Time for the big city club to bounce back?

Time for the big city club to bounce back?

Welcome to Ternopil – a club with a big future.

Ternopil, located in Western Ukraine, is one of the lesser populated oblasts (regions) of Ukraine. With the famous areas of Lviv to the west, Rivne to the north and Chernivtsi to the south, drawing a higher proportion of tourists, curiosity drove our excitement to new levels for this quieter corner of Ukraine. We had passed through Ternopil City before at the start of August and remembered the smooth roads, which are a rarity in Ukraine. It was not our first trip out to Western Ukraine. We have developed some routines, and one, in particular, does need sharing for any future visitors.

Time for breakfast
About an hour and half from Kyiv on the Western motorway, there is the most fantastic greasy spoon diner that we have found across the whole country. It is tough to miss as they have banners advertising their donuts for over a kilometer beforehand. On arrival, the colossal donut on the exterior indicates what waits inside. The efficient service moves customers in and out swiftly, and the affordable prices make it extremely popular. There is always a long queue, and it was making a good trade at this early hour. We stocked up on donuts and carried on our journey westwards. Ternopil is over 250 miles from Kyiv, so we had plenty of time to sample the delights.

Majestic Western Ukraine
As we turned off the main road in southern Rivne oblast, the country opened up into pure beauty. The rolling hills were lined with sunflowers and sweetcorn, which glistened in the late summer morning. The single highway laid out smoothly in front of us, and the empty roads were a pleasure to drive. After about an hour, we had a real treat presented to us – the region of Kremenets; a secret treasure of Ukraine. Dating back over 1000 years, the city of Kremenets has had an essential role in Western Ukrainian history.

The ancient Kremenets fortress sits as a lynchpin for the town. All roads trickle down from it, and we were fortunate enough to spend some time exploring their streets. To be honest, we failed to follow the ring road and ended up in its labyrinth. The town had an almost Alpine feel, with the valleys around the city offering picturesque landscapes. The buildings were elegant in design, and this Saturday morning was busy with the coffee culture, particularly in evidence. We are planning to return in the future and learn more about the towns turbulent past, passing between the controls of various empires.

Welcome to Ternopil
With Kremenets having passed us by, it was not long before the grand city of Ternopil came into view. We had spoken to Andri Tixi earlier in the week, and he invited us to meet him at the stadium before the game. Andri is a club director, who had kindly taken time out of his pre-match preparation to meet with us. Ternopil is a large city with a population of over 200,000 and the boulevards match it in grandness. The city is awash with magical churches, understandable given we were in the heart of Ukrainian culture. However, the town’s highlight certainly does not hide away, taking over the majority of its western territory. A vast lake surrounded by tree-lined parks and beaches stretches as far as the eye can see. We were fortunate enough to enjoy it in the evening when the city lights add extra beauty to the location.

As we approached the stadium, the size of the club became apparent. It was located right in the heart of the city within a vast complex. It is very unusual to see such a stadium in the heart of a town in Ukraine, just like the UK. Andri met us on the main steps into the stadium, whisked us through the corridors and up on to the pitch. He was a young man, who spoke warmly about a club that he had been involved in for much of his life. The stadium, it turned out, belonged to the local government and had received its refurbishment in preparation for the Euro 2012 Championships. The Holland National Team had provisionally selected the stadium as a training base but changed its mind at the last minute. However, the city still kept the ground in good condition.

A beautiful stadium delight.
It is a beautiful all-seater bowl, with a significant functioning electronic scoreboard at one end. The omnipresent athletic track made its unwelcome circuit around the pitch even if it was a little smaller in size. Amusingly the seats had been removed from one goal area so that the local Ultra firm could set up base at that end. Facilities were minimal – I was happy that I did not need to find a bathroom. However, the security people did let me out at half time to go and purchase some beer and snack for the remainder of the game. At the far end of the ground, many away visitors were located. I was impressed with their turnout for a third-tier game.

Ternopil Ultras
We spoke at length about the club and the number of supporters that they attract impressed me. It reminded me of something raised earlier in this project. Ternopil is a very isolated town, with only one professional team within the region, so it has a lack of competition for the locals’ attention. Nevertheless, Andri explained about their large following, highlighting the Ultra group. They are an independent supporter group that travels in numbers around the country. All logistical costs are covered by the group on their own. However, the team does support them with buying tickets at away clubs (you may remember that several teams have free entry).

During half time, we sought out the Ultra group, and they were happy to chat. We spoke at length with one fan, who did not share his name but had found fame in the city nonetheless. Over the past six years, he had been present at every home and away game with the club – his last missed match was during the 2014 Revolution. The supporters were very passionate, making a lot of noise throughout the game, and their flags showed their pride in the team. It was interesting to find out that they can discuss club matters with the President and can control the behavior of the players away from the group. They spoke about how they stopped players from enjoying themselves in the city’s discos in the past.

Big City Crowd
As kickoff approached, a huge crowd had assembled around the stadium. We noticed that all the supporters were bringing their own supplies with them to the ground. As novices, we were hoping that we could buy things inside – failure. A quick dash to the local shop did not help, as the queue would have ensured that we missed kickoff. However, we were able to hit the souvenir store outside the ground. The fans showed their passion for the club, being decked out in a range of merchandise – we were more than happy to join them.

After the game, we had a first experience of this trip. As I mentioned earlier, there were several away fans, so we were able to mix freely with them. We met a family who had traveled from Khmelnytskyi for the game, and they were happy to go in numbers to the nearer games around Ukraine. I have seen elsewhere examples of the trouble that the Ultra groups can cause, but this matchday passed without any incident, which was pleasing. Both sets of fans had free access to each other but happily controlled themselves within the stadium complex so the regular supporters could enjoy their experience.

The Ternopil experience was the closest to an English match day atmosphere that we have experienced this year. It was great to see such a passion behind a team, and it really felt that the whole town was behind them. It has posed me a few questions about why specific teams can garner a large following despite their limited success. The teams in Western Ukraine, which have had a long history from large residential areas, can draw impressive numbers despite continuing in the lowest of the professional leagues.

Ternopil has suffered at the hands of the agricultural boom, which is lifting standards of living across the country. These large-scale companies are investing huge sums into small-town teams and providing a budget, which vast outlays others. It does make me wonder how long it will last, though, as club presidents have a reputation of getting bored quite quickly. From this perspective, we can be optimistic about Ternopil’s future, as the supporters will continue the club’s legacy. This season the ‘Druha Liga’ has already given us many great memories, and the top of the table indicates that one of the big city teams is in line for a promotion. Could it be time for a change? We will see.

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