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Diego Imposta

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7 "What we've got here is a failure to communicate"


About Diego Imposta

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    Maradona was like an absent father to me

About Me

  • About Me
    The people who make art their business are mostly imposters


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    Catalan football

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    Dynamo Kyiv

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  • Currently Managing
    PFC Sumy

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  1. 11 August 2018 Kobra Kharkiv had done well to draw 0-0 away and were still only two points behind us. Gaps in league was starting to open, and six teams were into double figures with a three-point gap to the rest. We still had five more games to pick up as many points as possible before slowing down into a weekly league. We had played three from the top and three from the bottom so far; we were holding our own. Obolon’s manager was the most experienced I have faced so far – a career in the Premyer-liha starting with Dynamo Kyiv, 10 caps for Ukraine, and fifteen years as a manager. He inherited a tight core who had played together for years and this would be our watershed moment in the league. I wanted to go there to defend our goal and come away with a goalless draw. Zolotnitskyi agreed, setting defensive drills for the next week to coincide with the home game in the cup against Girnyk-Sport. They would undoubtedly watch this game and we had to make sure we could pull this off. There was no element of surprise for the knock-out game, so we had to be at our best. I listened to Rotenbergen’s advice about trying to be positive in Kyiv, but I would keep our powder dry and save it for later in the game, should we have the fitness to do so. Vechurko was a big loss today but a fit and fresh Temerevskyi would come into the middle. Bovtruk wanted to reprise his diagonal role from the middle and Murashov had recovered well just in time to keep his place up front but I had other ideas. Pereverza was our natural finisher so he’d pick up where the others left off in the last game, looking to break the lines of the home defence rather than feeding it back to the wide men. He was our top scorer with three goals and I still felt that once he had gotten used to it, he could be a lethal presence up front. Bovtruk would come over to left central midfield again, and I wanted to give Taranukha and Lugovyi another chance on the wings. Staruschenko would play while the back four remain unchanged. If he is on the take and caused calamity in the capital, everyone would know about it. He had this game and Dnipro-1 away to salvage his season with me. It kept the squad fresh for the cup game and our chance at a money-spinning tie against a Premyer-liha side. The suspension of Vechurko left us too light in terms of numbers and Zolotnitskyi recommended that we bring along three young midfielders from the local area – a trip to Kyiv would be exciting for them. Timofey, Artem, and Grygoriy were called to join in on the morning session. We had to give them squad numbers and, as a result, contracts until the end of the season. It was a no-brainer; I would trust the man who knew the area well to bring through some local talent. It was about time. From the get-go, the Obolon anchor man was cutting off the main supply line into Pereverza. The home side were able to control passages of play through the middle and work the ball wide. A loose cross was headed against the far post and out before we returned fire through the makeshift striker’s free kick hitting the near post. The game was neatly poised. We were allowing them to tire themselves out in front of us while my management team tried to figure out their weaknesses. An uptick in movement for the last ten minutes of the half saw us at least attempt to ask questions of the home side and drop a hint about what was to come in the second period. A ratty injury time showed nerves and excitement in equal measure as vice-captain Lykhovydko and young Temerevkskyi were both booked for niggling fouls. In the second half we went through the gears and were now asking tough questions of their right flank, Pereverza shimmying away with the ball at every opportunity. If we could hold our nerve and be more positive later in the game, we might nick this! Taranukha was enjoying being asked to foray into the box to look to get on the end of the striker’s crosses and we were now in the ascendancy. All possession across the back four and holding midfielder was being harassed – Obolon did not want to clear it long. The longer the game went on the longer it looked like three points dropped rather than a point gained. I simply could not throw this away now and decided to bring on the big guns in Yavorksyi and Murashov, Pereverza dropping into left midfield and the young wingers making way. We would pump the ball into the new centre forward and play the percentages. Lugovyi had missed two chances after finally coming good in the game, volleying wide and heading over. He would be allowed just five more minutes to impress as he was getting into those positions. With positive words in their ears, the substitutes were desperate to make an impact but Obolon had fallen back and vowed to defend their clean sheet at all costs. It seemed we were fitter than some very good teams, perhaps an indication of the work teams at the bottom of the table have to put in. The last five minutes saw us rain down on their penalty area, but nothing would stick. We were so unlucky. Today was not a day to breach such a willing defence. If I had gone for the jugular earlier, we may have come away with nothing. I was pragmatic in the dressing room. Another game without defeat, another clean sheet. This was a good team who managed us very well in the first half and we remain top of the league tonight! The fans would surely be brought back down to earth with three draws in a row but inside the club we would celebrate, despite again not stopping in Kyiv for the night. There was another game in three days, an important game. Girnyk-Sport in the Kubok Ukraini. My huge personal bonus notwithstanding, this was a game we had to win. We came back from 2-1 down to win in the league just two and a half weeks ago but a lot had changed since then. The Persha Liha knew who we were now for a start. On the return to Sumy, the weekend tapes were analysed again. Dnipro-1 against Volyn gave us a good idea of what to expect from the former. These were the two sides predicted to duke it out for the automatic promotion spot. They were appalling at marking in a 0-2 defeat and offered little threat going forward – surely ripe for the picking. Meanwhile, Kolos Kovalivka, the other team expected to challenge for promotion, gathered pace near the top of the table with a brilliant display against Agrobusiness Volochysk. They cruised to a 3-0 win and looked every bit the form team. Kobra held Girnyk-Sport to a tough-tackling 0-0 to keep them both in the hunt. Our regional rivals had only conceded twice all season so far – they may yet be building an unstoppable machine. As it stood after eight games, only us and them had not lost. Andriy Skarlosh was becoming peerless in the league for Girnyk-Sport, creating more than double the chances of anyone else. He was the name on everyone’s lips, and I wondered if we had the ability to stifle him where others had failed. It was strange to see a direct 4-4-2 side also have the option of creativity in the middle of the park. There was no one way to stop them playing to their strengths. What we did have as an advantage over them was generally a more heavy-set type of athleticism. So often the small and busy attacking players in Southern Europe found it difficult when up against strong-armed defenders from the rest of the continent. The idea of being the underdog again suited us, but would we be happy with grinding out a result? I would rather use the opportunity for a spectacle but, with Kobra at home three days later, balance was key. There were just four league games to go before the welcome weekly schedule. Dnipro-1, Ingulets Petrova, and Prykarpattya. All currently mid-table and the first two not quite where they should be at this stage of the season. A defeat in the cup must not turn into a defeat to our regional rivals. The season could quickly unravel and all the fortune we had earned could knock the morale out of us. Defensive drills were back on the menu at training and ultimately Zolotnitskyi knew what he was doing, even if he couldn’t quite get on board with the need to change things up every once in a while.
  2. 08 August 2018 The obscenely long travel back through Kyiv saw us skip an overnight stay. There was no party to be had; these players were too tired. We did stop for a break and the quiet of the coach helped me to assess the situation. Staruschenko was a real concern, an outlier in terms of social cohesion. In the same time the two physically strongest members of our squad, Lykhovydko and Rafalskyi, had earned the respect of their teammates and I thought this was a good time to address the squad. We had started excellently – there was no way we would be relegated if we keep this up. But we are beginning to recognise our lack of depth in midfield. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about that until winter. But I want us to return to the stifling tactics of pre-season in order to slow down exhaustion. There was some quiet relief in their faces. They had just set the record for games unbeaten at Sumy and I was happy to leave it there. We could run ourselves into the ground trying to keep pace at the top of the league. It was important that while we were happy that we continue to not lose games – that was the priority. A run of defeats could drag morale down and it’s a difficult spiral to get out of. The fans were obviously disappointed to concede late equalisers in back-to-back away games but chairman Tkachenko couldn’t be happier. When I returned to Yuvileynyi, he even put an arm round me as we talked. I was big business for him now so, of course, I played along and said I told you I wanted to win and win now. He was starting to believe that this was going to be the norm. If he was going to gamble further than he had already planned, he was in big trouble. I thought to myself how there was no way we could keep this up. We have better teams to face with more bodies than we could muster. The next month was going to be a brutal test for my players. Murashov had been caught offside more than anyone in the league and, although we were creating chances for him, he would continue in the target man role on his own. Yavorskyi would return wide right, coming inside and allowing Pinchuk to soak up out-balls diagonally behind him. On the other flank, with Nadiradze more defender than attacker, Pereverza was difficult to get involved higher up the pitch. If Bovtruk was fit, we would ask him to be the specialist in the team. I wanted some form of symmetry so he would come forward and wide, allowing two diagonal options for Murashov to feed. It was a risk to leave the midfield exposed like that but 4-5-1 put us up against it right away. Next opponents Kolos Kovalivha had come through the divisions rapidly with the same system so I had to be wary of their comfort in attacking teams. We would build on the positives of the last game and keep them out of our defensive zones. Zolotnitskyi had already warned me of this, setting up key defensive drills for the midweek sessions. I finally found time to watch the highlights of the last couple of game weeks and saw teams that again looked better than us. I desperately wanted Galina to come back to me with details of who had applied for the role of my assistant as the workload was getting too much. Once they were in place, I could then test the water again with Tkachenko’s wallet and look for a scout to get traveling around Brazil in time for the opening of the winter transfer window. Sure enough, on Monday my wish was her command. The outstanding candidate was Shakhtar Football Academy’s assistant manager Olexandr Funderat. For 13 years he was manager of the third side before moving into a youth development role with the Premyer-liha side for three years. Two years ago, he was given the task of helping with the newly created academy. Unfortunately, the compensation required would nearly top a million roubles. Still, I contacted the club as who knows how much money Tkachenko had lined up now that we were sitting top of the league after a month. Kolos Kovalivka hadn’t lost since the opening day of the season but also hadn’t won away. This was our chance to stop the promotion hopefuls in their tracks and increase the two-point distance from Kobra Kharkhiv, who were away at Volyn. A day later and Galina gave me the bad news about Funderat – Tkachenko quietly had put the brakes on. I would have my eye on him for the rest of the season, but I went in for my second choice, figuring that an assistant was more important than a scout at this stage. Even that was not without risk. I was now after the current assistant of former Europa League finalists Dnipro, twice relegated for breaching financial fair play rules. Most of the players worth having had already moved on. Those that remained were winding down their low-wage careers or unwilling to move from the area. Kovos Kovalivka arrived with an air of authority. Their all black kit and slick mastery of the ball, playing out from the back, rattled us. We hadn’t faced a team like this before. Twice inside the first two minutes they got in behind with clipped diagonals and even baited Vechurko to pick up a booking. We had to fall back in terms of engagement – they were getting everywhere. A rare forward run led to a wide Yavorskyi free kick on the right. His delivery was perfect, finding Kokhia at the back post who made no mistake, in off the goalkeeper’s gloves! My drilled set pieces were coming to fruition. This only angered the away side, stinging Shtan’ko’s fingertips with a rifled shot from distance. He claimed the corner and showed me why he should be number one but they were not letting up. A speculative shot from 30 metres curled past our goalkeeper and suddenly they were level. This was the first team that were better than us; we couldn’t get out of our own third. I instructed the back line to fall back and protect Shtan’ko. We’ve let them in far too many times already. They took it on board, got a grip of the game and went up the other end and scored. Yavorskyi had done brilliantly to clip a ball into Murashov but got caught up in a match of strength with their defender. Both men took their eye off the ball and Pereverza lashed in on the half-volley behind them. We rode the next wave, but it lasted for much longer. I bellowed to Bovtruk to get counter attacks going. His first opportunity yielded a brilliant ball for Murashov but the misfiring striker somehow hit the underside of the bar from just inside the box. He had panicked. This kid is just not a goal scorer. Deep into the end of the half he was at it again, making the goalkeeper look good. He needed help. We looked fitter than our opposition the more the game went on and I got the message across that they would not expect us to come out and attack them. We moved to 4-4-2 and as Yavorskyi was finding a lot of freedom on the right, Bovtruk would partner the young striker. For five minutes Kovos Kovalivka didn’t know what had hit them. They were chasing shadows. When they did recover, a few of their players caught my eye for coping under the pressure. A dreadful mistake from their goalkeeper saw him spill a tame free kick into Pereverza’s boots and the game was done. But it was offside! Murashov was soon limping, clutching his thigh. Taking no chances, Taranukha was on with Bovtruk asked to drop a little deeper and use the youngster’s legs. Initially his touch was poor, and his movement got in the way of his strike partner but then came a miss from point blank range – hitting the prone goalkeeper. As I watched him like a hawk the away side curled in a free kick to make 2-2. This game wasn’t over. Kovos Kovalivka don’t quit! For the final ten I pushed Bovtruk up front, looking to hit them on the break with long balls over the top to either of these quick makeshift strikers. Vechurko’s race was run but I couldn’t haul the captain off now that he would be suspended for the next game anyway. With both teams looking for a win right up until the final whistle, it was a brilliant spectacle. We were the underdogs, there was no doubt about it. Our six-game unbeaten run counted for nothing. We couldn’t think about anything other than surviving each game. They were better than us, but we had the better chances. Let’s take them.
  3. 01 August 2018 Nadiradze was young and needed a break from the firing line, his performances diminishing as the season went on. Lugovyi had performed excellently against Rukh Vynnyky and he also got an assist at Salyut at the end of pre-season when played further forward so it was an easy decision to reinstate him. As he was that little bit older, he may yet cement that role as his own. It would be cruel on the young Georgian to lose out permanently. I would have to find a place for both. Shtan’ko would remain as the home goalkeeper for the foreseeable future. Both he and Staruschenko would use the rest of August to audition for the role of number one. Murashov would be summarily dropped for just not being as effervescent as Taranukha’s cameo appearance. It also gave him a break and me a chance to see how long I could play the poacher next to Yavorksyi. The teenager Temerevski had fully earned his second year’s contract with a manful display in injury time last time out and I would start him ahead of Rafalski who was beginning to look overworked. The one man I couldn’t give game-time to was third-choice goalkeeper Bubentsov. I decided to place him on the loan list for the month to see if anyone would make contact. There was the cup game in a couple of weeks, but he needed to play and would be allowed to leave if an offer came in before then. It was too late to risk him in the league now; we were on an upward curve. With the squad already happier with training by midweek, the coaching staff all sat down together to try and work out who would be our customary three men we needed to keep quiet in the next game. This was always added to at half time and was a great exercise. Metalist 1925 were surely seething that their cross-town rivals Kobra were with us at the top of the league. They had a striker that managed 23 goals last season to get them promoted but the men at the back had to take care. They were vulnerable to pace, which reinforced my decision to go without a target man, and the usual full-back behind their tricky right winger was out with a hernia problem. This may be the game for Pereverza to finally look like the real deal. Perhaps he was waiting for a chance as striker like Yavorskyi. With our fans preferring to congregate in the upper tier behind me due to the wet day ahead of this evening kick-off, Yuvileyni felt abandoned. Still Shtan’ko wore short sleeves – he was unflappable – but the away side bossed us around with their system. We could not get the ball off them and had to be patient and wait to counter. By adjusting our width and pushing higher up we managed to counter their every possession loss, albeit while ceding even more of the ball to them. It worked. Vechurko struck the ball high into the near side of the goal following a cut-back from Yavorskyi to put us in the lead after half an hour. We had them figured out. What was their plan B? They soon pulled back and managed to ward off the threat of the ball over the top but once we abandoned that plan their heads went. A mindless push inside the box from our throw-in led to a penalty – our first of the season. Vechurko stepped up for his brace and… slotted bottom left. 2-0 to Sumy and we are cruising this league! With a keen intent to keep up the pressure I sent them out to the second half early. Unlikely sharpshooters were popping up like Kokhia and Temerevksyi who sumptuously found the far bottom corner from outside the box. Game over. I was delighted for the kid and delighted for myself, too. I had nurtured his ability and knew he was anything but a winger. I have my first homegrown hero! I looked to the bench and immediately thought to experiment. Pereverza was moved up front into a deeper role than Taranukha, Bovtruk went wide left and Yavorskyi, largely uninvolved at this stage, went back to right wing where he started for me early on in pre-season. No sooner had we switched than Bovtruk fell to the ground with a shoulder injury. On came Nadiradze at left back and Lugovyi went ahead of him. It was a shame the kid got no rest tonight. We saw out the game in solid if unspectacular fashion, comfortably dealing with Metalist 1925’s move to 4-3-3. As news reached us in the dressing room that Kobra had drawn their away game the players went crazy! We were two points clear at the top of the league! I was earning every rouble of my salary, here! Head physio Karpenko was keen to see me immediately to let me know that at worst Bovtruk would miss the next game, but he should be ok for a role from the bench. Kokhia had played every minute of pre-season and five league games, too, so I felt like it was time to give him a rest as well. More senior players such as his central defensive partner and vice-captain Lykhovydko, right-back without backup Pinchuk, and captain Vechurko had also maintained these minutes but I needed them to continue for now. If I tore away too much of the side too quickly our form would fall apart. Rafalskyi would return to the starting line-up but this time in in central defence, as Temerevskyi was impossible to drop after that match-winning finish. Pereverza came out thanks to diminishing returns so Nadiradze would serve as an example of how quickly dropped players will return to the side. Lugovyi would also remain but move to left midfield while Taranukha would fall back to right midfield, allowing Murashov to come back into the fold. For the away trip to Agrobusiness Volochysk, we had another twelve-hour bus journey through Kyiv on the way to Lviv. Rotenbergen wanted us to change our approach slightly and allow Murashov to push the back line further back creating space for the advancing midfielders behind him. He was a sacrificial lamb as scoring goals was a problem for him already. A full half an hour of sustained, unreturned pressure on the home side’s goal bore little fruit until Murashov had a goal disallowed for offside. We just could not seem to fashion a clear chance. We had to draw them out without putting pressure on our own back line – their 4-2-3-1 able to punish us if they got any possession – but it seemed as though hitting them through the middle was not going to get us anywhere. Just before half time Lugovyi had his first goal disallowed for offside after we won a second ball from a free kick. There was something afoot here and on the walk to the dressing room I decided to tear into them. If this is fatigue, I could accept it – if this is something more sinister then I wanted them to know I was to be feared more. They accepted their admonishment like men - perhaps a little too easily. An early goal from Taranukha, unmarked with a volley inside the box, gave us the bare minimum we deserved from the game. Agrobusiness Volochyk had offered nothing until our goal before violently stinging Staruschenko’s palms with a shot at goal in anger. We composed ourselves and I urged the players to think about game management again. Temerevskyi was getting too hot-headed in trying to stem the counter-attack threat so I brought on Kokhia for his first appearance in midfield for the last twenty minutes. He looked good on the ball, as I would expect from anyone from the Caucasus, but he held onto it too long at times. Pereverza came on for the unlucky Yavorskyi, who had eight shots without a goal, and was tried in the same role. This team were not used to closing out games with a win and seemed nervous for once. It soon became clear why. A long-range shot – meat and drink for any goalkeeper – was left without a covering dive and struck the post. I was furious with Staruschenko. Was he a mole in the camp? He nonchalantly gathered the rebound and booted the ball upfield. This is not Tajikistan, comrade. We regrouped well when looking to stave off a late counter from the home side but when five minutes of added time went up on the board, I knew something was wrong. While a counterattack was snuffed out in the 94th minute, the players failed to get close to their number ten and he struck a low shot through a crowd from 25 metres and it was in. Another late equaliser conceded by him – surely no coincidence? He has been brought here to fix matches! For a moment I was sure of it.
  4. 28 July 2018 We would show Girnyk-Sport no such respect at Yuvileynyi with a return to 4-4-2. There was still an issue with how best to utilise Murashov but overall, I wanted to keep our unbeaten run going for the entire month. Next month we had nine games that were ripe for experimentation. As luck would have it, one of those games would be in the cup against our next opponents. Going up against a division rival put my personal win bonus in jeopardy, but I wound figure them out today. The future home draw will hopefully suit our new attacking quality. The surprise we had for them was that Yavorksyi would play alongside Murashov but in hugely different roles compared to the tail end of the last game. The younger powerhouse would be our target man and the elder utility attacker would sit just in front of him. Between them we had a complete striker. Could this blossom into a partnership? Both were misfits of sorts. Murashov was the only current squad member allowed a special role, harrying the opposition back line, and I would look on with intrigue how he coped without it. I was reluctant to rush Vechurko into specialism as he was already performing well. The game was frenetic. A strong crowd of nearly a thousand came to support my little team already punching above their weight. Both sides went close in the opening stages: Bovtruk was scintillating coming in from the right while Murashov should have scored after being put through by Vechurko. He had to do better, and Girnyk-Sport went close with a free-kick but carried a threat from open play. Their 4-4-2 was vulnerable through the middle and I had to keep checking Zolotnitskyi’s face to see how he rode the discomfort. I had to make sure we scored first, giving the players orders for when to attack and when to keep hold of the ball. It was micro-management. More shots rained down on their goal, and now everyone was getting involved. We looked brilliant as an attacking team and the opposition responded in kind, closing the gate and focussing on getting into half time still in the game. We tried everything to create more chances but ran ourselves into the ground, Vechurko and Rafalski picking up bookings in quick succession. If we continued to work hard, we would win this. My half-time words were drowned out by the clapping and shouting of my coaches as the players left the dressing room. Free kicks were traded early on, but we were getting caught offside, having balls intercepted, or aiming for the highlight reel at times. I bellowed at them to simplify and it shocked them. I had barely let any anger out until now. A selfless chase from Murashov saw him win a rebound. He beat his man, looked for Yavorskyi, and the auxiliary striker wrong-footed the goalkeeper from close range. 1-0 Sumy. The players did not like to be told to tighten up, but I saw into the future. We couldn’t rest. Two minutes later the away side pressed us to death, won the ball back, and pushed it back into midfield. Their destroyer struck a low and hard shot from range and home goalkeeper Shtan’ko was beaten. Suddenly, they were superhuman. They beat us back at every opportunity. They stood on us man for man. We had to calm down and manage the game. With around 25 minutes we finally fatigue on both sides was the great leveller. Yavorskyi missed two good chances, although his sporting runs gave him the opportunities, while Murashov was left thrashing at the ball. A silly booking for tugging a defender’s arm made my mind up and the young pretender Taranukha was on in his stead. We tightened up with our approach play and got word out that the substitute was to sit on the shoulder of the last man. He delivered with his first touch, knocking a long clearance from Lykhovydko past a defender and giving himself all the time in the world. He took aim and put all his strength behind the shot. Saved! The goalkeeper could only react by pushing the ball into no-man’s-land. Yavorskyi! 2-1. What a conversion, making no mistake and sending the goalkeeper the wrong way again. His technique and cool in front of goal was fabulous. Maybe I do have a proper home for him right under my nose. We were simply brilliant after that, countering at speed and holding the ball when required. Girnyk-Sport responded by throwing three men un front and leaving three at the back. They had made four substitutions in two minutes to try and turn the game. Yavorskyi spurned the chance for a hat-trick from point-blank range thereafter, Taranukha again playing him in from the right. Just as we were revelling in our ability, Pinchuk hauled a man back from reaching danger-free looping cross. Penalty. It was madness! I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t know whether to be angry or hurt. Surely that can’t have been on purpose… 2-2 with ten minutes to go. At least Shtan’ko wasn’t culpable. But I had to do something. Taranukha was told to move centrally, Yavorskyi in behind. The wingers would push forward, and we would play my favoured 4-2-3-1 to overload that three-man defence as Girnyk-Sport were going for the win. Goal! What a free-flowing move that was. I didn’t have time to anticipate it! Pereverza picked up Shtan’ko’s kick, found Vechurko unmarked inside and made a run. The captain’s diagonal ball into the onrushing Bovtruk caught everyone by surprise. Two men had followed Vavorskyi, the other took care of Taranukha’s arced run. The maverick bore down on goal, coming inside, and clipped it into the far corner with the outside of his boot. It was too easy! Wonderful, wonderful stuff. There had been so many bookings that six minutes of added time were given. On came Temerevskyi for Rafalskyi in the middle of the park. The converted defender was a colossus once more but was clearly exhausted. We reverted to a flat five at the back and Temerevskyi belied his age with a measured composure on the ball and alertness for when to just head it clear. With the final whistle I turned to the fans and fist-pumped with both hands. I was ecstatic! A whole month unbeaten and we are top of the league… Or so I thought. In the dressing room, beyond the celebrations, word got to us that local side Kobra had won again. Our region was peerless in the opening stage of the Persha Liha. They had beaten two of the current bottom-four along the way just like we had. There was no need to extrapolate a title-winning season for either side, but we were at the wrong end of the table according to the bookmakers. We were a quarter of the way to 40 points after month one – it was a superb achievement. As the players showered and gathered their things to go home happy, Rotenbergen pulled me aside to say that Zolotnitskyi was beginning to upset the players with his training methods. Quite a few were sick of the same drills already and wanted quick, attacking plays just like they played today. I took heed of his advice and caught the goalkeeping coach before he went home. I explained how important it was to keep these men happy now as our form could turn during any week of this fixture pile-up. Let’s give them a reward, pander to their needs just this week. He did not like being told what to do but it would help in the medium term letting him know who is boss before my assistant comes in. Maybe this was what Tkachenko was getting at – perhaps Zolotnitskyi had sapped morale in the run-up to surviving relegation. He grunted his approval and acted like nothing had happened, grinning with the stragglers and continuing to celebrate our success. There were partnerships beginning to form in this team and while I looked forward to more from Bovtruk and Pinchuk on the right, the latter was the second player I had a question mark over whether dark powers had got to them. I reassured myself with good news; we now had a clean bill of health. Head physio Karpenko was an elder, unassuming man and I had no reason to doubt his word. Not yet. Later, Rotenbergen had interesting ideas about how to combat Metalist 1925’s version of our 4-5-1 from last season. He wanted a higher line of engagement to push the lone man back, long kicks from the goalkeeper this time to bypass the midfield five, and for us to keep hold of the ball and back into our man to win free kicks. It was sound logic. My one tweak was to pull the attacking intensity back a little bit as we came out of the blocks a little too eager last time around.
  5. 21 July 2018 Both teams lined up in variants of the 4-2-3-1 that I wanted to implement at Sumy, and it reinforced the idea that I was on the right track in Ukraine. Both had captains in the middle of the field, but that is where their similarities ended. Dynamo Kyiv had most of the attacking players home grown and foreign full internationals behind them, while Shakhtar were the exact opposite. The really were diametric sides. A clash of histories, styles, and fanbases lining up in a cup final. It was thrilling stuff. From kick-off, the men from Donestk bossed the ball and were rewarded with a debut goal for new centre forward Junior Maraes who bundled in a corner. The Dynamo Kyiv goalkeeper had misjudged the flight of the cross and was roundly punished. My boyhood club had set up perhaps too defensively and struggled to find a way into the game. They quickly became anxious, unaware of what to do in this situation. The man on the touchline did not seem to react, perhaps comfortable with his side’s ability in game management later in the game. But this looked to be a shadow of the swashbuckling team I knew from my youth. Even after half an hour the Shaktar fans could he heard to taunt with olé for their team’s sideways passes. A dismal effort on goal when clean through for Dynamo summed up my experience of a lone striker and it came ten minutes from half-time. It was their only effort of note. Surely a different team would emerge in the second half. It might have been a final but neither team played like it. Shakhtar were happy to conserve energy for the real thing, the league being their priority. Out of an ambitious cross came a thumping header against the bar and Dynamo Kyiv had finally woken up. For the second half they focussed on getting the ball down the wings with relentless crosses into the box and on the hour struck a wonderful volley to equalise. The ball was headed clear but Sydorchuk let it drop and hammered it into the near top corner from outside the box. Dynamo’s new-found tenacity did not stop there. Fouled in some great build-up involving Sydorchuk again, Tsygankov placed the ball and curled it into the same top corner for 2-1. The largely Kyiv crowd went wild! The game settled down and became a real tactical masterclass, both sides working well to force good saves from their respective ‘keepers. Shakhtar huffed and puffed but ultimately Dynamo Kyiv had found their resolve and hung on for the trophy. It was a hell of a second half and that turnaround is likely to send shivers down the spines of other teams in Ukrayins’ka Premyer-liha. If they were strong enough to go from dreck to winning the cup, there really was no hope for any other team outside of these two. With bragging rights returning to the capital, I wondered if I could cultivate the same winning mentality at Sumy. If I too could keep my powder dry when we did eventually start to be found out, I could yet play both these cup finalists in the league next season. The thought was unthinkable just a few months ago. Zolotnitskyi reported that Lugovyi, Taranukha, and Yavorskyi had performed poorly in training. I can accept youngsters thinking they had already made it and dropping them from the starting line-up. That was easy. Yavorskyi, a senior professional on the other hand, needed to learn the same lesson but it was at the expense of the team’s balance. He will return when we can field my preferred 4-2-3-1. Now it was young Temerevskyi earning another start. Five games would trigger another year in his contract but right now he was earning his deal. Bovtruk would be shifted wide just as Zolotnitskyi had suggested in the summer, Vechurko taking up the attacking role with Rafalskyi returning to sandwich the younger player in the middle of the park where he would be most protected. It felt like a backward step to us but I needed to assert authority over slacking players. The players needed to see that a lazy attitude directly affects the collective. Volyn had their transfer embargo lifted just before we met. All their players were on trial again and sweating over their starting place. So it meant we’d expect another new manager bounce from them, their team also managed by a novice who had joined in the summer. Could they start their season again after the two successive defeats? Rotenbergen felt that we needed Bovtruk to be more attacking on the right to balance our defensive line. I agreed but felt a little more reserved when he suggested that we play shorter passes and drop deeper still. We found it hard enough to get into the opposition area as it was in those friendlies just before he arrived. Volyn’s manager was a former goalkeeper and unsurprisingly their best players in the squad were central defenders, no doubt schooled in the art of protection. We would aim to win the ball back from them as soon as possible. We found ourselves with the lion’s share of the ball early on but struggling to find a way into the box with our players so spread out. We pulled in a bit to try and get Bovtruk inside the tight back four of theirs. Volyn’s game was to break at pace and get as wide as possible. They rattled off a few long-range shots but once we started to keep the ball better, we were able to restrict any other type of attacks. Any attempt to capitalise on our growing influence on the game needed to be measured, as Volyn were picking the ball up in between our lines easy enough. Overcommitting would give them space for runners, but we needed to create overloads of our own. We had to play with two strikers to get anything from it. Temerevskyi had touched more of the ball than anyone, so I fancied him to play in his preferred role on the right while Bovtruk went up beside Murashov, who had largely been a peripheral figure. An extremely poor second 20 minutes from both sides confirmed the need to act. Soon after the break Volyn were all at sea and despite this we took the lead against the run of play, the extra body in the box causing confusion all the while. A clearance fell to Pereverza and he could not believe his luck! Smashing the ball low and hard at the goalkeeper from five metres, he saw the ball squirm in at the near post in off soft wrists. Volyn came roaring back at us after that, furious at causing their own downfall. With tired bodies out there, I pulled us back into a 4-5-1 formation for the last half an hour. We had done enough, however fortuitously. Murashov’s race was won, young Taranukha tried as a striker while Bovtruk returned to wide right. As we soaked up intense pressure and the roar of the home crowd for every chance, Taranukha was getting involved and when eventually through on goal he wasted a flair snapshot to double our lead. The goalkeeper was more than equal to it from close range, expecting the unexpected. Still Volyn came at us, as if they were getting more energy by the phase. Ten minutes from time a curling free-kick beat Staruschenko at his near post and we had it all to do again. The ball was heading into his gloves but, before we knew it, it had settled into the side netting. There would be an inquest from Zolotnitsky surely, but the ball’s trajectory seemed to be so irregular. It would only have gotten sharper in the turn the longer it remained hovering above the grass. It called for Yavorskyi to come on and partner Taranuha in attack. We had to gamble as Volyn were getting stronger. We could go home with nothing here. The game was on a knife-edge deep into injury time and, for the first time since we had scored, we had a foothold and making progress into their half. My heart was racing. Our chances were not falling to the right people and time after time the referee did not end the game when the ball went out of play. A 93rd minute corner saw a Volyn defender get his ‘keeper out of jail with a leaning back header when the number one had come a long way to meet the ball. The clearance was fired back in by the corner taker Bovtruk and it fell to Yavorskyi on the edge of the goal area. Crunch! A ruthless challenge took the ball away cleanly and again it was booted clear. Yavorskyi was putting in a shift here, taking the pressure off the others in attack. We had enough about us to put a tourniquet on the score draw.
  6. 18 July 2018 Rukh Vynnyky had a real pace merchant in central midfield and to my surprise and angst he did not start the game. What on earth did they have planned? Our players were promptly instructed to back off at all costs but mark their lone striker tighter. In our first league game at home we had to keep things tight. The away side had a formidable counterattack that belied their lack of pace, so we had no choice but to shut the back door at the expense of our attacking instincts. One game into a style evolution and I was reverting to this club’s type. We were on top in terms of possession, but they cut through us at will. With Bovtruk and Verchurko pulling back to shore up the rear guard, the game entered a lull. It was exactly what I’d wanted – some time to think. Once we settled and began to snuff out skirmishes, the midfielders were told to turn the tempo back up. It caught Rukh Vynnyky cold and Yavorskyi again hit the woodwork with a fine free kick. We were getting closer but it was dangerous to over-extend ourselves with the evident team fluidity we were up against. Finally, the breakthrough ball arrived ten minutes from the end of the half, Pereverza’s diagonal ball into space finding Murashov. One on one with the goalkeeper, he contrived to let their stopper close him down and smother the shot. I slammed my fists into the turf. It was a dreadful miss and our best chance of the game. He was at it again two minutes later, contriving to force a corner from a wide angle. Bovtruk’s delivery was great, now improving under Rothenberg’s technical guidance, and eventually Kokhia fed Lykhovydko to slam in at the near post and in. It couldn’t have come at a better time, just before the fourth official put his board up. It was a brave strike from our vice-captain, with limbs flying toward him, and just what we deserved today. 1-0 to Sumy. I didn’t want to come in at half time just to tell them to defend but a wide Vavorskyi free kick rattled the goalkeeper and he could only push it into the waiting Murashov for 2-0 in injury time. The boys had doubled our lead and changed the team talk. It was fair to say the coaching staff were unprepared for this result at the break, except Rotenbergen who galvanised them with this charisma. Both scorers had got their first goals for the club, at home, and under my tutelage. It was an incredible feeling and my men were lavished with praise at the break. The only thing I had to warn them about was today’s referee. He seemed to be missing key fouls and giving lenient ones. In less than 20 minutes after the restart the away side had a man sent off for two successive challenges on Taranukha and my prophecy was foretold. That was the game sewn up. I urged the players to concentrate and it seems that kind of talk overwhelmed them. They already knew what to do and didn’t like being reminded. Lykhovydko was the exception, the dependable centre back operating in calm fashion as always. With Vechurko misplacing a few passes and fading fast, I felt it safe to give the commendable vice-captain some time with the armband and young Temerevskyi was on in the base of midfield as well. As we dropped the pace, we still found it difficult to combat the new deep striker-less 3-4-2 formation, and the opposition were able to make their fifth substitution to make it competitive in terms of stamina. More than double the amount of 300 season tickets had come to see us play today and, as expected, very few away fans would be making trips in this league. The results were bringing the fans back slowly and as much as we tried to entertain, the legs were spent, and the match finished 2-0. Lugovyi was very good at left back while they younger Taranukha at right wing played well but struggled with coming inside. Particularly if he was worried about getting hacked down because of it. Both hadn’t really done a lot wrong and it would be a difficult decision to make next week. We would be playing Volyn and Girnik-Sport in the next double-header and luckily both had played each other in an exhausting and surprising 4-3 win for the latter at home. First up on the highlight reel Prykarpattya IF showed how to combat Dnipro-1 with a flat 4-5-1. Taking points off our relegation rivals was a far cry from beating the title challengers of Volyn and Dnipro-1 so I watched on with keen interest. Going in at half-time 0-1 down, Prykarpattya IF took advantage of diagonal balls into the box to score a quickfire double early in the second half. I would need Murashov at his level best to contest those aerial balls but nagging thoughts remained about his suitability in front of goal. The key to defeating Volyn would be to get men into the box and right now I didn’t think we could do it. Their defence looked terrible, though, so I tasked Zolotnitskyi with training an alternative way in. Girnik-Sport, on the other hand, seemed to be able to get those men in to the box with ease. It may be a case of going 4-5-1 to stop runners from breaking forwards but I’d see what the tactician thought of that as the week progressed. The league was upside down after the opening double-header, with only us and rivals Agrobusiness Volochysk topping the table with two wins from two. In fact, only Zirka from the projected bottom four were where they were expected. Volyn joined them with six goals conceded already, despite an especially daunting stat of having the joint most scored as well. We would sit back in a 4-5-1 for this, after all. Vechurko responded to being substituted in the best way possible: training his heart out. I took him to one side and commended his effort. I really needed to build a relationship with him to try to make him stay. Results would dictate the chance to sit at the table with him, but money would see him stand up anyway. I needed more than that – a connection with the club. I would pick the side on Tuesday after three days of intense defensive training organised by Zolotnitskyi. I was happy with what he was doing, leading us into the season proper, but with the chief scout position put on hold while I look for an assistant manager, he was aware that will change. Once I have an idea of the capabilities of every man taking to the field, I can start fine tuning their schedules. Starushenko would be given the away game once again as I look to build up his fitness away from an expectant home crowd. He had performed miserably in training according to Zolotnitskyi, so I also wanted to play him back into form and happiness. I was sitting on the fence about which of these rival ‘keepers would take the number one spot. For now, it was all about friendly competition. If I could make the league feel like pre-season for as long as possible then neither would have any qualms about splitting playing time. Lutsk, where Volyn played, was another whole day travel and it seemed to me that all roads lead not only to Kyiv but through it. The city was in the north-east of the country and with my attendance at the Superkubok Ukraini in the local Poltava a few days before, I wouldn’t get time to attend at training. It was important for me to see what the top level of football in this country looked like first-hand. Were there lessons that I could bring back to Yuvileynyi? Or perhaps there was a potential signing a year down the line with a youth who doesn’t make up for his pre-season promise. Either way, it was a much-needed day out away from the intense travel and training monotony we were in. The stadium itself was a wonderful open-air bowl and fitting for the curtain raiser, geographically in between the two best teams in Ukraine. The capacity was lower than demand at 25,000 but it meant that only the most fervent of away supporters would travel to the game. I felt like a VIP with a ticket and I took my seat among the Dynamo everyman. I marvelled at the passion from the fans in the build-up to this game, cheering every good touch by their team warming up. Imagine if we could forge that kind of following at Sumy! We could be close to peak interest in the region for all I knew. But we had the facilities for them to come from far and wide - all that was needed was to continue our winning ways.
  7. 14 July 2018 The money had dried up already – Tkachenko putting a stop to the signing of a chief scout when he found out the cost. The man was impossible to read. One minute he was open to suggestions, the next he used Galina as the bearer of bad news. I would make do on my own as the fixtures were coming thick and fast. We had to weather the storm until that September normality of one game a week. We would play Wednesday and Saturday – 14 matches in seven weeks – which would test every squad in the league to its limit. I figured that promotions and relegations in this league were likely to be decided inside those tumultuous opening months – and my fate along with it. First up were Balkany Zorya away, the only semi-professional side in the league. I wanted to attack in Odessa as it was a two-day travel by coach through Kyiv. In battle you do not travel just to defend. The players would enjoy an overnight in the capital on the way and if we won, they’d get to have a night out on the return leg. It was motivation that I could afford to give out, Tkachenko seemingly signing off all travel expenses as if it was a tax break at the end of the year. I didn’t question it. Zolotnitskyi knew all about the opposition, and he explained how they were fuelled by their central midfield captain that pulled them through from non-league to a comfortable finish in the Persha Liha last season. I now had men to worry about facing, but I could at least now work on how to deal with an attacking 4-4-2 from their experienced coach. Pereverza had joined us from Balkany Zorya midway through last season, too. Whether players would relish facing their former clubs was still an unknown for me. It seemed the lower-league footballer in Ukraine had very little choice about where they would play; the best players were taken by the best clubs. In our change strip of all red we looked like Russians. The all white kit of the home team gave excellent contrast and it helped me immerse myself in my team. We put the fear into the home side early on. It soon became apparent that if we were going to win the game it was in the first half that the damage could be done. Tiredness was an issue for the semi-pros. However, my dominant system over our relegation rivals wasn’t enough to get a clear-cut chance at goal. We changed to a flat five in the middle it at half time. The aim was to give us more security in dealing with their midfield men and overload their most dangerous players. Around the hour mark I had to concede that we were unlikely to break Balkany Zorya down. With no man to break their offside trap and Rafalskyi carrying a knock, young Temerevskyi came on. It was an easy debut for him, shielded either side by experienced players, and I hoped he would help us hold things together and we saw the game out. The plan worked a treat. As we soaked up pressure, we were able to break and win a free kick. Without any fuss Pereverza whipped it in at the near post from fully 30 metres. It was a miraculous strike and one that momentarily silenced the crowd on both sides. Amid the wild celebrations on the pitch surrounding the goal-scorer, Zolotnitsky immediately advised that we shut up shop. I ceded to his wisdom and we soon controlled the game, thereafter, edging further into their half. I ordered a push back to 4-4-2 in the closing stages. We had deserved a goal from open play but couldn’t quite find the rhythm; this was a glorified pre-season friendly for both sides. Balkany Zorya were so disciplined in their approach towards the end but to defend the goal was meat and drink to my players. Lukash in the opposition goal was formidable – he saved everything that came at him after Pereverza’s goal. It was a brilliant away performance over 90 minutes and the first win on the road to safety. We would face better teams than this, of course, so we allowed the players their moment in the sun. While they had their night out in Kyiv on the day after the game, I sat down and watched the highlights from the other games in the league. Avangard Kramatorsk, in traditional Ukrainian yellow with blue trim, were terribly unlucky to lose to Obolon, usually all in green but in a black third strip today, having hit the woodwork four times and seeing a penalty saved, only to get beaten by a late smash and grab goal. The pace of the game seemed much quicker than we were capable of, and that worried me. Agrobusiness Volochysk, in a deep blue with yellow trim, got a vital away win at Zirka and again both teams looked ready for the season. The home side wore a garish all red with a yellow half to the shirt. Both away goals came during injury time of each half - a team with tenacity to spare. A terrible home goalkeeping error saw Metalist 1925, in yellow with a black trim, derail Volyn’s title aspirations as the visitors won 2-1 and goaded a man into being sent off in injury time. Volyn wore a sensible white with red trim and at least looked the part of title challengers. Kolos Kovalivka, in deep Ukrainian blue, crashed 1-0 at Mykolaiv thanks to playing with ten men for most of the match after a disgusting two-footed tackle. The home side wore white with a black trim. It was hard to remember all these identifiers and match them to teams the more the highlights played out. A terrible goalless draw played out between Ingulets Petrove, another colour clash of all red and yellow but this time halved horizontally, and Dnipro-1’s deep navy, while Rukh Vynnyky red with white trim had drawn 0-0 at home to usually red but now black attired Girnyk-Sport in what appeared to be a slightly better game. Prykarpattya IF, in Milan’s famous red and black stripes, held the normally bumblebee Kobra’s blushes with a 0-0 against their white with blue chevron visitors, despite the home side losing a man to another lunge with ten minutes to go. Then came our match, right at the end. We were obviously the least thought of team going into this competition and it angered me. We deserved on merit to be listed ahead of goalless draws. When the first highlight settled, I noticed how tidy we looked and in control of our match. I had forgotten Yavorskyi hit the bar with a header! The real worry was how many chances Murashov struggled to convert. Was the goalkeeper that good today? Or was our main striker incapable of putting it past the goalkeeper? Rukh Vynnyky would set themselves for an attacking onslaught on Wednesday night at Yuvileynyi. We absolutely had to build on this performance. A big decision had to be made about Rafalskyi: whether to give Temerevskyi his full and home debut or to bring Bovtruk back for an unplanned appearance up front for either Taranukha or someone else. Yavorksyi and Pereverza had looked so good on either wing I was reluctant to change up too much. As the game was so soon after our away trip, it made sense to give Shtan’ko the gloves for the home crowd who were expecting him. The away side had an extremely difficult defensive 3-4-2-1 to handle so we had to attack them. The manager Leonid Kuchyuk was a Belarussian with extensive experience of supremacy in Moldova with Sheriff and some time with Lokomotiv Moscow, as well as spells in his own country and my adopted one. I was advised that they would close us down and pump long balls into the lone man up front. Dreadful football, in other words. When the day came, I decided to get everyone making an appearance who had missed out in the first game. It was a big risk but with a small squad I had to get their on-pitch relationship together quickly. Lugovyi would take left back from the tired Nadiradze, while Yavorskyi would move up front with Murashov. Taranukha got his preferred right midfield role and Bovtruk moved alongside Vechurko in midfield. The captain, Vechurko, was also tired but I reasoned that a less leggy defensive role in midfield would keep us ticking over while Bovtruk did the running around. Bubentsov was still recovering from a hamstring strain but made the bench once more. We were so low on players that we couldn’t fill out the seven maximum substitutes for the foreseeable future, but we complied with minimum rules at least. It was important for no man to be left at home, third-choice goalkeeper or not. Momentum was everything in this hectic fixture list.
  8. 09 July 2018 Murashov again trained like no other this week, yet something irked me. The first signs of coasting were appearing, a player hiding in the crowd. Yavorskyi had again lagged the group in various running sessions. As the players walked off, I cornered him and let him know we could not tolerate poor performances in training. The squad wasn’t too small for him to not have to worry about starting games and I let him know it. He offered by way of apology that he was not sure about his role on the right, coming inside, and whether it felt natural to him. I told him that it should not feel natural; I wanted him to actively think about every move he makes so that he can do that in any position I play him. Zolotnitskyi had come over by this point and chimed in that the squad’s least desirable characteristics have influenced him lately, and that he should never pretend his job is over. It was good timing – the player needed the bad cop, bad cop routine. I was pleased with the former caretaker’s input and I was beginning to debate whether to offer him the position of assistant, or whether that would be an insult to him having already managed the club. I had deliberately not advertised for it when looking for other staff, just to keep the option open in his mind. I had largely left him to conduct training as he was already in full flow of pre-season when I took over. I took a background role and organised our set-pieces. The idea was simple: that our positioning at set plays would remain the same throughout our formations. I had individual instructions for each tenet of our formations, meaning the deep-lying forward in a 4-4-2, the central attacking midfielder in a flat 4-5-1, and the number ten in a 4-2-3-1 did the same job for each shape. I wanted no confusion. In defence, it had worked wonders. Murashov would always be back defending his goal and the little man near him would always be looking to pick up loose balls sent upfield. In attack, we just didn’t get to know enough about the team yet. The game against Salyut should give us an uneven match-up of styles so we can find out. We would begin the game with 4-4-2, Murashov again partnered by Bovtruk. We had deployed it from half time in the last game for a while and I felt it gave us the best chance of beating the Russians. As nice as it would have been to give the trio of bench youth more minutes, I wanted to eliminate any faults with the flexibility of my starting eleven with another viewing. Bubentsov in goal was the only swap. A third-choice goalkeeper at this level was redundant but I needed to trial him where possible. I wasn’t sure if a loan move to a lower division was beneath him yet and whether just training with two very experiences goalkeepers was more beneficial to him right now. To my utter shock Tkachenko agreed to pay the compensation for Sumy local Rotenbergen to sign as coach. He had served as under-19s coach for our affiliates for the past five years and I hoped to reap that work by having a look at their young squad in the winter break. He arrived at training, imposed his big frame on us, and spoke openly and mischievously about what he could bring to the table. His preference for technical drills certainly freed me up to focus on tactical work but he was at pains for me to understand that he knew the Sumy way and would have no trouble motivating these players. I’d leave him to it; I liked his cheeky confidence. There was simply no time to train someone from scratch in a job I was barely used to myself. I needed experience around me. That left me wondering about the fitness coaches that had applied. The sole female applicant was in a league of her own in terms of qualifications but was wasted at Chernomorets’ academy for the last ten years. I tried my luck once more and submitted my proposal to the chairman. Within a day it was sorted, and Victoriya Samar had arrived. Things were coming together behind the scenes and I was feeling good. Training was getting better as the week went on, the split workload meaning we could be granular with our time and focus. Rotenbergen, bullish, took over from Zolotnitskyi in the day-to-day adjustments and had some great ideas. The former caretaker had supposed to step back to just a goalkeeping coach, after all. Now it was looking like that would finally happen. Victoriya had been tasked with being the eyes and ears of the coaching team and I would take her unbiased ideas about the starting eleven. She would see them at their most fatigued and what desire they had left at that point. It was clear that Salyut were more our level than the Champions League teams we faced, but we enjoyed the ball far much more than we were recently used to. I challenged the team to see what they could do with that space and time in possession. This was our chance to build patterns of play in the real world for once. From a well-worked throw-in, the ball fell to Vechurko outside the area as planned and he let rip for the opening goal. It was a brilliant long-range strike! Salyut came forward a little more and an excellent offside trap kept us from scoring again soon after, Vechurko confidently opening them up. This was already looking like a strong away performance. We were a lot better than Kobra Kharkhiv had been here and already thoughts were turning to how we could muscle our way out of the relegation places early in the season. We were electric out there. Even though the legs were starting to tire early, the home side hadn’t acclimatised to today’s referee and earned six bookings in the first half. We had rattled their natural possession style and turned the Russians into a disruptive force. We could afford to come forward a little more ourselves in the next half, particularly down the wings. I wanted to twist the knife. A triple substitution was made to purge Salyut of second yellow cards, but it was calamitous. No-one knew who they were picking up and we took advantage immediately. Within a minute Vechurko had dissected the new midfield and played in Yavorskyi, one on one. The shot was saved but Pereverza was steaming in, desperate to get on the scoresheet, and finished off the move with their goalkeeper still on the floor. The game was over, and they accepted it using all their remaining substitutions to give minutes to youngsters. On the hour I changed it up to try and catch them cold again. Young Temerivskyi was on in place of Rafalski at the deep end of midfield with both of our former Dynamo Kiev wingers given licence to attack the ever-changing back line. What I didn’t expect was Murashov to hit a stupendous dipping shot from 30 metres for 3-0! It was an incredible strike and totally unexpected. Confidence was soaring and we were going for the jugular. Vechurko rocketed in a fourth ten minutes from time and we left Russia with an exceptional reputation building behind us. This team can attack, and with a flair for the long shot, I am confident that we can smash and grab against anyone. Bovtruk was beginning to grasp the central role and seemed to be one of those players that could be anonymous all game and then pop up with a goal. Once we were settled, I made a promise to myself that I would build the team around him to fulfil his potential. He was far too good for this level. Could he be tempted to stay on next year? It was a long shot, and perhaps Vechurko was more important, but this was a player to get fans off their seats. Driving through Kharkiv on the way home felt like a secret smug parade. We had no worries about our nearest rival – we had just demolished a team that caused them no end of problems. The quality on display surprised all the coaching staff. What could we achieve if we took the reigns off these players? They can defend like seasoned professionals, but they can also attack like they had the verve of a team who had just been promoted. Rotenbergen gave a wry smile – was it all down to him? A bit of confidence goes a long way. We had to build on this performance during training and change the well-worn defensive mentality. I wished we had a few more games to home in on this new-found creativity, but the league was upon us. We would have to learn on the job.
  9. 04 July 2018 This team embodied Zolotnitskyi and I didn’t want to upset his standing among staff with a regime change. Their defence were organised to protect the goalkeeper at all costs. Ludogorets is all I had to judge them on right now, but it spoke volumes of their character. They naturally defended deep, inviting the ball onto them in the defensive third, and looked to snuff out momentum by throwing their bodies in front of the ball. Yet there was unused speed in the team – three of the back four arrived in the summer to bring that. Perhaps this was all part of a process. There was a lot of work to do in terms of creating an understanding back there, but that will come in time. I had optimistic, grand plans about marshalling them forward, engaging that opposition higher up the pitch and making the enemy work hard instead. Then it dawned on me why he brought Murashov back: he was that first line of defence, a heat-seeking missile, terrorising defenders with the ball at their feet. It forced teams to play long and to their legacy strength in the air. Yet we weren’t recycling those clearances, just batting them away. Talented players, Perevezda and Yavorskyi, were marginalised on the wing. Surely Zolotnitskyi could see their ability in those few minutes of freedom? Bovtruk had shown great awareness and flair, even coming deep and arrowing balls into his teammates. I wanted to build a team around him but first he had to settle into an unassuming role in the middle before things got too tactical for him. There was ability to harness there but I’d need to bed him in. There just had to be goals in Murashov, too - it wasn’t acceptable to have a lone wolf chasing sheep. There were good enough players around him to put it on a plate, and if he can’t do it on his own… I would need to find another way forward. Away from home, this Sumy siege defence would be very useful. We were not expected to win many games, but we had to win at least ten to stay up. It couldn’t be done with 0-0 draws so at some point the chains would have to come off. What was Zolotnitskyi’s plan then? Maybe that’s why I’m here. With Verchurko not willing to sign a new deal beyond the end of the season, I had to accept that my captain is not in my long-term plans. Neither was my best player, Bovtruk, as he would return to his club at the same time. My two most important players would have to be replaced before I even knew how important they were. It would give focus to my recruitment, at least, which until now had been names plucked from the newspaper or gossip around title-challenging Volga’s collapsed deals owing to their transfer embargo. Sumy record-holders who had pictures hung in the club offices were followed up, but nothing came of it. They had moved on in more way than one. All other players besides veteran goalkeeper Shtan’ko had two-year deals to keep up this curiously sanguine outlook on the immediate future. There is no contingency plan here. It is a two-year death sentence. Having watched Legia dismantle Russian FNL side Tambov 3-1 in the pouring rain, I had to switch our formation up to cope with their style. Like Ludogorets, their elite level counterparts, play was held and weighted in midfield to enable the fullbacks to bomb forward and start attacks. The Portuguese manager Ricardo Sa Pinto had cultivated from his international experience a complex and diverse squad over the summer and would amend tactics within a narrow 4-2-3-1. The flat middle five so accustomed at Sumy was our chance at limiting that. Whoever had planned these friendly fixtures had got it spot on, despite my protestations. I decided to review our last game with Zolotnitskyi to try and weed out any individual concerns. Soon it became clear that Nadiradze lost possession more than anyone from left full-back but he also regained the ball frequently – his pace a brilliant asset there. We knew about losing the ball from the back, but we hadn’t realised what a bad first game he’d had with the ball. It made no sense to remove compatriot Kokhia from defence while this kid was settling in, nor did it make sense to punish the elder of those Georgians for his one mistake in the whole game. I’m sure Rafalskyi was thinking he’d take that spot but with the squad light on men in the middle things would remain the same. Betclic announced their final odds for the league title soon after, bumping us up from bottom of the pile up to third from bottom. Kobra took our place, with Zirka and Agrobusiness Volochysk joining us from the other side of the Dneiper river in the clear relegation candidates. Dnipro, Volga, Ingulets Petrove, or Kolos Kovalivka were going to win the league and the top nine of sixteen would be tightly contested. It made my head spin. How would I learn all these nodes of the league and their histories in time to prepare? The Superkubok would be my first chance to see Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk in a reasonable site of neutrality between them at Poltava. It also meant an easy trip for me, just a few hours south. A curtain raiser was realistically all I could see in person given the sacrifices Sumy would bring. When Galina announced that the applications for the coach role had reached the closing date, some stronger than me would have held their cynical tongue. Six of the eight were already coaching youth at either Dinamo Kyiv or Shakhtar’s academies. None of the eight were available on a free transfer. It was destined to fail but I tried my luck anyway, just to misdirect her. Oleg Rotenbergen was raised in the area and played for Sumy in the past, as well as the now-defunct Spartak Sumy. He was currently coaching with Barsa Sumy in the lower divisions – our affiliate club that we would normally send players on loan to. What that would achieve was anyone’s guess – we barely had any players as it was. Could it just be a front for something else? I dread to think. A few hairy moments at the beginning of the match, played in front of a blinding 2,000 spectators this time, saw us clear shots or crosses from deep inside our own box from the off. Word had got out about us! We’d talked about sending their fullbacks wide before the match, but a couple of tweaks were needed to ensure it. The natural pace of play was too slow, an accident waiting to happen, and the midfield were too wide. It was a repeat of the problems early in the game against Ludogorets. These fans who turned up deserve a difference from the last game, but I doubted that this was achievable. It was still a continuation of sorts, as I grew my knowledge of the players and how they play. We were combative and compact from then on, but energy levels were sapping fast. Legia could not unlock the door and threw in the towel with 20 minutes to go, playing four strikers to pen us in. We happily gave them 15 corners, attacking where we could, but largely dug in for a commendable 0-0. It was already an improvement on the previous result, but the play was the same. We were like an ageing boxer touted around the professional circuit, ready and willing to take the punches of the next big thing. Still, I could have watched us play five teams like this to really understand who was able to attack under duress. I had no concerns about our defensive ability; if we needed to defend the honour of Sumy with eleven men behind the ball, we could do that. This was a great base to build from and Zolotnitskyi deserved great praise for that. The players, understandably quiet and unsure in the dressing room, were happy to work and just got on with a post-match warm-down. There was no backslapping in the showers, no loud voices or banging on the walls. No celebration at all. Today’s graft seemed normal to them. But I didn’t want men in chains breaking rocks for me. I wanted sculptors, artists, and architects. Except I had no vision of what that could be, only a nuance for small changes creating big movements over a season. There were talented footballers here - I was certain of it. They were just hidden under the homogenous stylings of an authoritarian taskmaster, too afraid to do wrong. I would make mistakes and happily, too. It would be impossible to survive relegation without a daring attitude. We only had to be better than the worst teams in the league. If I say it enough then eventually they will believe it.
  10. 30 June 2018 Zolotnitskyi talked me through the style that his team was most comfortable with. It made for grim listening. Principally defensive in outlook, he’d had them lined up in a flat 4-5-1. They had discipline, like all Ukrainians he was quick to point out, and liked to take their time. They would look for direct balls into wide areas because, naturally, these were their best players. Without the ball they would try to get tight and rough up the opponent. It was typically agricultural. But it worked for him. He expressed regret that we simply didn’t have the numbers to comfortably play three in the middle this season. He wanted another midfielder in the summer but Tkachenko didn’t act quick enough before the embargo came in. I instructed him to give the squad something more expansive to work on in terms of formation. I wanted us able to put two strikers on when we needed a goal, or at least stagger the midfield five so that I could understand our own weaknesses when faced with a similar set-up to what the goalkeeping coach preferred. I don’t want to attack every team, but we aren’t going to survive drawing every game 0-0. He seemed to accept this. I would need his help identifying who we could attack and who the opposition’s key players were. Our relationship had to remain cordial, even though Tkachenko had evidently marked Zolotnitskyi’s card. Ludogorets, seven-time in a row Bulgarian champions, and Legia, Polish champions in five of the last six years, were preparing for Champions League campaigns with games against similar level Russian Olimp Pervenstvo FNL sides before visiting us. It was symptomatic of the stadium magnifying reality but in truth I cursed that these would be my opening games at Yuvileynyi. We would be roundly pillaged by both. Zolotnitsky agreed but said that we’d earned the right to play them. The teams shared fixers in these parts and wanted a warm-up in Russia before a real test in Ukraine. I wasn’t sure if this was national pride or delusion. He was evidently confident in his methods, and perhaps the decision to step back into a coaching role wasn’t his. I would have to keep this man in check. With both their earlier fixtures clashing, I had no hope of doing any research in person. I would have to settle for a highlight package link emailed to the club. Again, for this level it was astoundingly well-funded. The following early midweek fixture away at nearby Salyut in Russia called for a recce before our two tough home games. Belgorod was a good six hours away, but it meant a trip through Kharkiv so that I could roundly come back onto the E105 headed to Moscow. The real research was to be about their opponents and my renamed relegation rival Kobra Kharkhiv. As possibly our nearest away trip of the season, Zolotnitsky recommended that we treat them with caution, suspicion, and respect in that order. The rebranding was not as clean as it was being made out to be, with rumours that they could withdraw from the competition. Kobra Kharkiv were being funded but who provided the cash was as yet unknown. The White City has not had a league side for four years, but they were far too much for Kobra, easily beating them 2-0 with slick technical abilities making short work of the away side’s clogging 4-5-1. It gave me food for thought; 4-4-2 really could dispose of the teams in around the bottom of the table. In the pouring rain an early goal set the tone and their substitutes were better than the visiting side, too. A late goal rounded it off but a young boy in central midfield caught my eye, he was refined with the ball at his feet. If it was not for our summer transfer embargo, would I have followed this kid up? It would be a long three months to not even look at players and as Zolotnitskyi said: forget it. In the first week’s training, I had been very pleased with Murashov’s performance and, keen to build some rapport with the players, praised him for being the standout performer in front of his teammates. He took the compliment to heart and excelled further in the weekend sessions. I really needed him to score goals for us – we seemingly didn’t have anyone with a track record of doing so. There was a case to be made for playing a rotated squad in these two home games and saving better players for the now must-win game at Salyut. We had to put one over Kobra Kharkiv. Having made a promise to the chairman about winning now, I decided to stick to my word and at least try and give the fans something to cheer about today. The players did not seem phased by the occasion at all. Ludogorets lined up in a variation of their initial formation, perhaps forewarned about our approach. I spoke in Russian, which most of them understood to some degree or another and informed them to limit the Brazilian full backs and Marcelino in attack – a naturalised Brazilian now capped by Bulgaria. This was not a pure Bulgarian side – they had foreigners throughout their side and no less than six Brazilians in the squad. Could the friendly fixers be connected to Tkachenko’s business interests in Brazil as well? We kicked off and everything Zolotnitskyi said about them was true. There was no imagination but a prison-football level of commitment in the tackle. These men were not going to give in easily! The forward line did not disappoint in this formation either, getting a couple of shots away inside the first quarter of an hour. This pleased me more than anything – we were trying to play. A few subtle changes had given this team a new identity. We were clearly second best in terms of ability but Bovtruk was finding this central role remarkably suitable. He looked a class act. A short spell playing the ball quicker was a disaster – especially with one up top. Nobody could find a pass into Murashov and when they did, he couldn’t keep the move the alive. We regrouped and licked our wounds, but such quality finally shone through when their centre forward reacted better to a cross and was able to tap in his header which hit the bar. Half an hour had gone by and the referee was starting to take names. This was getting feisty. Georgian centre back Kokhia’s missed header had been the difference at the interval but in truth Ludogorets had turned a corner midway through the first half. There was nothing we could do to stop Marcelino spraying the ball out wide. No -one could get near him and his pace on the ball was stunning. He was certainly playing below his level. Most of their shots were blocked as we held our lines well, but there was still something missing from our game. At the break we told them to look after the wide men, now much more involved in the game, and to stymie their ball recycling machine in the double-pivot. I wanted a much better performance and told them. Even if they score four, I need to see commitment. The game is always 0-0; don’t let emotion come into it. The Bulgarians blew us away in the second half. Shots rained down but again and again we made our own luck, throwing bodies in the way or doubling up on dribblers. On the hour young wingers Taranukha and Lugovyi came on for Vayorkskyi and Pereverza as we moved to 4-4-2, desperate to get another attack going. There was no repeat of our first half blitz. Bovtruk moved up front beside Murashov to reinforce my thinking that he would only be a central player for me. I had already decided that Shtan’ko and Bubentsov would get to play in goal for these Legia and Salyut games respectively so there were no more changes made. I had to get used to using substitutions sparingly – we would not have enough players to fill the bench in a league game. As the match churned over into the 70th minute, I asked them to play with a little more creativity and give each other passing options. We had faced some 30 shots but easily blocked half of them. That resolve was impressive. As the shackles were removed further, Bovtruk came deep, turned, and hit a wonderful shot which I really thought was going in until the goalkeeper claimed it, full stretch. It was a superb flowing move and underlined how he could be a player to turn a game in an instant. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough, the training-ground crowd of 400 fans applauding the valiant effort but desperate to go home for entertainment as it wasn’t to be found here. We could be pleased to have kept the score this low but if we had even tried to compete Ludogorets would have achieved double figures. There was no way I was going to stand for a season of this backs-against-the-wall mentality. Football is supposed to be fun. A long and patient transition is coming for them.
  11. 23 June 2018 I felt like I had made a good impression; Tkachenko and I had an easy, if guarded, rapport. We both were concealing something, although I already had an idea what his secret was. The club was fiscally up against it – I was certain of that – but there was somehow still money in the pot. Vechurko’s wages seemed impossible. Was his acquisition privately funded? Did a gas company indirectly own Sumy? Perhaps the chairman was sitting under duress, but he hid it well. I couldn’t have asked for any more smoke and mirrors to hide my own past. I just wanted to get on with coaching players. He was happy to provide feedback to all candidates in a few days and, confidently expressing my plans to strive for much more than just avoiding relegation, asked to take a seat inside this magnificent stadium. It was breath-taking. The view from the top was probably decades away for fans of this club, but I could see where some thousands would gather behind the dugout and goals at each end. Yet I was made to wait longer than a few days, living a borrowed existence in the confines of this unknown city. I became a tourist, visiting the immediate attractions around Pokrovskaya Square and sampling local restaurants by night. Yuvileynyi was just beyond and led on a large park which in turn led on to the Psel river. There was no chance to watch training as I didn’t know where they went, and I certainly couldn’t imagine them tearing up the pitch at this amazing stadium. Walking allowed me to experience and understand the growth of the city and the location of the urban areas. Across the river, Kharkivs’ka Street opened out into a six-lane traffic artery to the south east with a raft of shops and places to eat on either side. The place has so many natural sections and divisions to it that it felt more like a city the longer I was in it. The tower blocks formed concentric circles before it soon fell into farms in all directions. I needed this people to come and support us at Yuvileynyi if we were ever to fill it. I thought about the lack of outreach to young adults and children. Neither team was structured at this level and they must press ahead to make the locals proud to wear their all-white kit. It appears the club is mired in a closed system of dealing exclusively with other clubs, agents, and non-football related favours. There was a distinct lack of a football community here. Then I got the call. Tkachenko enthused about my belief that we would avoid the drop, keen to use my own words against me. Win now and I’d get everything I need in time. In time. The words carried such weight! We needed to discuss salary. Was I the cheapest option? If I was, I dread to think what he would offer experienced coaches. I immediately agreed to his first offer – parity with Vechurko. I could not be undermined by players at this level, he said. I’d be the highest paid manager in the league, on double what most of my peers were earning. This was an incredible gamble by the chairman. Either I was being sponsored by an external party or he was putting the club at risk by guaranteeing repayments to vested interests at the start of next season. I couldn’t say no, but I had to show intent. If it all went wrong, I needed an early payment to relocate. I asked for a month’s wages as a bonus for progressing past the second preliminary round of the Kubok Ukraini cup competition, which he simply did not care for. We would have a great chance of drawing lower league opposition. He agreed, perhaps knowing something I didn’t about how these things were drawn. The first round would see Ukrayins’ka Premyer-Liha teams join in, a great money-spinner. I arrived at the stadium offices the next day to meet the man who had put the squad together. Zolotnitsky was mid-fifties, all short-cropped hair and a face made of stone. He spoke and acted like a hard man with a brain. I could tell that he was not exactly happy to have been demoted and reserved a caution with me. He was sounding me out, happy to withhold vital information to get his old job back. He was my de facto number two, for now, and he knew it. I had to ingratiate myself by not changing his system or training too much as right now I did not have his trust. Soon after, the he talked me through the qualities and history of his squad of players. It was very thin – 15 in total. There was a list of non-contracted reserves and youths kept on file in case the Professional Football League wanted to expand the mirror leagues of the Premyer-Liha ones. I was wrong; Sumy would have to earn a place at the top table of youth football here. Only a good league performance would give us a chance. The goalkeepers were obviously his main interest and so that is where he began. Both the senior stoppers had trained together at Mariupol-2 deep in the Druha Liha earlier on in their careers, and now it seemed that they would reprise their roles of bright young thing and elder backup. At 37, Artem Shtan’ko would almost certainly leave at the end of the season when his contract was up. He had been at the club for a couple of years now as second choice but was still an influential member of the squad. This summer the club had signed Anatoliy Starushenko, fresh from ten years in the top tier of Tajikistan. He was 30 now and considered the bigger, more imposing, shot stopper of the two. Why on earth did he move for a second goalkeeper a year early? I didn’t like the sound of this transfer one bit. A third, 20-year-old Andriy Bubentsov, was one of many Premyer-Liha academy dropouts with Sumy. He had yet to make a league appearance and I didn’t see that changing this season, either. Either he was good enough to be backup to Shtan’ko for another year or he wasn’t good enough to be here. Yet Shant’ko was still brought in. Zolotnitskyi’s first signings of the summer were the ones he was most pleased with. He talked passionately about Vadym Bovtruk, who had signed on loan from Desna in the league above and was the creative player the club craved. He was sent on loan twice in the last year and had apparently fallen from grace as a regular squad member for more than six years. He could play on the left or the right, but it soon became clear he’d have to adapt to a central role owing to our strength in those positions. The team was too small to leave good men out. He was a good age at 26 and was mysteriously denied a shot at the big time when Desna were promoted. The other to sign on the same day was Taras Pinchuk, a capable defensive player who could fill in at either full back position, wing back, and defensive midfield. A Dynamo Kyiv graduate with over 200 appearances in the Persha Liha, he was brought in to provide a solid right back for the winger to work in front of. Bovtruk was a potential partner of the defender on either side but I suspect Zolintskyi wanted him on the right with his 300 games across the Persha and Druha Lihas. They were great signings on paper I have to say. Two Georgians had arrived later that summer, filling two of the league’s allotted three slots for first-eleven foreign players. Davit Kokhia had been around the bloc in search of football, and now finding himself in Ukraine he hoped to get it. Once a Spartak Moscow academy graduate, he returned home twice around spells in Moldova and Serbia. They were looking to use him as a left-sided central defender, but he’d do a job in midfield, as he approaches his prime. He was a leader but was already struggling to settle with the style of play in training – one to watch. Beside him on the left flank would play another quick player – Luka Nadiradze - given to us by Olimpik Donetsk, doubtless part of the deal from them to use Yuvileynyi for a season. Already the complicated, non-football transfers were stacking up. The final singing of the summer was perhaps the most important. Eugene Murashov had re-signed at Sumy after initially dropping down to the Druha Liha with his hometown club. Zolotnitskyi got him to come back in the same summer after eight games without a goal last term. At 23, he was now ready to be our main striker and prove why he was good enough to earn a move to Shakhtar as a teenager and then play a rotated role in the Premyer-Liha for five years with Chernomorets. We had to unlock his potential, Zolotnitskyi argued, as his physicality and pace should be enough to dominate any league. The difficulty in selecting a squad was that he needed to use Andrii Temerivskyi, a part-time youth who’d not officially been contracted to the club. I told him to change that, as I wanted the boy to be involved in the squad mentoring groups and our positioning units during training. That extra body would make all difference. He was just 18 but could play midfield. He had a lot to learn but there really was no-one else who could, at their age, fall back into the middle of the park. I’d have a hard-enough time convincing our loanee Bovtruk to sit in the number ten position. The last thing he wanted to do was move another defender forward. Zolotnitskyi had made good signings, but I could see Tkachenko’s ire about quality over quantity. We agreed that I would arrive tomorrow morning to speak to the squad and officially take over.
  12. 19 June 2018 I arrived late and, exhausted from the journey, slept longer than usual. Driving through sunset did that to you. There was no breakfast to be had here but at least there was heating to keep me asleep. You could always rely on gas. The room wasn’t much to look at and staffing was just as sparse, but in truth it was the least of my research concerns. It was a just bed for the weekend. My hair still stunk of peroxide. I checked the mirror and didn’t recognise myself. Like an actor in costume I had a visual cue for my new role, reinforcing the lies to myself. I have to say it felt good. Before showering, I had to look at my emails. There was one that stood out: Olexiy Tkachenko, surely Ukrainian. This was it – the ultimate rejection. I braced myself and began to read but soon rushed through the automated response and needed to read it again. Except it wasn’t an automated response. The email had begun and ended with the usual administrative formalities but hidden in the middle there was a succinct offer to come and interview for the vacancy. Selected candidates are invited to Yuvileynyi to discuss the vision of the club and to put forward alterations for the board to consider. Alterations? Was this typical? I had no idea how they were run or how they played. It sounded to me like this club was holding a moratorium on paid advice and brainstorming by proxy. It seemed devious. I did not expect to feel so stunted at receiving a job offer; this was an alarm bell. I needed a shower to think it over. I had come this far so I towelled off and called their number. I again spoke to Galina, this time with a desire to be perceived as a cool head. She didn’t remember me; this wasn’t a special call for her. That was good. She planned a meeting with the chairman for later that afternoon. My heart was racing. This afternoon? Saturdays were evidently busy in football down here. I barely had time to get there. I thanked Galina and prepared with a long, determined walk to the stadium. In daylight, Sumy was less industrial than I had perceived on the drive in. It was bright, with large, wide streets and plenty of green spaces. But it was also unremarkable. This quiet, unassuming place needed some excitement – they needed something happening to keep the people going. They needed to get caught up in my story. Tkachenko was slim, middle-aged, and had cropped greying hair and thick black eyebrows. He was as recognisable as a person of authority should be. He spoke excellent Russian to me and offered me my first drink of the day. He was keen to make sure now that I understood that any potential manager would be expected to speak some Ukrainian soon and only Ukrainian in future. Naturally. I heard myself say the word before realising I had to mean it. I was confident, vodka settling my nerve, but I stopped short of telling him everything he wanted to hear. So, I let him speak. The real problem he had was that no manager seemed to be able to stay for long. Because of him, I thought to myself. It’s always because of the boss. He then explained that the goalkeeping coach had seen them through the end of last season and kept them up. But he did not want the pressure for another season and so stepped aside. Lest he lose his job – I could see where this was going. I needed to play dumb and flip the conversation on its head. I told him that I only wanted constant short-term success and achieving that in a football club doesn’t always guarantee that a manager will stay. What I would do was build a team that anyone could use. On the point of recruitment, he mentioned that he has strong business ties in Brazil and would allow his manager to send scouts there. The idea seemed ludicrous to me. He wanted to persuade saleable assets to come over in order to keep the club running. Having said that, two thirds of their foreign player quota had already been signed in the summer. But before I got excited, he expressed a frustration that they were Georgian who, like Ukraine, were now long apart from the Commonwealth of Independent States. It was administrative red tape considering the history of Dinamo Tbilisi in the top division of Soviet football, but the positive was there: he wanted a Brazilian to come to Sumy. I expressed a desire to make it happen - these people needed something exotic. The club had undergone great change in the summer. Due to the exodus in pre-season, the two longest serving players were set to be announced as their captaincy team for the season. This was non-negotiable. In part, Tkachenko explained, this was due to the wages afforded to their star player Mykola Vechurko. He had made a few appearances in the Premyer-Liha as a teenager, coming through the ranks at Arsenal Kyiv before doing so, but had travelled well since. He had signed from a Lithuanian side last year following short spells in Germany and Turkmenistan, but all were at a lower league level. Now he was paid 450K R a month – four times anyone else at the club – and realistically could expect to match that salary at any top-level side bar Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar. By trade he is an anchorman, Tkachenko went on, but you could expect him to be the heart of the side owing to an increasing influence over his fellow professionals. He just read the play better than anyone else here and that was the justification for his salary. I had my Tymoshchuk. This couldn’t sound better! Next in line was Viktor Lykhovydko, also 26, and with a full season at Sumy behind him. A defender in the purest sense, he had fallen down the leagues before being brought back up at Sumy. The two of them understood the game and were guaranteed to give everything for the cause at Yuvileynyi. I was grateful for the presentation of the rest of the squad that followed. I got to learn the chairman’s cadences, when he was telling the truth and when he was embellishing it. Yaroslav Rafalskyi had also joined from the Druha Liha the year before and was a bit of a journeyman with nearly 200 games for over ten clubs. Again, he wasn’t much of a footballer but Tkachenko really felt that with our limited numbers in midfield he could be the perfect foil for Vechurko. Principally an agricultural central defender, his pace and power can provide some bite with an engine suited to constant closing-down the opposition. The two most versatile attacking players in the squad were lightweight and small Vadym Yavorskyi and Petro Pereverza, an inseparable duo who trained and played together at Chernomorets in their youth with some overlap. In Yavorskyi, they had a player who could play across the front line and could use both feet equally well, while left winger Pereverza could also play up front and offer a partnership there. Both were said to be used to challenging for the ball in the air – a prerequisite for this league - and would be effective despite their stature, even on opposite wings. The returning striker Eugene Murashov, a taller and stronger boy in a similar early-twenties age group, had also played alongside them in Odesa, but the chairman wanted former caretaker manager Sergiy Zolotnitskyi to inform the next manager of the justification for his signings himself. That statement seemed a little odd, but I wasn’t going to press on a possible chasm in their relations. When I asked about the goalkeeping coach’s history, the chairman could only offer that he struggled to find consistent league appearances after Shakhtar following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’d been to Poland and Bulgaria but never really settled and, while this was his second stint at Sumy as a coach, he never stayed anywhere long. On the other hand, his coaching had taken him all over the Ukraine and into Moldova, so he had vast experience – enough to steer a team away from relegation. Did I have an ally in Zolotnitskyi or not? Young wingers Rostyslav Taranukha and Yegor Lugovyi gave them a weightier, asymmetrical balance to the right or left wing respectively and rounded out the players who were retained from last year’s lucky escape from relegation. The former could move up front while the latter could fall back into defence – both having been trained well at Dynamo Kyiv. I nodded sagely. Lugovyi was in his second spell at the club after returning from Armenia but the chairman was worried that at 23, he still hadn’t held down a first team role and was now available for loan. He had been on the books of four different top tier clubs without making an appearance until he got here. In Taranukha he had an expensive 21-year-old direct from the Premyer-Liha last summer. It was a large financial risk, he warned. The boy had to play. He wants to be a striker – don’t we all, he joked. Before I could be saturated with him reeling off names of players I had never heard of, Tkachenko dryly noted that all others were new except for two of the three goalkeepers and he would happily defer to Zolotnitskyi on that as well. The caretaker clearly did well to bring players to the club, but it was far from certain that the chairman was happy with the new recruits. I could tell that relegation was on his mind. It may never not be. I got the impression that if at any stage it was looking like the worst was going to happen, after committing all that money, Zolotnitskyi was gone.
  13. 18 June 2018 The soft, serpent winds of Moscow pursued their foes as I stood resolute, eyes closed and tilting my head toward the sun’s minor warmth. This can’t go on. I need to stretch the truth. I slowly looked around at the casual swarms of people ebbing in and out of the square. Deception was my only option now. A quick month had passed since the world’s media had gone home. The World Cup had energised the country. Russian football was back. Most part-time pundits had used the screen well, boosting their familiarity with the public and going on to secure their first coaching jobs on the crest of a wave. A good playing career opens doors; a garrulous man keeps them open. Yet door after door closed in my face, my cover letter not even warranting a single reply. I was exhausted from trying. There was no way in. Well, there was no honest way in. There was now only one opportunity remaining. Club owners and directors had completed their summer’s coaching recruitment with giddy ease, plucking both rotten and ripe fruit to appease an engaged public. I could try to parachute over to Belarus mid-season, but I desperately wanted to re-join the pre-season rhythm I knew before it was over. I threw my job away for this. I can’t go back to managing amateurs now. I loved my homeland, but I had also closely followed Dinamo Kyiv in my youth. Their 80’s Soviet league and cup dominance was my inspiration to become a player – and their manager, too, in my current dreams. Lobanovskyi, Luzhnyi, Shovkovskiy, Shevchenko, Rebrov – there was no end to the heroes in the south that I felt like I knew. And now their homeland was now my only chance before the inevitable reactionary moves towards established, safe pairs of hands for the early season strugglers. I didn’t know the leagues – who did? But I knew their points of reference, the unmistakable success and private fortunes of the big teams. And I knew of the scandals. And the match-fixing. It was regrettable, of course. But these things even out over time. How many teams, in hindsight, would have taken the money over the points? Too many clubs had gone to the wall in recent years, even in Russia. I had to be open minded about what went on across the border - I could be involved in murky deals one day whether I like it or not. I needed to be street-smart to survive. The position still available was due south-west of Moscow. I could at least pretend that I was heading all the way to Kyiv via the E101. Once safely into Ukraine, I’d have to bear south-east toward Kharkiv, one of four host cities of Euro 2012 along with Kyiv, Donetsk, and Lviv. My target was half-way to the former capital. I’d need to be in the area if they wanted to interview me, but it was Friday and a circuitous ten-hour drive lay ahead. At minimum I’d make a weekend of it. I just hoped there was a weekend’s worth of things to do in this unheard-of city 300 km east of Kyiv. I didn’t want to have to drive the other 200 km to Kharkiv just to find entertainment. It was the adopted home of Dynamo’s great rivals Shakthar Donetsk, too. I couldn’t enjoy that. Undeterred, I took to researching the club. I had not heard of them before but when I laid eyes upon the stadium, I would not forget them. This was a towering 25,000 all-seater decorated in the famous yellow and blue of Ukraine on either side. It was a gas company’s passion project, and completely at odds with this level. Numerous teams had used these facilities over the years, teams that have come and gone. It was an inn for those expected to sleep decadently but no one could call it their rightful home. However, any rogue should have used this to their advantage. The stadium was a weapon to be used to clinch deals. It will be an exquisite backdrop to help delude prospective new recruits. I had seen enough. I imagined myself standing inside, gesturing at the modern-day amphitheatre’s greatness, players hanging on my every word. I picked up the phone. “Allo. Galina Nasedkina speaking. How can I help you?” That voice. Crystal clear and made for radio. Speaking Russian. My Russian. She had reacted flawlessly to my dialling code. This was a club very well prepared indeed. It caught me off guard. I panicked. I began excitedly talking over her. I didn’t hear anything she said. I was too busy rambling. I caught the end of a sentence about the application process. I could not be this shaky for meeting chairmen of the board. It was too late to try and pass myself off as an agent or fixer, so I had to regain my composure and ask for details. Due to the number of applicants expected, they would inform unsuccessful candidates within a week. This made the weekend ahead seem like an age that I would have to extend. But the process was clean and clear – one glance at your history and a snap decision was made, then applicants were discussed at board room level. I began to doubt whether I was smart enough to dupe these wily professionals. Would the way I talked have had a negative influence already? I was out of my depth and, after making my closing pleasantries, I hung up. How could I force myself into the run-off? I took a long walk along the river to clear my mind. I had to become someone else, and quickly. Arriving home, energised and focussed, I took to the computer to do more research on the league. Within minutes I read that the second division, Persha Liha, was rife with corruption, sanctions, and competition withdrawals. So far, so good. This was exactly the atmosphere I required. For what I have planned, I need to slip under the radar and let the league organisers concentrate on the bigger issues at play. I could organise Sunday sides and coach them, but could I manage professionals? My coaching badges were the problem; I was underqualified. I’d have to embellish all my credentials if I was going to pull this off. I opened my résumé. My hard-won National A licence became a Continental A licence, studied in Moscow. It wouldn’t be questioned. An entirely fabricated playing career became my references. I knowingly chose dissolved clubs in the depths of the West zone of the fourth tier. I knew of those clubs in and around the capital - will a club in the second tier of another country? Probably not. I had to gamble; I can’t pull off this trick twice. I couldn’t let this desperate indiscretion ruin my future, though. If it didn’t work, my name will become notorious. Or worse – a joke. By the time Euro 2020 came around, with games in St. Petersburg, I would have my licences for real anyway. I need an alias to see me through for now. Something easily brushed off as a prank. Yet something for the press to slowly see for what it is - deeply Machiavellian. While I thought of the alternative surname, I caught myself in the mirror. My hair. It had to change. I needed a disguise. I couldn’t just cut back the length. I needed to be able to revert it quickly and slink back into my old self, explaining that I took myself on a remote city break to get away from it all. I thought of an image they could trust. I already had the glasses to give an impression of intelligence, but I needed to look like one of their own. I needed to become blond. I chuckled to myself as I realised that I could look like Anatoliy Tymoshchuk! My shoulder length hair would take all day to change. All that was missing was the headband. I’d need to train with the players at that level so I decided to get one – it would complete the impersonation. That is what I would say if I was caught out, anyway – it was a hoax gone too far. If not, it would be a long time before our paths crossed anyway. The former Ukraine captain was now a coach at Zenit St. Petersburg, and a visit to the second city was two years away for me at least. I just had to be one of those pundits and get my face in the media. Which face that is remains to be seen. I soon thought of Tymoshchuk and meeting him in a TV studio. He was a brilliant player, orchestrating the tempo of play, and anyone would love to build a team around that style of central midfielder. He had an excellent long-range shot, too. The more I thought about him, the more I wanted to have his approach as the basis of my team. If I did become successful and my appearance was mocked later, it would be clear for all to see that while my appearance was an over-eager homage, it could change. What would remain is that the player himself embodied my philosophy. I would grow tired of needing to think of every tributary that this charade could flood. I had to live it; I had to believe it. I had to forget my old self. A cheap façade was not enough – a pseudonym was still required to hide behind. Yet another falsehood, Dmitry. That’s when it hit me. Another falsehood! I turned to my computer and amended the title of my résumé. Dmitry… Samozvanets. I could blame the bureau for deliberately misspelling Vasnetsov. I did have an artistic flair for this, after all. But now I’m an impostor – another False Dmitry.
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