A club with a great set-up fallen on difficult times
Twelve months ago, Vorskla Poltava was making a name for themselves across Europe as they had qualified directly to the group stage of the Europa League. Their home match against Arsenal was a particular highlight, as the game had to be relocated to Kyiv at short notice due to an increase in political troubles at the time. This period was a high point in the Vorskla story, and the club has since seen a downturn in fortune, which resulted in them missing the top six-playoff group last season. They had started this season in a similar vein and found themselves in the lower reaches of the table for the visit of Dynamo Kyiv.
Sunday opportunities in Ukraine
Premier League football in Ukraine has extensive TV rights, which ensure that games are spread out over the weekend. Our match had been pushed back to a 5pm kickoff this Sunday afternoon, allowing us time to dash over from Kharkiv where we had been the previous evening. The money earned by the teams may be lower than their European counterparts, but the extensive exposure ensures that locals are fully aware of what is happening in the league. Dynamo had played a European match the previous Thursday, so we were optimistic of a closely fought game while traveling.
Our mood had risen dramatically over the train journey from Kharkiv in the early afternoon, leaving the drear of a rainy Sunday morning behind and headed into glorious sunshine. As a side note, we had received huge Twitter-based praised from a prominent traveler in this part of Europe, who had shared my blog with their followers. Our trip was spent interacting with our new followers and sharing old stories with them. It was great fun, and I appreciated the new audience for the project. You could imagine the high that we felt arriving in the city. Poltava is a great place that we have visited in the past, so this Sunday afternoon we dived straight off to the ground as we only had a couple of hours before kickoff.
Hitting the ground
I had spoken to Andri (a media officer connected to the club) earlier in the week, and he had kindly agreed to arrange some tickets. He was a cheerful young man, who I can only assume was waylaid by the stresses of hosting Dynamo Kyiv on this Sunday. He was quite forceful on the phone this Sunday afternoon, and we felt a pressure to rush to the ground. Quickly dealt with, he dashed back into the stadium, leaving us with just one ticket instead (not overly helpful given that there were two of us). Fortune was at hand, though, as we were right by the ticket office. A quick check of availability informed us that there was a multitude still unsold. At 80pence for the best seats as well, it was not a significant drain on resources.
Being a Premier League club, there was a vast array of facilities to spend our time on. For the first time on our project, we encountered a club shop within the stadium complex. It was great to see such a selection of merchandise on offer, and we did collect a few pieces to add to this year’s collection. The club also interestingly has a museum on-site, which is a rarity – sadly closed this Sunday. I firmly believe that clubs should take pride in their past and not enough clubs build on it.
A quick tour of the neighborhood
Anyway, we decided to explore the local areas as we had a good hour to spare before the festivities would begin. The stadium is set in a park in the Western half of the city. There was an excellent array of restaurants around to enjoy. We resided in a Georgian one – it always amazes me how Georgian food has not taken off in the UK yet. However, the statue of Oleksiy Butovsky took up more of our time, and such a sporting hero needed greater appreciation. For those of you like me, who are unaware of him, I will dive a little deeper into his past. Born in Poltava during the 19th century, Butovsky was part of the committee that set up the first Olympic movement two centuries ago and raised sporting awareness throughout the former Soviet empire. It is a delight to see his legacy honored in Poltava in such a long-lasting way.
We took our seats early as I was looking forward to taking in this stadium. It was a real beauty that holds over 25,000 when full. The stadium was a large bowl. It was raised to keep the supporters away from the players as they entered the field of play. It must have been a good two, and a half meter drops to ground level and ensured that nobody risked the jump. The stand went back a right thirty plus rows, providing enough space for all spectators. It does say a lot that even one of the big two in Ukraine can only fill around 40% of the stadium’s potential capacity. The away fans were fenced in the far corner of the ground. It kept them a reasonable distance from the home Ultras for the entirety of the match. I was also curious to note the collection of TV personnel on the side of the pitch for the pre-game conversation. They would share our train home later in the day.
As we took our seats, I surveyed the crowd, and it was quite clear that most of the spectators were behind the home team, with many decked out in green. There were also several Dynamo supporters smuggled in the home end but keeping far away from the Ultras. One man dressed in a red jacket drew particular attention as he was extremely loud and egged on by an amused crowd. A few other supporters had brought their flags to wave and created quite a spectacle. The real excitement was happening on the other side of the pitch, where both groups of Ultras were housed. Before kickoff, we had been to take a closer look at the away pen behind one corner flag. I have to say that the view was terrific – a lot better than away fans experience back in the UK. The home fans had the opposite corner flag and had a decent number backing them this Sunday.
Ultra Culture in the Top League
The Vorskla Ultras looked like they had spent their entire season’s budget in preparing for this game. The home end was covered in flags, and they had a wide array of bangers and flairs exploding throughout the game. I did feel sorry, for them as supporters usually save their flares for moments of success during the match. However, there was little to celebrate in this game (the final result was 5-0 to the visitors). The away supporters, on the other hand, had plenty of opportunities to celebrate through the competition; they had actually run out of material by the end. It was certainly entertaining to watch and highlighted the potential for Ukrainian football when the good times return.
As the game died out into a one-sided affair, we began chatting to some of the supporters around us. Everyone was in a friendly mood, aided by the beer, which was being sold to supporters in their seats. It was the first time that we had seen it in Ukraine and pushed Vorskla even higher in the credibility stakes. I have to confess that I donated to their finances by enjoying this luxury. We dived into an in-depth conversation with Oleksandr, a middle-aged long-term supporter of the club. He informed us that our red-jacketed friend, who had brought so much entertainment to the crowd, was a long-standing supporter of the club. I was more interested though to hear about the large attendances that the club had had back in the early post-independence era. It appears that crowds have halved over the last twenty years as a mixture of corruption and the influence of the Premier League has led to greater disillusionment with the domestic game.
As we left, a mixture of sadness but satisfaction swept over me. It had been great to see a club with facilities geared towards the top level of football. It had been a rarity to be treated so well across Ukraine even if the whole ground had been at risk of flooding if the rain had come. Nevertheless, the attendance was miserable for the visit of Dynamo also if Vorskla had been having a poor season so far. It does appear that the home team has some troubles ahead to solve as Oleksandr had indicated. Ever since, the Europa league appearances of 2018, the club has steadily dropped down the standings. The new coach does not appear to have the trust of his players on his side. With many up and coming small teams making their way into the top division; competition is fierce. It will be interesting to watch how they progress through the remainder of the season.