After a few weeks break due to a trip back to the UK, it was time to hit the road again with a trip to the western Ukraine region of Rivne on the cards for a match between Veres Rivne and FC Minaj from the border region of Zakarpattya. Even though the lower leagues in Ukraine are regionalized to help with travelling expenses, it was still a 1,000 km round trip for the visiting team, highlighting the vastness of this great country. Veres had stood out to me for a few years since they had appeared in the Premier League, holding their own against the giants of Ukrainian football until an unfortunate story relocated them at the bottom of the professional pyramid for this season. Volodymyr Grebionkin (Vova) of the Veres fans website informed me that they are happy to be just playing this season. In order to understand the story fully, we need to go back to 2015, when the club reformed after football had been suspended for four years due to insolvency. The club was set up as a fans initiative along the lines of AFC Wimbledon and FC United in the UK, with the supporter membership scheme raising a proportion of the yearly budget. Following a swift journey through the Ukrainian pyramid, news was announced at the end of last season by the club president to take the team out of Rivne oblast and take over the license of FC Lviv, who have now jumped to the Premier League for this season.
Following the upheaval of the last season, Veres made to decision to relocate to the small town of Mlyniv, around 60km from Rivne city itself, as not only a cost-cutting measure but also an opportunity to keep the team playing within the Oblast boundaries. Vova explained that their own stadium had been shut recently due to the need for renovations however given the precarious financial situation at the club, it is questionable if this work had begun yet. The match day programme had noted the recent dispute between the team and the ownership regarding unpaid salaries and our visit for the Minaj game had been at risk until an EGM earlier in the week had guaranteed the players commitment until the end of the month. Nevertheless, it is their long term aim to return to their home city, understandable given the two hour round trip. In the meantime, the set-up in Mlyniv is not too bad, with the ground pleasingly situated on the edge of the River Ikva. The idyllic location allowed for supporters to spend time on the beach prior to the game, with this weekend’s warm weather giving ample opportunity for the beer and bbq sellers to do a roaring trade as fans travelled down from Rivne early in preparation for the evening game. It was quite clear as well from the local area that the economy in Mlyniv has certainly benefitted from this relocation.
The journey out to the stadium itself didn’t pass without event as the route took us through some unique locations. Mlyniv district is quite rural, set some distance from the main thoroughfare from Rivne to Lviv and the roads quickly threw up some interesting obstacles for this less experienced British driver to handle. The first occurrence took place at a comfortable 60 mph, with a horse and cart happily waiting at a crossroads for a gap in the traffic, but a little further up the road things got more interesting, with a herd of cows slowing down traffic (unfortunately we didn’t get any pics of these events). The highlight was certainly two geese happily sitting in the middle of the road as we passed through a small village near the stadium, causing all sorts of mayhem to passing traffic but happily minding their own business. It should be noted that no animals were injured during this even if they may have been a little stressed. It is always a highlight of travelling through Ukraine to see the smiles on people’s faces as you pass through the small towns on the side of the highways. As we moved closer to the ground though, the potholes returned and slowed us down to cruising speed as we arrived at the small ground. As usual in Ukraine, it was multi-functional with the athletics track (although small in size) ensuring that the fans remained some distance from the pitch.
As we were early entering the stadium, it was empty so we were able to find a location to set up our flag. The chilled out atmosphere ensured that the police gave me access to the pitch to take some photos, without any security concerns – it must be something about my appearance. The souvenir stall was stocked with a variety of memorabilia as well as the now pleasingly frequent appearance of the match day programme. A quick exchange of a couple of Euros got me the programme and a Veres key ring as we settled down in our seats at the back of the main stand (well, the only stand). Just before kick-off however, as the crowd started to increase, there was a small disturbance near our flag – being an English flag we naturally checked out their concerns. It turned out that we had innocently taken over the Active Fan section of the ground and we had caused some upset among the natives however some friendly banter eased their tension. A couple of the guys were well versed on Leeds United so I took great pride in celebrating the Blades promotion with them (fortunately a few others preferred the red and white colours that we had). It was at this stage, the true size of Veres became apparent as flags and banners appeared and were put up in our section, creating a red and black backdrop for the game. At this stage, one supporter with his red and black face paint showed up with his drum as well and the stage was set for one of the best noises we have seen this season on the road.
As we have seen elsewhere in this great country, the home team was set up with the sound system for announcements and musical entertainment but the noise went up a notch or ten as the players came out onto the pitch. Numbers rose considerably as kick off approached and the team was set up to attack our end in the first half. Very quickly chants began, with the drum setting a pulsating rhythm as Veres started the game in an electric manner, taking advantage of the wet conditions to skid the ball forward with an eager fervor. The supporters were clearly focused on pushing the team forward, with a few of them taking it right up and across the line of decency. One lady in particular stood out as she spent a large portion of the match, facing the crowd and shouting words of (not quite) wisdom to the rest of the crowd in a less than successful attempt to garner more support. She had clearly had a few too many drinks before the game but her goal was in good spirits – she certainly was supported by the face-painted drummer mentioned earlier. Despite the impressive first half performance, it was nonetheless a surprise for Veres to take an early lead given the standing of the visitors in the league. However, the celebrations certainly rammed home the message of the close bond between the supporters and the players as they made a direct route to them for a mass party.
This was as good as it got for the home team as Minaj stepped up their game after this, with Veres missing an abundance of chances through rushing their finishing – the lack of confidence and control at the lower level coming through there. With more of the action occurring at the other end of the pitch, our attention got pulled to a group of lads on the grass over on the other side of the ground. On first glance, there lack of colours and distance from the majority of the crowd made them appear as visiting Ultras. There were a number of chants, which differed from the group near us but their words were undistinguishable and followed this up with the traditional ‘Glory to Ukraine’ chant, that we all joined in with. However, they unfortunately took their good spirits too far when a few of their group decided to mimic and mock the assistant in their section of the pitch and were chasing him up and down the line. It was amusing to watch and we did take the time to consider if they were just helping the officials by providing extra eyes on the pitch. Nevertheless, the extra security after the break cost us any amusement. You can only imagine our surprise when Vova informed me at halftime that they were part of the home support but do not take an active part of the running of the club. Despite the game finishing up 2-1 to the visitors on their surge up the league, we left feeling positive about Veres’s future and I am certain that we will see them charging up the leagues again soon.