Saul Pope –
It’s a club that’s only three years old but already has defeated Russian Football Premier League teams in the Russian Cup. Furthermore, Zenit Saint Petersburg and CSKA Moscow are tracking the cream of their players, and they look pretty certain to win promotion to the 2017-18 Russian Football Premier League. FC Tosno, a club based just outside Saint Petersburg, is a name you will become familiar with if you have even a passing interest in Russian football.
FC Tosno’s history is so short that it makes FC Krasnodar, founded in 2008, look at little old hat. Registered as a professional club only in June 2013, Tosno has made up for lost time. In its first professional season—2013-14—the club won the Professional Football League West and reached the quarter finals of the Russian Cup.
That cup run included a 1-0 win over Spartak Moscow; the only goal was scored by former Zenit defender Valentin Filatov, and remains one of my favourite ever goals (a quick Google search on the player will explain why).
FC Tosno did not need time to adapt
One might expect a brand new club in the Russian second division to need time to adapt—not so at Tosno. In 2014-15 the club finished third in the Football National League and made the promotion play-offs. It took the might of FC Rostov, in leaner times but still under the leadership of Kurban Berdyev, to thwart promotion.
The 2015-16 season started poorly, though after the winter break things picked up—only second-placed Arsenal Tula scored more points in the spring part of the season. At the time manager and former Spartak Moscow legend Dmitriy Parfenov was given, in the words of the club’s press officer Vladimir Basmanov, “carte-blanche” to rebuild the side. This patient approach has seen Tosno go into the 2016-17 winter break second only to Dinamo Moscow in the FNL—and with an eight point lead over third-placed SKA Khabarovsk they should still be there in May.
Forward Evgeniy Markov is the player that has caught the eye of CSKA and Zenit—it’s worth noting here that lower league players rarely get attention from Russian’s biggest clubs. Markov is a former Zenit academy player who has eight goals in his last seven games. His partner up front, Anton Zabolotniy, has ten goals for the season and started out at CSKA.
Other first team regulars who have had time at top clubs are defender Rustem Mukhametshin (Rubin Kazan), goalkeeper Artur Nigmatullin (CSKA) and midfielders Maksim Palienko (Spartak) and Vagiz Galiulin (Rubin). A number of the squad also have experience with Russia at under-21 level, and Galiulin is an Uzbekistan international—one of the best international sides to have never qualified for a World Cup. Basmanov see this experience as vital to the club’s success this season, as well as the fact that many have played together at these bigger sides. “We have a united squad,” he says.
Artem Milevsky has been the most eye-catching signing for the club
Perhaps the most eye-catching signing, though, was Artem Milevskiy—a notoriously wayward former Dynamo Kyiv forward who appeared for Ukraine at Euro 2012. Milevskiy signed for Tosno at the start of September, having tried and failed to settle at clubs in Turkey, Croatia and Romania since leaving Dynamo in 2013.
So far he has failed to score in eight (largely brief) appearances, but is having a wider impact at the club: “He’s an experienced master who has the respect of the other players,” says Basmanov, “Even though he hasn’t appeared regularly his role in the training process is invaluable.” Basmanov points to the development of Markov, whose purple patch has coincided with Milevskiy’s signing.
Though all may seem well regarding the squad, the same cannot be said of the club’s stadium. The town of Tosno, about 50km from Saint Petersburg, currently has no suitable stadium for professional football. With Zenit and Dinamo Saint Petersburg using the two arenas at the Petrovskiy Stadium, Tosno initially played in the town of Tikvin and recently moved to Velikiy Novgorod, an historical city in the neighbouring Novgorod Region.
FC Tono have moved to Novgorod to play in a bigger stadium
The move, and a bigger crowd, coincided with a great run towards the end of last season. The Novgorod authorities seem keen to keep hold of their popular lodgers—they are looking at increasing stadium capacity to meet RFPL requirements—, though it is hoped that within the next few years FC Tosno will finally play at ‘home’—an examination period is about to begin for the construction of a new stadium in the town.
Barring a catastrophe, promotion looks fairly certain in 2017 for FC Tosno—but in terms of development from there, the club is keeping its cards close to its chest. “It’s a bad soldier who doesn’t dream of becoming a general,” says Basmanov of the club (as an English football fan, I wonder when a UK-based press officer last came up with something so artful…), but he claims the current focus is only on assuring promotion.
However, what comes next perhaps suggests that FC Tosno wouldn’t just be making up the numbers in the top flight: “It’s highly likely that if we get promotion there will be rotation of the team, which means a number of new players being signed.”
Given the rise of and financial backing behind Dinamo Saint Petersburg, it could be that within a few seasons Russia’s north-west will have three sides in the top flight. Tosno’s ascension is good news for Russian football: following on from Krasnodar and FC Ufa, it is another new side looking to establish itself in a sensible, measured way. In an era when so many have taken a boom and bust approach (Alania Vladikavkaz, Anzhi Makhachkala, Volga Astrakhan) and others have scraped around to even pay wages (Tom Tomsk, Rotor Volgograd, Rostov), it is refreshing to know that there may soon be a new face at the top table that is being built from the foundations upwards.
Saul Pope has been following Russian football since the mid nineties, and first saw a live game in 1998 (Zenit St. Petersburg vs Shinnik Yaroslavl’). He has been contributing to When Saturday Comes magazine for over a decade, with a particular focus on social, economic and political issues surrounding the game in Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine. He has a particular passion for teams in and around St. Petersburg. A fluent Russian speaker, he graduated from the University of Surrey with a Master’s degree in the language. He lives in the UK, but travels back to Russia on a regular basis. You can follow Saul on Twitter @SaulPope.