and Odesa, Mykolaiv region tends to get lost in the tourist scramble south each year, and the area only has one professional team, with its second team fighting hard in the amateur leagues.
Fun on the road south
Due to the lack of public transport heading into this part of Ukraine, our train was over-subscribed, so we found ourselves in Platzkart. For those who are yet to savor this delight, Platzkart is the open part of the night trains, where you may find around 50 people sleeping in one carriage. It is a great place to see the community come together, and over the years, I have witnessed communal singing, drinking, and picnics taking place. This evening, we saw some negotiation taking place as to where people would sleep. It seemed strange that some customers would take their seats as bargaining chips, but some kind mannered travelers were happy to relocate. Sadly, nobody was interested in my rooftop bed, so I was tucked up under the ceiling for the nine-hour journey south. To be fair, though, my mood may have been set by a less than pleasant character that was part of our group of six beds, who plonked himself in the corner and did not budge the entire journey. I was happy to see the back of him around 4 am when we reached his station.
After a quick rest and recuperation period, we headed out optimistically to explore this new part of Ukraine. We were not meeting our contacts for a few hours, so there would be plenty of time to readdress our initial impressions of Mykolaiv. The train stations and the drive to the hotel had shown a much-unloved city, contradicting much of what we had seen elsewhere on our travels. The train stations, in particular, tend to be fascinating relics of days gone by, with ornate decorations appealing to all, yet Mykolaiv’s version was a much shabbier experience. Our morning stroll brought us into contact with several anchors dotted around the streets and a statue commemorating those early British traders and their impact on the city.
Welcome to Mykolaiv
I have to say that I found Mykolaiv a great little city to spend time in. It was one of those; wish I had longer, trips. The architecture replicated its near neighbors, with plenty of low-level single-story buildings in the old town, which would not have looked out of place in a Latin country. The graffiti, though, exploded of pure Eastern European grit, and the cracks in the building revealed the sadder side of modern-day Mykolaiv. The walking streets were full of weekend business, and it was nice to see the younger generations enjoying themselves. Later in the morning, we were also able to enjoy the offerings of the river, with views from the parks stretching across the estuary and out to sea. Anyway, with time passing quickly, we made our way back to the Central Stadium to meet our contacts, who we had been put in touch with earlier in the week. As has become customary, phoning ahead to the club had resulted in significant support from the team, who were more than happy to share their club history with us.
An honor to meet such characters.
The club contacts had introduced us to Vladimir, who is a performance analysis for Mykolaiv. We agreed to meet by the statue that we had passed earlier in the day, as it was highly symbolic in the establishment of football in the region. The first clubs in the record books of Mykolaiv City were named after British sporting associations and the record books are adorned with names of British players who lived in the city during the first part of the last century. The ground, which was built in 1960, provided the club with a base after a nomadic first half of their history. The 16,00 all-seater bowl is the centerpiece of the sports complex, which covers a vast area near the river. It would be an impressive structure even if the athletic track made a return this week. Sadly, for us, the stadium was out of use this weekend. Due to resurfacing of the pitch, the game had been moved to another ground within the complex, more on that later.
Along with Vladimir, we were fortunate to meet the former manager of Mykolaiv as well as several other Ukrainian clubs, Ivan Balan. We spoke at length about his memories of the game and how it has developed throughout his career. We talked about the old shipbuilding industries that had grown out of the initial trading communities by the port. He had worked in a factory with over 25,000 employees during the communist era. It was one of three shipbuilding companies at the time, so you can only imagine the impact of the post-revolution closures on the city morale. It also helped us to understand the anchors that had been dotted throughout the city on our morning walk. I was surprised to find out that the companies were able to organize their leagues with over 15 competitive teams playing for the pride of their factory.
In earlier days, there were many sports played passionately across the city. Vladimir spoke about the ice-hockey teams that he established in the town. They were quite successful during earlier years but have struggled as the money has dried up, resulting in the clubs no longer playing in the city. It has been a similar story in the footballing spectrum, with the club being financially supported by one businessperson and the city government. It is the same situation across Ukrainian cities where companies are choosing to direct their finances away from sports sponsorship and invest elsewhere. I wonder if it would change if the attendances were to increase.
Our ground for the day was a tiny little affair, with seating for less than 200. I was surprised, therefore, when we were charged ticket prices for the privilege of entering into the complex for the chance to watch the game. The pitch was enclosed like a 3g complex back in the UK on three sides with mesh netting. I forgot to mention that the pitch was perched precariously on the edge of a hill overlooking the central complex where the historic stadium was located. This provided two things: firstly, a great view across the complex stretching all the way to the Dnipro; and secondly, a drop off on the sides of the pitch, which allowed very few supporters a view of the game. It does seem strange that clubs use such locations to hold professional matches.
There was a tiny stand across the other side of the pitch, which housed the announcer’s tables and around a hundred or so spectators. Behind the far goal and huddled together on top of a hill were a group of about sixty Ultras enjoying their drum and flag parade (we found a place for ours). On a walkaway, which ran behind the main stand further up the hill, you could find some supporters gathering to chat and watch the game from probably the best vantage point on offer. It was in the far corner of this walkway was gathered the largest group of spectators, who were enjoying themselves free. Amusingly, the fans had not paid to watch the game and perched over the fence so that they could have some alcohol. It was banned elsewhere.
The game was carried out in good spirits, with fans from both sides cheering on the teams. The home team Ultras made a ticker-tape celebration, which was used in the second half to encourage their crew in search of an equalizer. The away side had their flares ready to set off at the end of the game, creating a beautiful spectacle, which we sadly missed. Being as remote as it is, there was only one train back to Kyiv from Mykolaiv on Saturday evening, which made for a mad dash across the city back to the station where we had arrived ten hours earlier. There was a tinge of sadness, as we had not had enough time to explore this charming city fully. It is something that we are noticing as our travels continue our list of places to return to gets even bigger. Ukraine is a rapidly developing country that maintains its cultural heritage, with a great sense of pride. We notice the regional variants regularly.
Next week we get to head down into the Carpathians again to examine their unique culture, which will be a trip to remember.