Taking the train to Western Ukraine
Sitting at Kyiv train on a late Friday evening, a sense of nerves washed over me. I was heading into the unknown. For the first time this season, I was traveling to a game on my own. Train stations are exciting places at the best of times, and this Friday evening saw the station alive with all types of humanity. A large group of students, who seemed to be in for a long wait, took my attention mainly. I felt sorry for their group leaders (I assume that they were teachers like myself). I would not fancy being at a station late at night like these poor souls. My own train was playing tricks on me by sitting locked for an hour before the expected departure time. I wandered down to the platform a few times, as I wanted to be settled quickly for the first of the two trains.
Nighttime on the Ukrainian railway
The train was one of the older Soviet types, but I had a ticket in second class, which meant it was going to be a 4-bed cabin with some other people for the evening. The price was eye-catching but it was going to be a first time for me. I made a couple of newbie errors – particularly not realizing that the pink quilt-like material was actually my mattress. I sadly spent the night sleeping on the bench. I should not have worried as I woke reasonably early as our carriage woman came into our cabin to wake one of my fellow travelers for his station around 3am. Anyway, I arrived on time for my four-hour transit in Rivne, where nothing was open. Being 5am, there was plenty of alcohol on offer as well as greasy food to help pass a few hours before I started preparing myself for my second train to Lutsk. To be honest, the rest of the journey passed without event as I slept the whole ride. I, fortunately, woke around ten minutes before we arrived in Lutsk, and I was ready for my 16th adventure of this football season.
Welcome to Lutsk
Lutsk is the capital of Volyn Oblast and marked the northwestern point of our journey. Bordering Poland, it beats Ukrainian culture and patriotism passionately. I noticed how happy people looked when I mentioned words in Ukrainian instead of Russian. During the Second World War, both the USSR army and the Nazis fought over it bitterly. The local fighters fought determinedly to move everyone away from their region, with many lives being lost. It is from this background that the red and black flags of Ukrainian independence need to be considered as they underpin people’s beliefs in the far western regions of Ukraine.
The city itself is full of vast boulevards that move commuters impressively around the city with an ease not seen in other parts of Ukraine. However, on this visit, I would not be able to explore so much of Lutsk. The station is pleasingly located near the football stadium, and I was lucky enough to find a hotel right next door that would give me some rest for a few hours. I was not scheduled to meet Dima (Volyn Lutsk’s press officer) until later in the evening. On my way, I had noticed a little beer shop on google maps, so I wanted to pop in and collect a local beer for later in the afternoon. However, I was pleased to find something a little more special than a regular beer shop, with English football flags stuck in the window offering a small glimpse of what lay inside this little paradise.
A little piece of England
Kostya, who owns the bar, had turned it into a football memorabilia treasure trove. The walls were adorned with a wide array of scarfs from clubs across Europe. I was intrigued by the Kingstonian flag mainly and did try to understand how it arrived on the walls of this small bar in Western Ukraine; I did not, though. Kostya was full of enthusiasm towards British football, and we had a good conversation before he invited me back before the game to watch the Blades play – it turned out that he was a good friend of Dima, and our meeting was rescheduled for the pub.
I did manage a little tour of the city, and I have to honestly recommend Lutsk for a visit – whether you are a fan of football or not. It is a beautiful place. The area around the hotel and stadium had a few sights to keep me occupied, even if the Rugby Semi-Final had me more focused on my phone. Nevertheless, I was eager to make my football appointment, so after a few swift hits of coffee, I made my way back to Kostya’s bar. It was a slightly strange experience as I realized how tiredness has taken over my body – I had no idea where the bar was even though I had only been there a few hours earlier.
Vadim had arrived by the time I returned – I had no idea who this person was, but very quickly, he received the highest respect from me. Back in late 2014 and early 2015, a fierce battle for control of Donetsk city ensued between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Oblasts. Donetsk airport was of strategic importance for both sides, resulting in the most violent fighting over many months. Vadim had been the commander of a brigade that had been stationed there throughout the struggle. He not only deserved the legendary status that is now bestowed on him and his comrades, but the media-friendly ‘Cyborg’ label fits aptly. The conditions, which I witnessed in his videos, chilled me to my bone.
Dima arrived just before kick-off in the Sheffield United game, and we had a long chat about the state of football in Ukraine. The first division is an incredibly competitive league this year, with eight teams battling out for promotion to the Premier League, which will expand next year to 14 teams. You could sense the frustration that the club feels towards the village teams that are being bankrolled by the agricultural oligarchs that we have talked about on other trips this year. It was interesting to note that they felt that these small teams offer less support to the local community. I had seen evidence elsewhere to the contrary but listened nonetheless. Volyn’s youth teams, nevertheless, have achieved great success recently and are competing impressively against wealthier rivals.
As the time raced by, kick-off time approached, and it was time to hit the ground. Although set in another athletics track, it was beautifully arranged traditionally. The bowl terrace ran around ten rows deep around the whole pitch and was encamped in tones of congregated steel not seen at home since the ’80s. The ultras had their own section, where numerous security guards protected them from the mainstream crowd. The away fans also had their own paddock, which housed the one supporter who had made his way to Lutsk. The press section was a cowshed that sat majestically on top of the terrace on the far side of the pitch. The real treasure of the ground was the monstrous floodlights that boomed over the entire territory. They illuminated the match like a scene from that Tom Cruise movie about aliens coming to Earth. The floodlights were a lot more impressive than the film from what I remember.
Lutsk was undoubtedly a unique experience that I will never forget. The second half was spent trying to find people to talk to inside the stadium. The home Ultras made it quite clear that they were unwilling to discuss the team with me – their fenced-off section was impenetrable. The security guards were also reluctant to let me mingle with the visiting supporter – with me physically being pulled away from him at one stage. Nevertheless, the ground has a charm, unlike any other that we have encountered on our travels. Significantly, the lower leagues have time slots that allow the floodlights to be used. Although not many clubs have working power, the few that do, provide extra value to the matchday experience.
The journey home passed without incident, and the train arrived exceptionally early in Kyiv so that we could enjoy a relaxing Sunday without travel. Although slow, the night trains provide a comfortable sleep, especially if you buy a ticket early enough to get a bottom bunk. Working through my notes of the trip, I could not avoid reminiscing about meeting Vadim, a true Ukrainian hero. Volyn is a staunchly patriotic region of Ukraine, which may, at times, cross the social boundaries of acceptance. Nonetheless, the people bare their souls for their belief, and it is something to be admired. Next week, we will be at the opposite end of the country as we travel close to the Crimean border in Kherson oblast.