Even at the height of summer, no-one ever goes to Kharkiv for the scenery. Cossack outpost-cum-provincial Russian town-cum-Soviet centre of science, Ukraine’s second city – forty kilometres south of Russia but almost five hundred east of Kiev – was the inaugural capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the birthplace of the T-34 tank and the spot where the atom was split for the first time outside the USA. Its strategic industries also made it one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the Second World War: by the time the Red Army and the Wermacht had finished their extirpative to and fro in August 1943 seventy percent of the city’s buildings were nothing more than rubble.
Hardened by Stalin’s forced collectivisation and a devastating pre-war famine, the city was soon back on its feet, the millionth tractor rolling off the production lines at the famed Kharkiv Tractor Factory one year before Newcastle United made their first venture into Europe by virtue of a midtable finish and the one-city-one-club rule. While Kharkiv remained a giant of Soviet industry, its biggest football team was a resolutely middling affair. Metalist spent only four seasons in the Soviet Top League prior to 1981, and their USSR Cup win over Torpedo Moscow seven years later remains the club’s only major honour to date.
Independence brought a downturn in fortunes both on and off the pitch. “Kharkov was freezing,” the novelist Andrey Kurkov wrote in 1996. “The buildings loomed grey over the pavement. Everyone was in a hurry, as if afraid of finding their block on the verge of collapsing or shedding its balconies.” Metalist, relegated from the top-flight in 1994 and 2003, had achieved nothing of note besides an appearance in the final of the 1992 Ukrainian Cup when Oleksandr Yaroslavsky arrived in 2004. Persuaded to invest in football by Donetsk owner Rinat Akhmetov, Yaroslavsky took a Shakhtar-lite approach to building his team, pumping $500 million into the club and signing up a phalanx of Balkan and South American talent. Marko Dević, a naturalised Serbian, formed a tripartite goal threat with the Argentinean internationals Jonathan Cristaldo and Sebastian Blanco. Fininho, Jaja, Taison, Marlos, Cleiton Xavier and Wilian Gomes came from Brazil, while four more Argentines, the defenders Christian Villagra and Marco Torsiglieri, holding midfielder Chaco Torres and skipper Jose Ernesto Sosa, capped 18 times for his country and once of Napoli and Bayern Munich, Senagalese centre-back Papa Gueye and the Serbian Milan Obradović would eventually form the core of a side which has finished third behind Shakhtar and Dynamo Kiev in each of the past six seasons, and smashed Red Bull Salzburg 8-1 on aggregate en route to the quarter-final of last year’s Europa League.
Since then Kharkiv have lost Dević and Taison to Shakhtar for a combined £17 million, and Yaroslavsky to a spat with the city council over ownership of the 40,000-capacity Metalist Stadium, which was expensively redeveloped in time for Euro 2012. “I invested not only money, but also a part of my heart and soul,” Yaroslavsky said in a Christmas Eve statement which blamed the “incomprehensible grievances” of the local authorities. For his part, Mayor Hennadiy Kernes suggested a more probable cause was “money, financial gains and the unclear situation with fixed matches,” referring to a 4-0 win over Karpaty Lviv in 2007-08 which is still being investigated by the CAS in Lausanne. The new owner, Gas Ukraine executive Serhiy Kurchenko, has promised “the title within three years and a European trophy within five” and is already negotiating to buy out the city’s stake in the stadium. New supporter initiatives include paying for 500 fans to attend the first-leg at St James’ Park, while Ukraine internationals Oleg Krasnoperov (ineligible for the EL), a midfielder formerly with Vorskla Poltava, and Bogdan Shust, back-up goalkeeper as Shakhtar won three titles and the UEFA Cup between 2005 and 2009, have been added to a squad which is currently fourth in the domestic league, just two points behind second-placed Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Although Taison was arguably the pick of Metalist’s South American contingent, his replacement, Jaja, scored thirty goals in sixty-one appearances in his previous stint at the club, including this strike (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxR3NyI3NgY) against Besiktas in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup. Coach since 2005, Myron Markevich briefly took the helm of the national side in 2010 and favours a fluid, attacking style of football which has seen his side average almost two goals a game in their eighteen league matches this season. In Kharkiv, Markevich’s preferred shape is likely to be 4-3-3 with any two of Marlos, Willian Gomes and Jaja regularly interchanging positions with Cristaldo, top-scorer this season with 12 goals, Cleiton Xavier playing the Cabaye role, Sosa the pivot in midfield and Edmar, Brazilian born but naturalised Ukrainian, moving somewhere between the two. 37-year-old Oleksandr Goryainov will almost certainly start in goal, behind a back four which has latterly consisted of Gueye alongside either Torsiglieri or Andriy Berezovchuk, with Villagra at right back and Fininho or Sergiy Pshenychnykh on the left. Essentially, it’s a Latin American team in eastern Ukraine playing a Gallic one from north-east England. For the first leg, Oleg Shelayev might be drafted in to combat Tiote and/or Sissoko, though Markevich does have form for dispensing with a midfield anchor altogether.
Before their spate of January signings, Newcastle would have most likely been picked apart in midfield and out-manoeuvred in defence. Now, with Metalist hampered by the long winter break – they won’t have played competitively since losing 1-0 to Rapid Vienna on December 6th and have recently been on winter training camps in Dubai and Valencia – I make us favourites to go through – narrowly.
If you’re travelling to Kharkiv, the Metalist Stadium is two stops from the city centre or four from the railway station, beside Metrobudivnykiv and Sportyvna stations (tokens cost 2UAH (about 15p) from machines at station entrances). Sumskaya is the city’s elongated answer to Northumberland Street, bending north from the museums and cathedrals at Konstytutsiyi Square (Instorychny Muzei Metro) and continuing past Ploshcha Svobody (Freedom Square; Universytet or Derzhprom Metro), which has the USSR’s first high-rise building, thousands of square metres of concrete and monumental statues to Lenin and Shevchenko (Taras, Ukraine’s national poet, and not Andrei, Chelsea’s biggest flop pre-Fernando Torres). With 100,000 students at the city’s universities, Kharkiv isn’t short on pubs. Shato, on Ploshcha Svobody, and Starogrod (Pushkinskaya Metro) both brew their own beer. Churchill’s Music Pub, near Arkhitektora Beketova Metro on Darvina Street, is a cellar bar with live music, and there is, of course, more than one faux-Irish pub to choose from. Go Kharkov (http://www.go-kharkov.com/best-places-in-kharkov/#comment-228) has the best, and most up-to-date, listings. На здоровье and Howay the lads!
Author: Michael Hudson
Website: The Accidental Groundhopper
Bio: The day I finally accepted I was never going to be even half as talented on the football pitch as Archie Gourlay I decided to do the next best thing and follow Newcastle United wherever they played. After moving abroad, I’ve since followed wildly unsuccessful football teams around South Korea, Japan, Italy, Latvia, Czech Republic and Ukraine. Still to see any of them win a trophy. Beginning to think it might be me.
You can also find Michael and his vast knowledge of football on twitter: @DolphinHotel
January the 19th – Newcastle United 1 Reading 2. The 12th league defeat of the season – 21 points tallied in 23 games – the Magpies spiralling uncontrollably towards relegation.
On the back of such a valiant but fruitless Christmas period, the importance of the fixtures in January grew exponentially. Point(s) against Everton was squandered in a game where little was expected – a dour draw against Norwich provided only small relief in points and morale.
Defeat to Reading was suicidal by Newcastle; a mixture of woeful performances on the field and management on the touch line conspiring to gift a first away win of the season to a side as poor as any to visit St James’ in recent years. The weaknesses were painfully visible: ‘the asset’ is looking in serious danger.
Bluntly, relegation this season would be a catastrophe for NUFC – the inevitable stripping of the far more tangible assets that were on offer in 2009 promising to be as brutal as that which occurred to Leeds during their demise. But this season also holds the addition peril of being the last in which the current PL TV deal stands – a huge increase in revenue set to begin in the 2013/14 season only serving to increase the gap between 1st and 2nd tier football.
The gamble wagered in pre-season has failed alarmingly, and the potential danger was clear. The speed of Newcastle’s quadruple acquisition in the week previous has undoubtedly taken everyone by surprise – but when considering the logic of spending in the region of £15m on badly needed players, or face a very real threat of ‘the asset’ (viewed from strictly business eyes) being devalued to an extent from which it would be almost unrecoverable, Ashley’s dusting off of the cheque book becomes very understandable. Solace can be taken in there being a reaction from the board, but this is bluntly their last opportunity to right the wrongs of their own policy this summer (apportioning much, but not the entire blame for our current plight). The losses of the original gamble have left us facing elimination – and as such we are now ‘all in’.
Alan Pardew, having regularly bemoaned the quality at his disposal, reputedly now has a squad far more appropriate for the demands of the Premier League, save for his trump card of Demba Ba. Naturally, Pardew’s job will be to integrate these signings into usable and useful players in a very short time – but more over there is no time like the present to take a frank look at his own tactical and team selection decisions. Jeers of ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ may have been met with gestured retaliation from Pardew – delivering his own swipe at the ‘negativity’ in the post-apocalyptic landscape of the Reading defeat, but he can no longer deliver such tenuous excuses and ‘admit’ to mistakes he frankly shouldn’t be making in the first place. Faith in him may have been battered en-masse, but he remains Newcastle manager and it is now up to him to restore both competence and confidence in the playing aspect of the club.
Tomorrow Newcastle travel to Aston Villa – a club rock bottom on confidence and a point and a place below them in the league. The artificial boost of confidence to NUFC provided by the new signings has swept through the rank and file of supporters, and win could spark in motion a long overdue recovery. But equally, things could soon come crashing down if we were to face defeat in that very same fixture.
The chips have been moved across the table, and now we await the turn of the cards…
Fabricio Coloccini’s continued presence at Newcastle United, in doubt for the last week, has finally been confirmed at least in the short term. Coloccini had informed the club that he wished for personal reasons to leave immediately and return to Argentina, but after a week of negotiations Alan Pardew announced that he would be staying at least until the summer. The question now appears to be whether this is merely a stay of execution for the club until the summer or the end of the matter entirely.
Coloccini had signed during the sole summer of Kevin Keegan’s second stint as manager and had a difficult first season as the club power-dived to relegation. He stayed when others would not and was able to regain form in the Championship, though whether he received any offers to leave which matched his wages at Newcastle after the season he’d just had would be interesting to know. Following promotion he maintained his newly-regained form and was one of the best centre-backs in the top division for the two years following. He was rewarded with an extended four-year contract last year in recognition of his importance to the side. This season has seen a dip in form from the high standards of the previous three years, though he’d still be classed as the top defensive performer in the squad.
The news that he wished to leave was therefore an unwelcome shock for the club. The personal reasons hinted at have as yet not been made public, and we don’t really need to know what they are, though they have been the subject of fevered speculation as all kinds of rumours spread. Suffice to say though, that he was most definitely not threatening to quit football altogether. San Lorenzo, the Argentinian club currently employing his father, were very keen to take Coloccini off Newcastle’s hands and made the fact known in the media. It seems they were Coloccini’s preferred destination should the 31-year-old return to his homeland. However they were apparently not involved in the negotiations as Coloccini attempted to secure his release from Newcastle and offered precisely nothing in terms of a fee. Perhaps they are going to go for Messi on the off chance next week. Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that.
The negotiations therefore seem to have been between lawyers for the two parties and reportedly Newcastle’s insisted they would sue Coloccini for £7m, his supposed market value, should he walk out. This was enough to persuade Coloccini to stay, as we were told, until the end of the season at least.
It isn’t obvious what will be different then to now, however. If San Lorenzo had enough money to buy him and were willing to do so then they would have done it in the last week. They are obviously hoping that agitation to leave from the player will be enough to see him released from his contract. Coloccini himself must be aware that moving will result in a substantial wage cut so that cannot be a block to the deal, only the Argentine club’s inability to produce a fee acceptable to Newcastle. Perhaps they are hoping to negotiate a fee somewhere between £0 and £7m which they can afford in the summer, but they are not a club with cash to spare due to their efforts to buy back their ground, bought by the military government of the time in the 70s for a token fee
Likewise, Coloccini seems unlikely to act differently in the summer. He is evidently unwilling to buy out his own contract right now, and must have been advised that were he to be sued by Newcastle for breach of contract if he walked out, he would most probably lose. If he is unwilling to follow either course now then he won’t be in the summer either.
Finally, will Newcastle’s stance alter in a few short months? There’s been a suggestion that in return for not walking out now and helping the club climb away from yet another relegation battle, Newcastle will look more favourably on Coloccini’s desire to leave in the summer. The idea of the club brokering such a deal would seem feasible but for one thing, Mike Ashley’s focus on the balance sheet. We’ve all become aware that second guessing what he’ll do in any given situation is a fruitless task but if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that he doesn’t volunteer to give money away that he doesn’t have to. If Newcastle didn’t have legal right on their side we’re led to believe Coloccini would already be gone forever. That legal right will still be Newcastle’s once the season is over and relegation has hopefully been avoided. That suggests Newcastle will still demand a sizeable fee then, which we have already seen neither Coloccini nor San Lorenzo are willing to meet.
Of course hanging onto a player against his will is never a good idea. But perhaps Coloccini’s need to leave will have altered by the end of the season. Perhaps the change in recruitment policy that’s resulted in a stream of new signings in the last week and the hopefully resultant upturn in results will help persuade him to stay. Whatever happens, should he end up leaving after all it would seem most likely to be to a club yet to be mentioned in this incipient saga.
Author: Mark Brophy
Website: http://markbrophy.wordpress.com/ for a back catalogue of Mark’s writing.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mark_brophy
What was your first match? If you have been going since you were in nappies what was your first match memory? Why have you kept going back?
The reason I pose those questions is I have been pretty disillusioned with going since walking out of the Spurs match in August, a fairly late winner against a team I don’t like (that’s all of them by the way) a lovely day and a few drinks with close friends and casual acquaintances alike, what’s not to like?
This is the crux of it, I don’t really enjoy going at the moment and I don’t think the team’s lack of form can be solely attributed to this, seeing as that day against Spurs I think we played quite well. Go back to my original questions; for me it was a sense of belonging to something bigger than just me, aspiring to be like the older lads around me (who let’s face it were probably a bit younger than I am now) singing different songs every game, belting out old standards and forgetting about whatever problems they might have outside of the ground. I don’t think that exists anymore for me.
If I bring myself back to the present day I look around what is one of the best grounds in the country and wonder what would make me want to go back on a regular basis if I was a young lad taken for the first time. Starting with the players on the pitch I don’t think it can be argued that the current crop of players are streets ahead of some of our previous sides in terms of attitude and application, but I think it is a sorry state of affairs when not being a pack of irredeemable parasites is seen as a positive – for me it should be a given. In terms of ability some of them are very good at what they do, see Ben Arfa, Ba, Coloccini and some not so much – sorry but Williamson, Perch, Ameobi, this means you lads – not to say they don’t try with the limited ability they have, but talents to get your heart racing they are not. As has always been the case Newcastle United has bags of potential to be a successful club in this country, however due to a succession of circumstances I won’t go into here, as you all know what they are, this will never be the case, so please don’t think this is a lament that we’ll never win anything, I accepted that a long time ago.I’m not trying to discourage the people reading this from going to matches if that is what they want to do and I’m not saying that I won’t continue to go, but I am seriously questioning what it is that will motivate me to do that.
I’d be genuinely interested to hear people’s answers to the below questions. I often look around at the people near me and wonder what answer they would give if they were to answer honestly as some of them seem to actively dislike it from the moment they set foot in the ground to when they leave. These are purely speculative suggestions, but could imagine some, or a combination of these would fit the bill;
• It is an escape from the ups and downs of my day to day life.
• It is somewhere I can express myself, which isn’t always easy.
• I’ve got nothing else to do with my free time so why not this?
• I started coming when it was the fashionable thing to do and don’t want to stop now as that will be an admittance that I was a bandwagon jumper.
• I love the football team and what it represents (if anyone picks that it opens a whole other question of what exactly it represents? Tradition, a link to family who came here before me, I feel I belong here……..)
• This is how I am defined by myself and others, I am happy with that and don’t want to change.
• I’m not as fussed about what happens on the pitch as I used to be but all my mates go and as we’ve grown up this is a rare opportunity to see them socially.
It might not be an easy thing to answer, as we may give a different answer depending on what is going on in our lives at any given time, but I think it is worth asking yourself rather than just continuing to do something, just because it is what you have always done.
I know from my own experience probably the most I’ve looked forward to going to the match in recent years was when I had a perch (not you James) in Level 7 during the Championship and first season back in the Premier League, across those 2 seasons we went from winning most games to being completely unpredictable, dishing out some hidings and taking a few beatings along the way. The contrasting emotions of what went on on the pitch across those seasons again suggests to me that what happens on the pitch isn’t the be all and end of all of why I enjoy going. So what was different then? Firstly the view of the game wasn’t great, but we were close enough to the away fans to see the whites of their eyes, bounce our songs off theirs and everyone who was there wanted to be part of making a bit of a racket. This isn’t supposed to be a teary eyed lament for the days of Level 7 or a call for a return for the days when fighting with other supporters was the norm rather than the exception, but a bit of needle with like-minded souls from another part of the world to you was always welcome and sometimes a nice distraction from the match itself.
During last season when it became clear that en masse move to The Corner from Level 7 wasn’t going to be quite the same one of my friends sent me a video of Dortmund fans creating a huge flag display before a home game, very impressive it was and as we thought “we’ll have a little bit of that”. So we got ourselves a couple of flags that now sit at the front of our little section, now when I see them they make me feel that we shouldn’t have to have these embellishments to make the match enjoyable, basically we’re trying too hard, trying to find something that isn’t there and deep down I’m a bit embarrassed by them (sorry lads).
I find the idea of going to support another team a foreign concept, it’s either Newcastle United or nobody for me, but I do look on with some interest at the exploits of those who follow FC United of Manchester. You could say it would be easy to walk away from a team who have lifted every major prize in your lifetime and do something else as it won’t ever get better, compared with clinging on to the hope that we’ll ever win anything, but I still imagine it would have taken some soul searching. I follow some of these lads on twitter and while how we portray ourselves on there is often a caricature of our real selves, I get the sense that they enjoy it for the reasons I got hooked in the first place.
So, what else am I supposed to do and what is the answer to the question of why do I keep going back? For me at present going to the match is purely an opportunity to see my friends and stopping this (with a baby on the way in the New Year) has the potential to very quickly turn me into a social leper. That might happen, it might not, but I’m prepared to see how I feel about it so have passed on my ticket for a recent league game and I won’t be hanging around the pub watching on telly when everyone heads off to the ground. This might seem a step too far for some of you reading this, but it is common sense that if you continue to do the things you’ve always done things will never change. The outcome may be that I get feel I’ve missed out and can easily rekindle my enjoyment for the match by giving some games the swerve in an absence makes the heart grow fonder style, or realise that not going regularly anymore isn’t that big a deal for me and pick and choose what games I’m going to.
I don’t expect The Corner to turn into Dortmund’s Yellow Wall ever, so have to be realistic in my expectations and the recapturing of the simple pleasures that seem to go along with following FCUM has to be my aim, deep down I hope I can do that.
Author: Adam Forster
Follow Adam on Twitter @adamf2384
Stoke 2 – 1 Newcastle. The fourth league defeat in a row for the Magpies. Seven goals conceded – two goals scored – zero points; from a run of fixtures which was expected to be Newcastle’s relief to a tricky first season quarter. None of this is a secret…
Setting aside the safety second transfer policy adopted by the board in the preceding summer, the distinct 442 formation insisted upon by Alan Pardew has bore the brunt of many critics, even ourselves at an earlier stage in the season, here. Whilst many of the views contained within that piece written in early September remain, there is an overriding thought that the current layout is still underachieving for the resource that has been available.
A 442 lives or dies by its strength on the flanks – the ability for one, or preferably both wings to stretch the opposition’s midfield and get behind their defence to deliver to the forward line. Without width or an outlet on the flanks the ball is forced through the congested centre, or straight over the top to serve the front two – sound familiar? The typical left side combination of Santon and Gutierrez fails in an attacking sense primarily through the pair being heavily reliant upon their right foot and unable to cross or cut inside without cutting back or leaving the ball exposed. There is no quick knock and in-swinging cross available to them – no cut across the defender with the ball on the safer goal side.
The right side fairs no better. The heavily enigmatic Hatem Ben Arfa has the potential to destroy a team on his own, but stationed at right wing has a very predictable tendency to cut inside onto his stronger foot. Although his sheer brilliance has seen this performed to some effectiveness, teams have understandably looked to block off this avenue through a covering man – limiting Hatem’s ability to deliver from wide (again, forced onto his weaker foot) and in turn tightening / condensing the midfield / attack space by his movement inside. To compound problems, Ben Arfa has a compulsive preference to roam the field to find space and or generally follow the ball, occasionally leaving the right flank exposed to a nervy Danny Simpson and, again, the field narrowed.
With these basics in mind, it’s no surprise the strikers are squeezed and feeding off the very scraps of service. The first step should be to balance to flanks and give it a fighting chance to deliver to the forward line, along with the ability to defend it already has. At present, I believe NUFC wouldn’t go far wrong with a left side combination of Ferguson and Marveaux, and a right side of Santon and Ben Arfa / Jonas / Obertan – the latter depending upon Ben Arfa’s potential use as a free-role player to provide an alternative link between midfield and striker. We only need look back to the devilishly simple but effective combination of Gillespie and Ginola (the former particularly simple) providing crosses for the powerhouse that was Les Ferdinand and the success it brought: you can argue the players available may have been slightly better suited, but was the system any more complicated than it needed to be? Let’s take a few minutes to remind ourselves:
Resources may be finite, youngsters still learning, players still coming to terms with the English game but there is certainly enough ability there to increase our potency going forward and in turn our effectiveness as a team in the short term.
It can’t, and won’t be ignored, that this is only one part of a ball of problems contributing to our current plight – but NUFC cannot continue in their current stride as the football produced is undeniably ineffective against the most routine of opponents, the current dismal run only highlighting problems which have been visible for some time but left disappointingly unchecked.
NUFC can and will play better, more successful football again. But first they need to go back to basics.
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