A cold trip up north left us very impressed.
On this first weekend of December, we headed to the northern region of Chernihiv and noticed a distinct change in the weather. The lower leagues have already finished now for the long winter break and recuperating for the hectic schedule since August, which has seen teams play twenty or so league matches. The Premier League needs to stretch deeper into December as the international fixtures wreak havoc as elsewhere on the continent. There was a chill in the air as we set out on the two-hour journey north. The Sunday morning was surprisingly quiet, but we were still happy that the bridge offering a detour to the northern highway had reopened. Previously, the holes were so large that cars would be left dangling over the edge if your wheel made one wrong move. Happily, though, we could avoid Kyiv traffic and be quickly heading north. The police were out in their usual Sunday morning hiding places, trying to catch speeding drivers, who did not drop to the 30mph limit while traveling through the villages. I was caught previously, so try to be more vigilant on these roads.
Heading to the snowy north
Chernihiv region is famous for being the first region to receive snow in Ukraine each winter, and they did not disappoint this year either. As we approached the city over the old iron bridge, which crossed the Desna, snow started to cover the ground scape. The churches came alive in the gleaming white of the winter’s afternoon and gave the city a magical glow. However, we were here for football and headed through this all the Yuri Gagarin Stadium, located in the east of Chernihiv. The forest near the stadium had frozen solid overnight, and we had to move very carefully towards to car park. I was surprised how comfortably to car handled in the snow but was soon to regret my decision not to put on winter clothes as the chill hit me quickly after stepping outside the vehicle. Ukrainians may be mocked at times due to their overprotective ways of looking after loved ones, but I must say that the warm clothes warm by the locals did build some jealousy inside me – even if I was not going to own up on match day.
We had agreed to meet the press secretary of the club before the game and had to wait for him with some security guards, who were being slightly impertinent, to say the least before the game. It was over an hour before kick-off, but fans were starting to filter into the ground. A familiar face came into view while we were being kept captive by the security, and this face brought back memories of earlier in the season. Ian is an English supporter of Chernihiv, who has quite an impressive reputation around Ukraine, for his immense loyalty to Desna’s cause. He is also a Sheffield Wednesday supporter from back home, which made a certain level of awkwardness during our first meeting back in October at the Zorya Lugansk match. My English flag has a large Sheffield United badge across it, which upset a number of the Chernihiv Ultras, although alcohol probably had a bit to do with it. You can only imagine how we felt when meeting Ian and his friends a little later in the press office. I am happy to inform you though that pleasantries were exchanged on this occasion. We even learned that he travels to Ukraine each weekend during the season, arriving on Friday and going home on the Monday flight.
Tour of the Ground
Anyway, back to the club – Erika, one of the office staff, kindly offered to give us a brief tour of the complex despite it being bitterly cold outside. The men were probably planning next week’s trip to Lviv, which we will attend as well. The ground was initially constructed as a multi-sports venture during the Soviet era and later named after the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin. Apparently, he attended a game in person during the 1960s. The first established clubs did rather well during the Soviet era, beating several well-established teams despite only rising as high as the third tier during their history. Chernihiv city administration owns the complex and takes responsibility for the renovations, the last of which occurred in 2011, and the club rents it from them. The office block detached from the ground itself is somewhat unique in its existence and a first for us on our travels.
The block, which is still in a state of renovation, houses not only the administrative offices of Desna but also serves as a dormitory for the younger players. Erika explained that the players have the option to rent apartments within the city, as well. Still, the facilities provide an excellent bonding opportunity for the squad and perhaps help to identify one of the factors behind their success this year. The players have access to a restaurant, gym, and spa facilities while naturally being able to spend more time training with the squad. It was clear to see the close bond between them, as they appeared from a meeting room pre-game. Erika explained that they have plans to expand the facility so that supporters can relax more on the complex. Still, it needs more significant funding from the city government, a regular roadblock in Ukraine. The ground itself is in a liberal state, with renovation having occurred earlier this century, but the complex will not be ready for European football next year. As it stands, Desna will have to play away from Chernihiv next year (most likely destination Kyiv) if they qualify for the Europa League or more. They presently sit comfortably in the qualification places.
The stadium itself was a simple concept, with just the two stands and open areas behind both goals. The all-seater main stand runs a fair few rows back and opens for all the weather. It was rather chilly on a December afternoon, but I could imagine the warmer seasons being quite enjoyable. The seats felt bolted onto a significant slope, and we could experience the unusual sensation of rubbish sliding under our feet into the ditch at the front of the stand. The terrace was split in two by the VIP booths and media box, providing us with an additionally long trek for the halftime food queues. On the other side of the pitch were housed the home Ultra group and the visiting fans, which numbered an impressive couple of hundred. The away fans had a notably large female following, who were leading the chants during the match. Separating the two groups of supporters, apart from metal fences, were large flags of Desna, making an impressive backdrop to the game on the pitch.
Making money in football.
Despite being in the state of renovation, the club does show a lot of care and consideration to the needs of the supporters. Improvements since our trip in March show that they put fans at the front of their thoughts – it helps when the supporters are involved in the day-to-day running of administrative duties. The refreshment facilities paralleled those seen in Zhytomyr last weekend, with many needs catered for. However, I did give up on the halftime wait for coffee, as the chill was so intense that I was losing feeling in my hands. December football does pose some unique challenges. The merchandising tent was making a fair few pounds despite the cold weather and had an impressive quantity of stock available. There always seems to be fans ready to part with their cash so that they can show their support of the local team – a lesson for other clubs out there. Overall, the facilities were ample for the needs of the domestic league, but I can understand the concerns of UEFA, allowing it to host Europa League matches.
Despite the freezing conditions, the game was played at an intense pace. Both teams showed why the first half of the season should be considered successful for them, producing a good quality encounter. Sadly, for the visitors, it appeared that their European exploits may have caught up with them as they ran out of steam in the second half. I should probably mention that Oleksandriya had played a crucial Europa League game midweek while the hosts had had a full week to recover. The second half mainly was an engaging affair for the supporters, and the fans decided to test their voices, with chants not only relying on the Ultras for a change. There was a concerning moment when thick black smoke raced across the pitch from the corner, but it looked like a small fire, which was put out as quickly as it had started.
We left positive about the chances for both teams during the remainder of the season. It certainly looks competitive in the race for European football at the top of the league. Yes, Shakhtar may be light years ahead of everyone else, due to the excessive funds that run the club, but several teams are chasing the second Champions League spot. Desna and Oleksandriya certainly fall into the gap.