Saul Pope –
New Lokomotiv Moscow manager, the 69-year-old, Yuri Semin is unlikely to be someone who agrees with the old adage that you should ‘never go back’. His latest spell at Lokomotiv, which started on Friday, is his fourth. He was first there as a player in the seventies and then became the club’s most successful ever manager during two spells between 1992-2005 and 2009-2010.
Semin now returns to the club at the age of sixty-nine following a break in which he’s had a chequered but busy time managing clubs in Ukraine (Dynamo Kyiv), Azerbaijan (Gabala FK) and Russia (Mordovia Saransk, Anzhi Makhachkala). Given the great reputation he has in Russia, one might wonder why he’s chosen full-time management over an easier part-time role.
Semin, though, clearly isn’t thinking like this. “I’m setting myself some tough demands,” he told Sport-Express in his first interview after accepting the job, sounding like a man half his age. “Lokomotiv has no choice but to make the European places, otherwise there’s no point in me returning.”
Semin had his best time at Lokomotiv
This attitude speaks as much about Semin’s determination as his love for Lokomotiv. In the same interview he talks about returning home to the club that made him, and molding his squad into the ‘family’ it was renowned for being in his first long and successful spell there (in that time his achievements included two Russian league titles, four Russian cups, two Cup Winners’ Cup semi finals and two appearances in the knock-out stages of the Champions League). Writing in Sport-Express, Igor Rabiner compares Semin’s effect on Lokomotiv to that of Sir Alex Ferguson’s at Manchester United—few Lokomotiv fans would disagree.
It’s no coincidence that Semin has returned to the club at this particular juncture. Earlier this month club president Olga Smorodskaya resigned from her role, as the president. Smorodskaya fell out with Semin during 2010 when she apparently tried to meddle too much in team affairs. Her successor Ilya Gerkus, a Zenit fan, has been given credit for resisting the temptation to choose a foreign manager and to try and recapture the Lokomotiv spirit through selecting Semin over, say, the successful and available Kurban Berdyev.
So Semin’s age isn’t an issue; his passion, reputation and backing from the club cannot be questioned either. But it may be wishful thinking to think that he can, in just a few years before he does decide to retire, undo the mistakes of the previous regime and return Lokomotiv to what it was. His backroom staff will include Oleg Pashinin, Dmitriy Loskov, Sarkis Oganesyan and Zaur Khapov, all of whom played under him at Lokomotiv (Loskov in particular is a club legend) and therefore understand well the family-like mentality he instilled.
Will they, though, be able to instill this as leaders in a new generation of players, many of whom have no understanding of what the manager meant to the club in his earlier spell (here I’m thinking in particular of the many foreign players at the club)?
The Russian football landscape has changed
On top of this, the Russian football landscape has changed in the last decade. Back in 2005 FC Krasnodar hadn’t even been born, Zenit Saint Petersburg were occasional thorns in the side of bigger teams but inconsistent, and FC Rostov were fighting relegation. Now all three will be jostling for those top four places, along with Moscow sides CSKA and Spartak (and possibly Anzhi and Terek Grozny). Semin is also hamstrung at joining the club just as the transfer window ends, and has intimated that there will be few new faces between now and then.
He’s also expressed frustration that the club recently let young prospect Rifat Zhemaletdinov join Rubin Kazan. Semin may have the coaching team that he wants, but half the Russian season will be over by the time he gets to bring in ‘his’ players.
Berdyev is left out in the cold
Hence, while Lokomotiv have settled for Semin the major question remaining in Russian football is: What is next for Kurban Berdyev? The former Rostov manager resigned almost right after Spartak Moscow sacked Dmitri Alenichev, and it seemed almost certain he’d join Spartak, but his considerable demands (in terms of staff he’d bring in) were not met.
Next was Lokomotiv, but the story there was seemingly the same. In any case, I find it hard to picture Berdyev in the capital or at, say, Zenit at this juncture. Were he to want to work with one of the country’s biggest sides, to deal with bigger egos and a harsher media glare, his reputation is such that he’d have surely already done it.
Having also seen the Russian national team go for Stanislav Cherchesov over him, Berdyev seems likely—in the near future at least—to remain in some capacity at Rostov. He is currently working for the club as a ‘consultant’; followers of Russian football could see his fingerprints all over the comprehensive victory against Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League play-off round.
Given the interesting group Rostov has, and that Berdyev has form for causing upsets in the tournament (his Rubin Kazan side beat Barcelona away in 2009 in the group stage), he will want to maintain close contact. Rostov need him just as much if they are to make any impact on the group.
In the light of this, Berdyev could well replace the respected but inexperienced Rostov caretaker manager Dmitriy Kirichenko—though a difficult relationship with main club sponsor Ivan Savvidis gets in the way of this. Perhaps the wisest move would be for him to remain as he is—blameless were things to go wrong, but also ready at any moment to take on another opportunity.
Will Berdyev remain at Rostov?
Despite my reservations there is Zenit, whose new manager Mircea Lucescu has had an indifferent start, and old flame Rubin Kazan could also find themselves with problems further down the road. And, as Mikhail Tyapkov points out in a blog on championat.com, Spartak or Lokomotiv may return to Berdyev with a more favourable compromise: “Rostov, Lokomotiv and even Spartak could completely fail without him, which means they could later be ready to recognise their mistakes and bow to all of the trainer’s [Berdyev’s] demands.”
Let’s finish with a couple of predictions—Semin will help Lokomotiv qualify for Europe in one of the next two seasons, but it’s hard to imagine him rebuilding what has been lost since he was last at the club. He’ll leave at the end of his contract, with the club a bit better off than it is now. Berdyev will stay as he is until winter at least, having seen Rostov finish third in their Champions League group. At some point soon he’ll return to management – but not at any of the ‘big’ clubs.
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