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  1. December 2035 Moscow, Russia The full-time whistle had already gone at the Otkritie Arena, and the result was not the one the home fans were looking for. After a 2-1 defeat in Paris in the penultimate round of fixtures, a home win against Fenerbahce was the only way Saparow’s Spartak could guarantee themselves a place in the knockout stages. The last 16 was a place the club had been on several occasions over recent years without ever pushing beyond, but the new manager was already aiming high. But the Turks, determined to avenge the 3-1 defeat in Istanbul, had been on good form, and their strong start had overwhelmed the Russian outfit somewhat. An early lead was a just reward for early pressure and positivity, and that left Spartak on something of a knife-edge as the minutes ticked by. But just before the hour mark, a sumptuous curling free-kick from young Fedorenko levelled the game, and that was how things remained at the full-time whistle. The draw took Spartak to seven points from their six fixtures – a decidedly low number for a team seeking qualification – but there was still a chance. Napoli and PSG were playing out injury time in Italy, and if the half-time scoreline held, Spartak would be through. Three agonising minutes ticked by – an injury to the Neapolitan left-back resulting in an extended period of stoppage time – but eventually the full-time whistle went. Seconds later, as text feeds and official websites updated, a roar rippled round a Moscow stadium some 1,500 miles away. The home side had pulled a goal back, but a 2-1 defeat to the long-confirmed group winners was not enough. In the end, a goal scored in brave defeat in Naples proved to be the difference. Spartak had won the home leg of the double-header with their Italian rivals 1-0, Vorobyov netting the winner in the first half, but two weeks later had succumbed to a 2-1 defeat on their travels. With both sides ending level with seven points apiece, it ended up being Stanislav Kostenko’s second-half consolation that sent Spartak through at the expense of their opponents – away goals scored in the games between the two sides involved. Not quite the narrowest of margins, but not far off. Of course, not everybody in the red and white replica shirts of Spartak were pleased with their side’s performances. They had lost fully half of their group matches, and their tally of seven points was the lowest of any side to make it through to the last 16. Whilst a 2-1 defeat in Paris was by no means a poor effort, the 3-1 home loss to the same opponents showed a clear gulf in class between the two teams. What was more, second place in the group would almost certainly mean one of Europe’s elite sides in the knockout round. And yet, there were an increasing number of fans who were slowly becoming convinced of the new manager’s methods. Spartak sat four points clear of city rivals CSKA at the top of the league after 16 of the season’s 30 matches, and while the side had unquestionably got off to a slow start, the new signings and tactical system were beginning to show signs of gelling. Defeat to CSKA in the fourth game of the season remained the only league defeat so far, and you will find few supporters of any persuasion who can convincingly argue against a manager who has their team on top of the league and into the last 16 of Europe. When the Champions League draw came, it would indeed bring with it an impossible task. Chelsea – the last team to knock Saparow out of the Champions League in his previous role – were picked out of the hat against the Muscovites, and whilst the first match after the long Russian winter saw Spartak secure an admirable 1-1 home draw against the London club – Manchester United loanee Polyakov getting the goal – they would go down 2-0 in a battling performance at Stamford Bridge. There was no shame in the defeat, no humiliation against a superior club, but expectations once again met. Slowly but surely, and certainly with a considerable number of grumbles, Saparow was winning the fans round. He knew, as did his employer, that it would come as long as his men kept winning on the field, and eventually his lack of ‘history’ at the club would be forgotten. It could well take years, but he was certainly off to a strong enough start.
  2. August 2023 Zagreb, Croatia “Just five minutes to go here in Zagreb, and it’s the visitors who are pushing for a third goal. An equaliser here, and the Kazakh champions will lead on away goals. “Narrowly wide there from Bogdanov, he holds his head in his hands but it was a difficult opportunity from a tight angle. The Dinamo keeper will be in no hurry to take the goal kick, you imagine.” … “Cut out by Kadyrkulov, a great interception from the big man at the back. He plays it to Nazarov, and there’s time for the Ukrainian to survey the scene ahead of him. Simple ball to Patula on the left, and it’s Nazarov again crossing halfway. Is there one last chance for Shakhter? “In to the feet of Bogdanov, but the star striker has his back to goal and can’t shake off his man. Good feet there though, holds it up well and feeds Startsev flying forward down the right, great energy from the wing-back. “He’s beaten his man for pace, gets to the byline and pulls it back, PAK! IT’S THERE! IT’S THE TEENAGER, RUSLAN PAK, AND IT’S 3-3! “It’s a fantastic burst from Startsev to get to the dead-ball line, and good movement from the substitute Pak to beat his man at the near post. The goalkeeper maybe could have done better, but it came at him so fast. It doesn’t matter anyway – it’s Dinamo Zagreb 3, Shakhter Karagandy 3-3, and unless the hosts can find another goal, it’s the team from Kazakhstan who will be playing Champions League football this season.” … “There it is! The full-time whistle blows with the score 3-3, and it’s the underdogs of Shakhter Karagandy who go through to the group stages for the first time in their history. They led 2-1 after 88 minutes in the first leg only to concede a last equaliser, but they’ve pulled it off here tonight. 3-1 down after a crazy opening half hour, goals from Bogdanov on the hour and teenage substitute Ruslan Pak with three minutes to play seeing them through. The ghosts of 2013 are well and truly exorcised, and 10 years after that defeat to Celtic, Shakhter Karagandy have booked their place in the Champions League proper.” Bahtiyar Saparow punched the air with delight at the final whistle, thrilled with the determination and fight shown by his players in coming from behind against a side which, on paper at least, should have had enough to beat them after securing an away draw in the first leg. Dinamo were as tough a raw as they could have asked for in the final round of qualifying, but somehow they had overcome them. It was not the first time his Shakhter side had sprung a surprise. He’d joined the Kazakh side from Istiqlol in Tajikistan, where he had spent just a single year and won every domestic trophy available with a side by far and away the strongest in the nation. Seeking more of a challenge, he’d been enticed to Karaganda by the prospect of turning around the two-time national champions, who had narrowly avoided relegation and were without a trophy in over a decade. In his first season, he had hoped simply to steer the club away from the dogfight, removing a considerable amount of deadwood from the playing staff, overhauling the backroom personnel, and laying out the blueprint for his tactical system. At the halfway point they seemed on target, sitting 5th of 12 in the Kazakh top flight and very much holding their own. However, a sensational form of run, powered by the record-breaking goalscoring of Ukrainian striker Olexiy Bogdanov, saw Shakhter lose just one of their final 19 games, winning 15 of them, and they clinched the title by a full eight points. That led to Champions League qualification, but even in order to reach the Dinamo tie Saparow’s men had to come through two rounds of qualifying, brushing aside Dinamo Minsk and Hapoel Be’er-Sheva on the back of strong away displays and big home wins. By that time, the reinforcement brought in by the champions had given them an almost unassailable lead in the league, with chasing Aktobe a full 13 points behind with just eight games to go. The group stage draw would pit Shakhter against Chelsea, Juventus and Besiktas, and there would be an even bigger shock to come. Neither the English and Italian giants had a great deal to fear from the plucky Kazakh underdogs, and Saparow’s side would indeed finish bottom of their group – but only after springing the biggest surprise of the opening round of fixtures, turning over the Turkish outfit 3-1 in Karagandy and looking very good while doing so. After two league titles, one domestic cup, and an unexpected appearance on club football’s biggest stage, Bahtiyar Saparow’s reputation was beginning to grow. It was little surprise to see him on the move once again.
  3. An opening post that not only presents me with an intriguing and believable character, but also references both Jonathan Wilson and Valeriy Lobanovskiy and is set in a former Soviet nation? That might be a full house - I'll be following along with great interest. Excellent start, and I'm looking forward to seeing where you take this.
  4. October 2035 Istanbul, Turkey Boos rang out around the famous Sukru Saracoglu Stadium as the final whistle blew. A tiny band of topless Russians in one corner of the vast arena continued their bellowed songs, their drums as relentless as they had been throughout the 90 minutes. Around them, yellow and blue smoke drifted across the night sky, accompanied by jeers of derision aimed at the home team. After a home defeat to reigning champions Paris Saint-Germain in the opening round of fixtures, Bahtiyar Saparow’s Spartak were up against it in their Champions League group. They had done well to even reach this stage – beating Italian giants Inter in extra time at home in Moscow in the play-off – but were hungry for more, for progress into the knockout stages and the prestige that came with it. And now, in the cauldron of Istanbul, they had been transformed from European also-rans to a club with a genuine chance of making it to the last 16. Evgeni Vorobyov, the controversial summer signing who had thus far failed to live up to either his price tag or the hype surrounding him, exploded into life with two wonderfully-taken goals in a 3-1 comeback win, and the Muscovites took second place in the group as Napoli lost in Paris. Once that small band of Spartak ultras were finally able to leave the stadium – escorted by riot police and trying to launch their own flares to compete with those of the vanquished home fans – the victorious Saparow was ushered from the dressing room to the press centre, where he faced not just the Turkish and Russian media, but that of the watching world. “Bahtiyar, a superb win for Spartak today. What was different today?” “The difference today was that we were able to execute our plan very well. We were not shaken by the early goal, and after we scored we kept growing in confidence.” “Vorobyov played very well today, did you give him any specific instructions?” “Only to play as he knows he can. Zhenya is a very special player, and he hasn’t deserved some of the criticism that he’s faced. That said, he knows he’s been able to improve, and he’s done exactly that this evening. Both goals were excellent, and hopefully this is the start of a good run for him.” “PSG won tonight, which means you now hold second place in Group C. What are your expectations for the rest of the campaign?” “The expectation is that we perform to the best of our ability every time we come out to play. In a competition like this you have to make the most of your home games and work very hard away, and so far we’ve dropped one match in Moscow and gained one here. The two games against Napoli will be very difficult but very important, but of course we want to go as far as we can in the Champions League. One more please.” “Bahtiyar, your players will of course be tired after tonight, and you have an important league game in Krasnodar on Sunday. Will you be making many changes against your old club?” “We can’t afford to disrespect Kuban for even a second, and I won’t be weakening us unnecessarily. However, we’ll have to see how the players respond from tonight. We’re fortunate to have a strong squad with many different talents, and I’m confident that if we need to make changes, we’ll have a very capable team on the field in Krasnodar.” Four days later, Spartak did indeed travel to the south of Russia for a clash with their manager’s former employers, and came away with a 2-0 win that kept them level on points with CSKA at the top of the table, behind their city rivals and defending champions only by virtue of their derby day defeat earlier in the campaign. For the first time all season, there was a sign that they had found something akin to form. They hadn’t dropped many points – just two drawn games in addition to their sole defeat – but their football had looked disjointed, unwieldy at times. Now, with success on the continent and a run of results at home, Spartak were beginning to hit their stride. The calls for Saparow to go were quieting, and Champions League progress was a possibility, even if not yet likely. In short, things were looking up.
  5. December 2020 Balkanabat, Turkmenistan “I understand, Bahtiyar, of course I do, but that doesn’t mean I’m pleased to see you go. Is there anything we can offer you that would convince you to change your mind?” “Thank you, Mr President, but no. I don’t feel there’s anywhere left for me to take the club, and I’m ready for a new challenge. The foundations are in place for the next manager, and I want to leave on a high.” Saparow was certainly doing that. A year on from Balkan’s dethroning of Altyn Asyr and success in the Yokary Liga, the young manager had followed it up with the single most successful season in Turkmen football history. Balkan had entered four competitions, and had emerged with four trophies – a clean sweep. The Super Cup had been a sign of things to come, star signing Wahyt Orazsahedow scoring within 10 minutes against his former employers in a 4-1 win, and Altyn Asyr blown out of the water by the pace, power and movement of the Balkan attack. Nobody took the match too seriously, but the stage was set for a season of monumental achievement. The same opposition had just been beaten in the Cup final, a solitary strike from midseason signing Boliyan this time the difference between the two sides, and establishing Balkan as the dominant force in Turkmen football with all three trophies to their name. The third of those, the league title, was won emphatically. A full 24 points was the margin from Saparow’s table-toppers to the former champions in second place, and what was even more impressive was the manner of their victory. Not only was the distance between Balkan and the rest a vast one, but over the course of their 36 matches they racked up a goal difference of more than 90, and tasted defeat in precisely none of their league fixtures. Their young manager had overseen an unbeaten season across all three domestic competitions, and nobody could claim they hadn’t deserved it. But the crowning glory of Balkan’s season came in the AFC Cup, the competition contested by the top clubs of Asia’s ‘developing footballing nations.’ It was not the Champions League, but given that they hadn’t been given the opportunity to compete in the primary competition, the AFC Cup was as big a prize as they could have aimed for. The previous year, Balkan had been knocked out at the group stage, picking up just six points from six games. On this occasion however, games against Bahraini, Tajik and Jordanian opposition had yielded an unbeaten 16, and it very soon became apparent that, even without the cup-tied Orazsahedow, Balkan meant business. The second round saw them brush aside further Bahraini opposition in the form of Al-Hidd, before the draw handed them a grudge match with none other than Altyn Asyr, both clubs looking to make a rare Turkmenistani appearance in the final four. A 2-1 home defeat left Saparow’s men up against it, but a dramatic conclusion in Asgabat a week later saw the comeback completed, a 3-1 win on the night and 4-3 aggregate victory taking them into the semis, where they would overcome Al-Zawra’a of Baghdad by identical 2-1 scorelines home and away. Balkan were in the final. Even then there would be adversity for them to overcome, with the luck of the draw favouring their opponents. Vietnamese side Dong Tam Long An were handed home advantage for the showpiece, but finished with only an 88th minute consolation goal for their efforts, two early strikes from young playmakers Geldiyew and Aiazhan enough to land Balkan their first ever AFC Cup trophy. “In that case Bahtiyar, I can only thank you for the past couple of years here. You will always be welcome in Balkanabat, and I wish you the best of luck in the next step of your journey. Can I be so bold as to ask where that be?” The younger of the two men smiled, taking the offered handshake firmly. He had offers – plenty of them, in fact – but he had already decided which route he was planning to go down. “Dushanbe. Istiqlol to be precise. We may see each other again sooner than you think.” “If that’s so, maybe I’ll withhold some of that luck for our next encounter. Thank you, Bahtiyar, and go well. It’s been a pleasure.” Saparow shook his former employer’s hand one last time before leaving the office and indeed the stadium. He’d be back – he was fairly sure of that – but he also knew he was unlikely ever to sit on the Balkan bench as manager again. They had given him his start in management, stood by him – albeit somewhat reluctantly – after a false start, and now both they and he had reaped the rewards. Still only 24 years old, his whole future opened up in front of him. Already, Balkanabat was disappearing into the rear view mirror.
  6. August 2035 Moscow, Russia “Into the final minutes here, and still nothing from Spartak.” “No, absolutely nothing threatening. They only need one goal, but they aren’t going to get it.” “CSKA have defended well, but Saparow’s team just haven’t created anything. His substitutions have been brave, but nothing has changed since the first minute.” “Exactly, there hasn’t been any pace, anything special. It’s been very disappointing.” It had indeed been disappointing for Bahtiyar Saparow and his Spartak side. His fourth match in charge, a big derby clash away at city rivals at defending champions CSKA, and his men had come up woefully short. CSKA had never looked like adding to Viktor Biryukov’s 46th minute goal, but nor had they looked like conceding at all, Roman Khibaba’s men able to stroll through the game in third gear and hold their enemies at bay. The final whistle brought with it pyrotechnics from the disgruntled away end, riot police called upon in the immediate aftermath as frustrations boiled over into the streets around the VEB Arena, and more fury vented in the direction of the newly-appointed Spartak boss. For the first time in his tenure, he felt that on this occasion they were justified. His team had been overawed by the occasion, outplayed comfortably by a team still enjoying the confidence boost of wrenching the league back to their side of the Russian capital, and undone by a moment of set-piece brilliance from Biryukov. The match had been flat, slow, largely uneventful – a terrible spectacle, especially for a derby clash – and Spartak had done nothing to change the situation. What was more concerning for Saparow was the fact that CSKA’s 4-3-3 was exactly the sort of set-up that his own tactical system should have, in theory, matched up perfectly against. Spartak had the numbers in the centre of midfield, extra men in the final third, and still the presence on the flanks to pose problems. But they had utterly failed to do so, and while CSKA were champions for a reason, it raised questions for the remainder of the season which the newspapers were only too happy to ask. The last one in particular stung, even if the journalist’s conclusion was that it was far too early to be calling for the dismissal of a man who had lifted the Champions League trophy with unfancied Shakhtar just three years ago, and had barely been able to make his mark on his new charges. It was all true, but it rankled with Saparow – precisely because he felt he should have made his mark by now. At any other club, perhaps the criticism would have been easier to take, easier to hold lightly. But this was Spartak – his club, the side he had dreamed of first playing for and then managing. Now he was here, it was not only not going to plan on the field, but off it he was already being hounded out. Throughout his career he had known very little in the way of failure. His belief in a system, his ability to coach the best out of his players, and his determination in pursuing his transfer targets had resulted in a personal trophy haul that would be the envy of managers a great deal older. But they were different, and they weren’t won with Spartak. This was the one job he could not fail in. There was nowhere to go from here. It was win or bust – and so far, Bahtiyar Saparow felt it had been a bust.
  7. November 2019 Balkanabat, Turkmenistan The referee’s whistle pierced the silence as the small crowd, lost in the vastness of the stadium, held their collective breath. The decision had been an obvious one, but the consequence of it was be huge. There was only one man who was going to take the penalty, and with the pace of all of his 37 years he strode forward. Mammedaly Garadanow had already announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, despite the protestations of his manager. Despite his failing legs and aching muscles, he had contributed more than 20 goals in all competitions, and had been challenging the league’s top strikers before a month-long injury midway through the season pushed him out of the running. With one goal to his name already in the day, his confidence was high. A classical run-up – seven even paces, no stuttering or trickery – and then a swing of his right boot, and the ball was in the back of the net. The visiting goalkeeper had gone the right way, but the placement was too precise for his outstretched arm. The lead was doubled, and even with 70 minutes still to play, the game was surely over. Indeed, when the 90 minutes were up the lead had been added to, a fortuitous own goal making the scoreline 3-0 and leaving the university side perilously close to the relegation zone. While giving due respect to the players and staff of Yedigen however, very few were paying attention to that end of the table. Instead, after a lengthy pause, the stadium announcer gave everyone in the Sport Toplumy ground the news they wanted to here. Having been behind at half time, defending champions Altyn Asyr had staged a comeback away at FK Asgabat to draw 2-2. But it wasn’t good enough. With two games remaining in the 2019 Yokary Liga season, Balkan Balkanabat were champions of Turkmenistan. As the prolonged celebrations on the field and in the dressing room drew to a close, the manager of the newly-crowned champions was beckoned to the stadium office of the club’s president. Unlike his last season debrief, Bahtiyar Saparow walked down the corridor of power with a spring in his step. “Come on in, Bahtiyar, and congratulations. A year makes a big difference in football – you’ve made me a very happy man. Thank you.” “Thank you, Mr President, for your confidence in me. A year ago…” “Forget it, Bahtiyar, I’ll have no more talk of a year ago. This is a time to celebrate, to look back with fondness on. I can’t offer you a drink, I’m afraid…” “I’m not much of a drinker, Mr President, don’t worry.” “Well then. Tell me, Bahtiyar, when you came in here last time you told me you needed three men and you’d give me a title. How were you so confident?” “I knew I needed others too – you were very generous in your backing – but those three men filled the main gaps I had in the system. I could see they would bring balance that was missing, and Owekow would weaken Altyn Asyr. It might not have looked like it last season, Mr President, but my system works when the right men are in it. “As for guaranteeing you the title, let’s just say it was a calculated gamble. It was something we both wanted, and even if I failed I’d have had 11 more matches than I thought I was about to be given.” The older man paused, both surprised and impressed of the 23-year-old manager who sat in front of him. He had doubted his credentials on more than one occasion, and yet he had comfortably delivered his side’s first league title in seven seasons – far too long for a club of Balkan’s stature. “Well Bahtiyar, I have to admit I’ve been surprised by you. Surprised by your boldness, surprised by your methods, surprised by your success. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to be so. I don’t mean to ask before this season is even over, but what are your plans for next season?” Saparow smiled, knowing the question was coming. He’d been planning for it ever since Balkan hit the top of the table at the end of March. By this day in November, with two games remaining in the season, his answer was as complete as it was ever going to be. “Mr President, I’m glad you asked. In many ways the plan is the same as this year – win the league title. That has to come first. But I’m also keen that this first title is the start of something here. “To that end, we need to improve our performance in domestic and international cups as well, and to do that there will need to be more changes to the personnel. I would suggest the current squad is around 70% of the way to the destination I would like. It has obvious talent, but obvious problems. It needs to be younger, brighter, quicker. It needs depth, and it needs star quality too.” “That sounds like a lot of change for a winning team, Bahtiyar. Do you have names in mind?” “I do, and if you’re happy, I’ll bring them to you after our final game. To give you an indication of what I’m thinking though, I’ll give you the man at the top of the list. Wahyt.” “Surely not? Would he even consider leaving? And the price…” The young manager smiled. It was going to be a good year.
  8. August 2035 Moscow, Russia “Now then men, I’m not disappointed with what I’ve just seen. They haven’t got near us yet, we’ve defended very well and you’re controlling the midfield fight. There are plenty of positives. “That said, this is Ufa. This is not CSKA, Zenit, Krasnodar. This is Ufa, at home, in front of our fans. This is not a game where we take a point and are happy with it. This is a game we need to win – we need to win to get off to a good start, to hit the ground running, to show we mean business. But we also need to win, because everybody important will win this game. “So get your head up early. Anatoli, Pavel – push onto their full-backs, make them deal with you. Sirojiddin, I want you to be looking wide and looking forward – take the risk, we can cope with the counter. If you’re in the final third, let’s make something happen, create and be sharp. We can win this, just keep going.” Bahtiyar Saparow’s first competitive half as Spartak manager had gone reasonably well, his side comfortably controlling the game against expected midtable side FK Ufa. His side were unlucky in one sense not be in the lead, the much-maligned Vorobyov’s shot cannoning off the outside of the post midway through the half, but on the other were yet to look fluid in the new system. Even so, Saparow was not yet concerned. It was a system which had seen him lead two teams to continental crowns, and he had utter faith in his methods. He sent his men back out onto the field after the interval, grabbing a brief word with the more creative of his two defensive midfielders, Uzbek prospect Sirojiddin Xoshimov. He had placed a significant of responsibility on the young playmaker, and wanted to make sure he understood that it wasn’t entirely on him to win the game. Switching to Xoshimov’s native tongue, his assurances were received with a smile. In the end, they were not required. Xoshimov’s second half was a good one, but not a particularly decisive one. Instead, new boy Fedorenko began to pay back some of his not insignificant transfer fee with two very different assists. They took their time in coming, but when they did, they gave a small degree of insight into just how Saparow’s side might cause problems for the rest of the season. The first goal, 15 minutes before the full-time whistle, was the superior of the two creations. A searching pass down the left from goalkeeper Bochkarev had found full-back Pavel Nazarov bombing on, and after drawing two men to him, he fed striker and captain Stanislav Kostenko. Seeing his path to goal blocked, Kostenko found the young Ukrainian, and a first-time flick with the outside of his boot diverted it into the path of Alex Kulaev, a summer arrival from Rubin Kazan, who slotted under the goalkeeper to make it 1-0. Just a few moments later, the win was sealed emphatically. Vorobyov, eager to get his Spartak career off to a scoring start, lashed in a shot from 20 yards which the visiting goalkeeper managed to push round the post. Fedorenko walked over to take the resulting corner, and swung the ball perfectly onto the forehead of centre-back Evgeni Ivashin, whose header flew into the top corner despite the best efforts of a man on the line. At 2-0, the game was done, and the Saparow era at Spartak was underway in the best way possible. The new manager did not have to say a great deal in the changing room after the match, only to shake the hand of each and every one of his players and congratulate them on a job well done. They had stuck to the plan, not got desperate in the face of Ufa’s increasingly defensive tactics, and it had been his new signings who had made the difference in the end. For the new man in charge, it was a good first day. In the stands, there were converts. Plenty remained unconvinced by the Turkmen, but there were small numbers who had seen enough in that first outing in the Otkritie Arena to envisage a successful time under Saparow’s management, an adherence to Spartak’s heritage of attacking football and faith in young talent. All in all, the first game of the season had gone about as well as could have been hoped – and, for the first time since his appointment, Saparow did not wake up to read calls for his head on a number of fan forums.
  9. July 2035 Moscow, Russia The knives were out once again for Bahtiyar Saparow and his not-quite-Azerbaijani chairman. This time it was not the nationalities of the pair that were being denigrated – although their status as ‘immigrants’ did neither of them any favourites among the Spartak faithful – nor was it the identities of the players they had collectively sold. Instead, it was the men coming in. What Saparow was accused of, in short, was of running an old boy’s club. Of the 10 senior players to walk through the doors at the Moscow club during the summer, three of them had been players sold by previous Spartak bosses, and a further three were men who had played under Saparow at his previous clubs. Not only that, but the price paid for one man in particular was tough for the supporters to take. Vadym Fedorenko was just 19 years old, and had a single season of first-team football under his belt. It had been a hugely successful season, in which he had assumed key playmaking duties in a Shakhtar Donetsk team which had completed a clean sweep of available domestic trophies, and been singled out for special praise throughout. The side he had broken into were knocked out of the Champions League by a late Manchester City goal in the quarter-finals, having lost the previous year’s final and won the entire competition a year earlier. There was little doubt that Vadym Fedorenko was a special talent, and the hoard of scouts descending on every Shakhtar home game was further proof of his abilities. But for the new Turkmen manager to go back to his former club, to sign a largely unproven player for a fee which had the potential to rise to club record level – around £25m once converted – was too much for many Spartak fans to deal with. If that wasn’t sufficient to rise their ire, the arrival of Evgeni Vorobyov helped to fuel their fury. A Russian international at the age of 21, the young striker was plucked for a similarly astronomical sum from top flight rivals Armavir – a provincial club who had risen to the top on the back of heavy investment from a local ‘businessman’ – to be one of the main beneficiaries of Fedorenko’s creativity. His scoring record spoke for itself, he clearly had more potential to unlock, and there was little doubt about the man’s character. To the outsider, there were no obvious problems – Spartak had secured the signature of one of their country’s brightest prospects, and he was ready to contribute straight away. The problem was, Spartak’s fans were not outsiders. They were very much on the inside, aware of everything that went on in their club’s present and past. It was the latter that was the problem on this occasion – for all his merits, Vorobyov had committed an unspeakable crime in his younger days. He had graduated from the academy of Zenit St Petersburg. As one of Russia’s most successful sides, Spartak have adopted the habit of picking up a number of fierce rivalries along the way. Moscow is a city flooded with football teams, and every meeting with title holders CSKA, old enemies Dinamo, or indeed long-relegated Lokomotiv and Torpedo, is cause for disturbance. Further feuds exist with one-time upstart club Anzhi Makhachkala – a classic case of established side rejecting new money – Soviet-era stalwarts Krylya Sovetov Samara, and even one of Saparow’s former sides, Kuban Krasnodar – although nobody could quite fathom the origins of this one. But ever since the early 2000s, Zenit had been a strong contender for Spartak’s strongest rival. The first team in over a decade to take the Russian title out of Moscow, a club suspected by many of having the backing of the state itself in the Putin years, and a club keen to get one over on the self-declared ‘people’s team.’ But the main point of contention in the Spartak-Zenit clash is simply one of geography – it is widely accepted that a Russian is either for Moscow and against ‘Peter,’ or vice versa, with little in the way of middle ground. For residents of the two cities – St Petersburg’s backers would go as far as to say ‘two capitals’ – the feeling is stronger still, and when it comes to football fans, the hatred runs deep. And so Vorobyov was written off by many Spartak fans as an enemy plant and unworthy of his transfer fee, simply by virtue of his footballing education. Combined with the outrage at the price needed to prise Fedorenko from Shakhtar, added to the fact that by the end of Saparow’s first transfer window there was not a single player at the club born outside of the former Soviet Union, all thrown in to a frenzy begun with the sale of Kaptoum and other fan favourites, and the knives were beginning to look very sharp indeed for Bahtiyar and his Russian-Azeri chairman. Despite all this, the latter retained absolute confidence in the former. He had little choice – his man had only been in position for a matter of weeks, and to remove him now would create far more problems for him than it would solve. That Saparow’s appointment was a gamble had been evident before he took it. Now, as the new season drew near, it was clear quite how big that gamble had been.
  10. I never do well in these! Hopefully my Atlanta side can replicate their real-life counterparts and navigate the play-offs successfully...
  11. November 2018 Balkanabat, Turkmenistan Bahtiyar Saparow sat alone in the corridor outside the president’s office of FK Balkan Balkanabat, just one of a huge number of corridors in the vast Sport Toplumy complex. The club had a separate office just a handful of streets away, but the current president enjoyed the sheer size of the 10,000-seater stadium and the proximity to the playing field he saw himself involved with. A ticking clock pierced the nothingness each passing second, the only sound interfering with the young manager’s internal monologue. In the mind of the young Turkmen, his career as a professional manager was all but over. He had overseen 14 matches at the end of the 2018 season for Balkan, and his side had finished a comfortable second in the nation’s Yokary Liga, a full 12 points ahead of Ahal in third place. Given that the club had been just six points ahead of the side behind them when Saparow took over, it could be argued that he had been a success. However, the Balkan fanbase – and as a result their president – was not inclined to be looking behind them. Their focus was instead on the club ahead in Altyn Asyr, the side from capital Asgabat that had lifted the previous four titles in Turkmenistan. They had done so again this season – and having started his reign 22 points adrift of them, it would have been naivety of the highest order to expect anything other – but the problem for the rookie manager was in the margin of victory. Saparow took over Balkan with the club’s record showing 12 wins, six draws and four defeats, sitting 22 points behind the leaders as mentioned. By the end of the season, that record showed an additional eight wins, a solitary draw, and no fewer than five losses. Only one of them had come against Altyn Asyr – Balkan had actually managed to defeat them in the second league meeting of Saparow’s tenure – but defeats to university side HTTU, bottom club Lebap and lowly Sagadam (capital club and 4th-place finisher Asgabat were the others to conquer Balkan) meant not only that half of the league got the better of Saparow in his debut half-season, but that the gap at the top of the table was a mammoth 30 points by the end of the campaign. That was a problem for the new manager, specifically because the club’s president had explicitly told him that the target for his 14-game trial was to bridge the gap, rather than seeing it become a gaping chasm. His innovative tactical system, inspired by Brazilian ‘box’ 4-4-2 formations from bygone years and tweaked for the modern area, had been a step too far for the limited squad at his disposal, and the football had not only been often unsuccessful, but also somewhat less than fluid. The small but vocal Balkan fanbase wanted Saparow out, and now the president was about to announce his decision. “Mr Saparow,” came a female voice as the door opened slightly, “you may come in now.” The young manager rose from his seat, nodded in appreciation to the young woman who now stepped outside the door, and walked through to greet his employer. He only hoped that employment would last beyond the next few minutes. “Bahtiyar, sit down.” The president was in no mood for niceties. “I need you to explain to me, as briefly as possible, why you should manage Balkan Balkanabat next season.” Saparow paused. His fears were well-founded – the president was not impressed with his audition, Balkan were no closer to the top of the pile, and Altyn Asyr looked dominant. The crowds, small but vocal, had not taken to the young manager, and now he had to justify his continued employment. He had precious few options. “Mr President, I appreciate things have not gone smoothly so far. The players have…” “With respect, Bahtiyar, you don’t need to tell me about the project again. I need you to tell me why you should walk out of this room as manager of my football club.” “Very well Mr President. I should walk out of this room as manager of Balkan Balkanabat, because with three key signings I will win you the league next season.” The president stared at the young man in front of him – a man who, despite seeing his side finish 30 points behind the champions, had just claimed he would overhaul them with just three new players. Surely it was a bluff? “Three signings, Bahtiyar? Who are they?” The younger of the two men handed his employer a piece of paper with three names written on it, each followed by the name of their current club and how much he estimated each man would cost. The president raised his eyebrows. “They will make that much difference?” A nod. “And the last one is achievable? They’ll let him go?” Another nod. “Bahtiyar, you have until April – 11 games in, to be precise. That’s one third of the season. Whoever was in charge would have had enough money to sign these three players, and potentially a little more besides. Bring them in, and let’s see if they’re the difference-makers you claim they are. If this football club is not in first place after 11 matches, you move on. “I have my doubts about you, Bahtiyar, but we are not an attractive proposition at the moment. Prove me wrong. Now, get out and sign those players you gave me.”
  12. July 2035 Moscow, Russia “I can’t believe we’ve let this Turkmen **** into our club, let alone given him a job. He’s been here five minutes and he sells Tony?” “Saparow has to go – he’s ruining the club. His ****ed-up policies might work with smaller teams, but this is Spartak for heaven’s sake!” “This is what he thinks of our history, of our tradition? Selling our legends for a pittance? Can Manchester send us Ucha back?” “Saparow is a CSKA spy! We can’t replace Tony, and not Dani and Diego too. Hang the *******!” “The Azeri and the Turkmen know nothing about this club. They both need to go – by force if necessary.” The Spartak fan forums were not exactly enamoured with the new man – or indeed men – in charge of their beloved club, and this time they had something concrete to base their concerns on. Within the space of a couple of weeks, Bahtiyar Saparow, the man that none of them seemed to want at their club, had sold more than £50m of players, including one club legend and another man not far behind. The man they knew as ‘Tony’ was a certain Antoine Kaptoum, a Cameroonian international striker who had overcome Russia’s race problem to become a hero at the Otkritie Arena. One of Sosiashvili’s first purchases 13 years ago, he had repaid his paltry transfer with 169 league goals in just over 300 games, leading the league’s scoring charts on more than one occasion and becoming Spartak’s go-to player when a goal was needed. But that would be the case no more. Aged 33 and demanding a 25% pay rise to sign a new deal, ‘Tony’ was told by the new manager to lower his demands or leave the club. At first, Kaptoum thought his new boss was bluffing – attempting to make his mark on the side by standing up to an iconic player – but he was not. Instead of taking the reduced wage on offer, he chose to leave, opting to play out his days in Saudi Arabi with Al-Ittihad. It helped that they were prepared to pay him a huge £125,000 per week, far beyond anything earned by any Spartak player. While the reasoning seemed sound to anyone detached from the situation, for the Spartak faithful it was another betrayal of their club, their values and their idols. Kaptoum had been a hero – a difficult thing for any African player to achieve in the red and white of Spartak – and now he had been sacrificed to make a point, given away for just £2.5m and with no replacement as yet. The replacement would come, but that would not placate their anger. And it would only be the start of it. The £50m worth of sales came in just 10 days, and it was not just Kaptoum’s departure that sent Spartak’s corner of the web into a frothing mess. Dani Santamaria, a much-loved Spanish playmaker about to enter his seventh year in Moscow, was sold off to Bordeaux for a sum not even reaching seven figures – he was 32 after all – while centre-back stalwart Armand Louisville headed to Serie A and Napoli for £9m after being deemed surplus to requirements. Ary Lopes, a flamboyant Brazilian who most Spartak fans assumed would take Santamaria’s mantle as creator-in-chief, would not stick around either - £10m and the Celta Vigo first team saw him trade red and white for sky blue. But by far the biggest sale was one which had the unique effect of uniting both fans and manager in frustration. Diego Ziegler was a Belgian international, and unlike the majority of those mentioned previously, was not winding down his career – far from it, in fact. Aged just 24, he had been a revelation since arriving from his homeland two years previously, and after just one full season in Moscow the club had been applauded by the footballing community for standing up to the money being offered to them by French giants Paris Saint-Germain. However, 12 months down the line, Ziegler and his agent had come to the conclusion that what the central midfielder needed was to be playing in a bigger league, and to be paid more money. It is a familiar story. When Monaco’s offer came to Saparow’s office, it was rejected out of hand – the club had no need of the funds, and Ziegler was a key part of the plans for the year ahead. Besides which, the bid was derisory. However, an angry meeting with the player’s agent and a leaked story in the press later, the manager’s hand was forced – Ziegler was now a risk to the harmony of the dressing room, and so had to leave. To the joy of the new boss, it was not a club from the Cote D’Azur, Spanish Costas or Italian Riviera that won the bidding war, but instead Southampton of dreary old England. The agent didn’t care – he had his cut – and Spartak was suddenly a huge £28m richer. Money does not make supporters of a club like Spartak happy, however, and on the day that Ziegler’s move was confirmed the calls for Saparow and his employer to stand down so somebody else could ‘save’ the club grew louder still. The manner of the departure was somehow pinned on the Turkmen manager, and many were quick to point out that the only players coming into the club had been a teenage goalkeeper for the youth team, and a full-back from lowly Tosno who had headed straight out on loan again. The squad looked low on numbers and drained of the star power they so craved – and there were only two men to blame. Signings were demanded – not only because the fans were worried about the strength of the squad, but because they were eager to find another reason to boot out the man who was yet to take charge of a single match for their side. Whoever came in, the majority of people were unlikely to be happy – and when Saparow did indeed make his moves in the market, they would split the Spartak fanbase right down the middle.
  13. Thanks Neil - I'm a sucker for the old Soviet states, and getting so far into the future had me itching to write something about it. Thanks for reading!
  14. August 2018 Balkanabat, Turkmenistan 17 years ago, Saparow had been through the same process. On that occasion, he was younger, inexperienced, significantly more naïve. Not only that, he had never managed a game of football before. But despite all that, he found himself leading out Balkan Balkanabat, the four-time champions of Turkmenistan, in the 23rd match of their league season. Having been expected to be challenging the nation’s dominant club, Altyn Asyr, for the league title, Balkan had slipped to more than 20 points adrift. Instead of turning to an experienced head to see out the campaign, the club’s president had instead taken a gamble on Bahtiyar, a man younger than most of his squad and mentally unprepared for the challenge ahead. As he stepped onto the turf at the Sport Toplumy stadium, the silence was deafening. Built as a multi-sport arena for a hugely ambitious 10,00 spectators, he could make out fewer than 200 fans in the plastic seats. Not only was the atmosphere non-existent, but the few supporters who had turned up for his first match in charge were clearly not in favour of his appointment. ‘Football not kindergarten’ read one of the hand-scrawled signs he was able to see. ‘Give us a real manager’ shouted a second. Turkmen football was not the biggest, but those who came to see their team week by week were clearly not impressed with their new rookie manager. Even the club president had been apprehensive about giving him the job, but the fact of the matter was that nobody more experienced was willing to risk their reputation with a club clearly inferior to the one team they were supposed to be hunting down. With no reliable hand available to take the wheel, he was forced instead to hand control to a young man with neither experience nor qualification. All that Saparow did have going for him, other than the absence of other candidates, was a visible drive to win, and a clearly-defined way of doing so. Axed from the Spartak Moscow academy as a child due to injury, he had studied the game informally throughout his teenage years and, at interview, had presented not only a tactical system which he believed would give Balkan the edge over the competition, but also a list of transfer targets that he would hope to move for in his first off-season. He was confident, spoke well, and his vision of success spoke to a president desperate to see his side back on top of the pile. But even when the full-time whistle blew on Bahtiyar’s first game as a professional manager – his side earning a 1-0 win over basement dwellers Lebap thanks to a second-half penalty from a 38-year-old striker – the fans that the president depending on for his position were less than convinced. They had expected a rout of the relegation candidates rather than a nervy performance from a side struggling to get to grips with a new and unusual formation. Even the penalty itself was contentious – Saparow needed things to improve, and quickly. “Saparow, can I have a word?” “Of course, Mr President. What can I do for you?” “I wanted to congratulate you on today’s victory. The first match is often the most difficult, and while you were clearly nervous it was important to win today. How do you feel it went?” “Honestly, Mr President, I’m a little disappointed but not surprised. Confidence is low, the system is new, and our opposition also had a new manager in charge so I was expecting a disjointed match. The victory was of course important, but more important is that the players see that the system can work and begin to get used to it. It will take some time for them to fully adapt, as I explained before. Still, I am pleased to have my debut out of the way.” “Well, I am glad to hear that you understand the importance of the result. But Saparow, you cannot help but have noticed the reaction of the fans?” “It was not the most exciting of matches, I can understand their frustrations.” “That’s true, but not the whole truth. The fact is, Saparow, that their expectations are perhaps higher than your own. They demand results instantly, and by playing good football. They are already upset at your inexperience – they will look for any excuse to call for your head.” “I’ve played a single match. And won!” “I know that very well, Saparow. I only share my experience with you. I would love this club to be one with a vision that sees beyond the next match, but the reality of the situation is that the fans demand instant success. Sadly, they do not see how the constant change they demand prevents us achieving the results they crave.” “So Mr President, what you’re telling me is…” “Drop the talk of projects, systems, and things taking time. Win football matches by any means necessary, but ideally with attractive play. And above all, get closer to Alyn Asyr by the time the season ends.”
  15. July 2035 Moscow, Russia “How does it feel, Bahtiyar?” The suited man being addressed drew his gaze back to the older gentleman, allowing his eyes one more look around the room as he did so. His eyes themselves began a smile that spread across his whole face, and only then did he answer. “It feels exactly as I imagined it would. I’m looking forward to getting started.” Elmaddin Ismayilov smiled gently, stepping towards the large mahogany desk that separated the two men. Bahtiyar Saparow stood as his new employer approached, and the two shared a handshake that was both firm and warm. “Do you mind if I sit down a moment?” “Of course Mr Chairman, please do.” The older of the two men moved to the side of the room, placing himself down in a modern office chair which seemed almost out of place among the history of the room. On the walls all around were images of a glorious past, photographs ranging from almost a century ago to just two seasons back. Replica trophies dominated one corner of the vast manager’s office – it was a shrine to success. “How do you feel about taking over now, Bahtiyar? We both know Ucha was hugely popular with the fans, that the supporters haven’t been particularly thrilled by my arrival on the scene, and some of the comments on your appointment have been… unsavoury to say the least.” The younger man smiled, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose with his right hand to buy himself a bit of time. “Mr Chairman, this is the club I have always supported. I was here as a boy, and I always dreamt of making it back. The fans may not be happy, but this club has never dealt well with change. I remember being one of the sceptics when Ucha was appointed, and there were plenty of us – nobody could have imagined the success he would bring…” “And now he’s at Old Trafford.” “Exactly. The thing is, Mr Chairman, I’m not looking to go to Old Trafford – not other than in the Champions League. The fans may not trust me because I’m not a Romantsev, Titov, Tikhonov or even an Alenichev, but I understand this club and I intend to build on what Ucha has done.” “I feel like we’re in a similar position here, Bahtiyar. Outsiders longing to be on the inside, hoping for a chance to prove ourselves to the supporters. In that regard, we are very much intertwined. Whilst success will help us in that respect, you must have seen some of the less pleasant comments surrounding our backgrounds?” Bahtiyar could only smirk. His new boss, Elmaddin Ismayilov, had bought out long-serving owner and chairman Leonid Fedun two weeks ago, taking control of Spartak Moscow in the process. It was not a move that had gone down well with the club’s vocal supporters’ groups – Ismayilov, a Moscow-born businessman of Azeri descent, had been subject to a number of online smears, the most harmful being the accusation that he had close links to Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev dynasty and had benefitted from the Caucasian state’s arms race with Armenia. None of it was true, but that didn’t matter when it came to the replacement of a man who, after his own rocky start, had become a Spartak hero. Bahtiyar himself was paying for his ethnicity. Also born in the capital, his Russian mother had insisted on passing on a full knowledge of his Turkmen heritage, even though he had never so much as met his father. His managerial career had begun in his paternal nation, and both his name and appearance made him stand out as different in his passport nation. Now, having been appointed to the manager’s position of the club he had supported and played in the academy side of, his ethnic make-up was counting against him. “They aren’t too keen on a Turkmen taking charge – we’re unknown as a nation, and the reputation we do have isn’t great. But I don’t remember there being too many complaints when Berdyev won the double way back when.” Kurban Berdyev was the idol of Turkmen football, the long-retired Rubin Kazan hero who had not only taken a provincial side to back-to-back titles and beaten Barcelona in the Camp Nou, but had then moved on to bring unfancied Rostov to within a whisker of the Russian title before taking on the Spartak job and winning two league titles and a cup before deciding to bring his career to an end. His nervous temperament on the sidelines – his name brings to mind a man hunched on the sideline constantly fiddling with prayer beads – did nothing to stop his remarkable success on the field, and the Spartak fans had taken him and his defensive football to their hearts after initial scepticism. Saparow’s predecessor, Ucha Sosiashvili, was another who had got off to a rocky start. Only in his early 30s when plucked from his native Georgia, his first home game was boycotted by one fan group in protest at such a low-profile appointment. However, two weeks before this conversation – a day after Ismayilov had completed his purchase of the club – he announced his departure to no less a club than Manchester United, having collected six league titles at Spartak in a 13-year reign and left a legend. Spartak fans were not wired to appreciate anyone from outside the club’s pantheon of heroes coming in, but like so many clubs, they could not resist success. Now it was Bahtiyar’s turn. The similarities with Sosiashvili in terms of youth were obvious – Saparow was just 39 years old – but the difference here was that the new man in charge had a depth of experience and somewhat more decorated CV than the predecessor. Not that that counted for anything among the sceptical Spartakovstsi. Returning to the conversation, the older man laughed. “Bahtiyar, when Spartak are crowned as champions, your passport will be irrelevant. You’ve got the ability to prove them wrong, otherwise I wouldn’t have employed you. Make them eat their words.” That would be easier said than done. -- Welcome one and all to another EvilDave story - this one being played out on FM17 (still my most up-to-date version...) with leagues loaded from all the former Soviet nations. I'm anticipating that this one will be reasonably short but flicking across several years of game time - 'flashbacks' will be in italics to make it easier to follow. Other than that, sit back and enjoy the ride!
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