Viva Vorskla! Poltava 0 Zorya Lugansk 2

Last game before the winter break, as Ukraine wraps up warm and retreats into hibernation.

Vorskla, fifth, versus Zorya, third.

Vorskla are named after the river running through Poltava, a city three hours east of Kyiv.

That’s three hours on the train – £6 – and you might get a seat next to a dog with a wonky tooth and a huge tongue. name of Shelley.

Actually that’s probably not its name but that’s what it sounded like.

The stadium is just behind the main road, Shovtneva, and the floodlights are visible from the junction with Nezalezhnosti Square.

In the park next to it, babushky (grandmas) sell you an old paper for two drivna (6p). To put on your seat so you don’t sit on the scaly, tubercular plastic which would ruin your trousers.

Outside, trestle tables are laden with sweets, gum, coffee flasks and those black seeds that look like cockroach poo.

An old geezer sells whistles and his shrill blast proves how piercing they are, renting the air with a kookaburra screech. The tat-hat-and-badge man has an assortment of scarves – there’s Oleksandria, there’s Chornomorets and there’s Bolton Wanderers.IMG_3870

Tickets are 65p up to £1.30. There’s even a programme, rare over here, for five drivna, which folds out into a giant double-sided masterpiece of Cyrillic impenetrability. In Ukrainian, if you have some knowledge of Russian you can work out bits and pieces of text.

The featured interview for this match was with Uzbekistan international Sanzhar Tursunov.IMG_4034Zorya are named after the Slavic word for ‘dawn’ and hail from Lugansk. A club in apparent absolute turmoil.

They no longer play in their home city, which is run by rebels and Russians and part of the war zone.

So they’re playing mainly in Zaporizhzhya – Zorya from Zap. Doing well too. Even playing Europa League this season before bowing out to Legia Warsaw.

And if being a lodger wasn’t bad enough, that old Ukrainian favourite, corruption –  go and read Gogol, nothing’s changed and they deposed the last president over it –  has reared its head.IMG_3938

Eleven Zorya under-21s have been ditched for receiving payments for fixing ‘youth’ league matches.

The Butovsky Vorskla Stadium is a wonderful example of old Soviet-style stadia. Euro 2012 souped up the nation’s bigger arenas with such poncy middle-class, namby-pamby adornments as roofs, comfortable seats that don’t adhere to your trousers and refreshment kiosks. But Poltava missed out on new-fangled frills and, frankly, that makes it by far the most interesting stadium I’ve been to in Ukraine.

With the exterior ‘street life’ and lack of corporate mumbo-jumbo (there is a club shop however), it’s got an English Nineties third division seen-better-days feel about it.

Here we have an open bowl and no roof. Only the press box has cover.

The stadium doubles up as an athletics track, expanding its footprint impressively. ‘Vorskla’ is picked out in white Cyrillic on the huge empty banks.

A shouting madman leads the way into the ground from the ticket office. People prudently step out of his way as he heads for the entrance.

IMG_3939IMG_3933He pretty much makes most of the noise in the ground before half-time.

The PA plays a heavy metal club song, a sonic solecism even for that genre, it ought to be banned. And the teams then emerge to what sounds like Soviet-era military music.

Ye gods – proof that Ukraine is evolving steadily emerges when a steward in military fatigues who looks like he is back on leave from the front, tells people smoking is not allowed in the stadium.

People don’t quibble but several years ago, this request would have been ignored with a hefty volley of abuse, as pretty much everyone likes a puff over here. But no one argues with the army boys these days.

Given I was told to bring wellies to town- and they would have been useful on the terraces, with an inch of snow in most areas – the pitch has recovered from snowfall though it was to prove a bit sticky down the flanks . Several players slip badly – all to the good as opponents wriggle into space and are able to mount attacks.

No goals in the first half as Zorya’s Croat keeper Santini keeps the home side at bay.

Half-time: it’s like a nightclub. To get refreshments you have to get your ticket marked by stewards and walk to the trestle tables outside.IMG_3884Join the scrum for a Nescafé while the sub-heavy metal Vorskla anthem (a stinker even from outside the ground) rattles through the stadium. It’s worth leaving at half-time just to escape from that.

Comedy goal alert: After 54 minutes home centre-half Alexander Skliar half-heads a long ball back to his keeper Stanislav Bohush. It falls short so he turns to collect it, and instead of a pass back to the netminder fancies a cross-field ball to his fellow centre-half.

Only he passes it straight to zealous Zoryan Pylyp Budkivskiy who, presented with a one-on-one with Bohush, slips it past him easily.

Vorskla flood forward looking for the equaliser and when Chesnakov spanks a chance over from five yards – the best they’ve had – he doesn’t stop shaking his head for three minutes.

Time to light up again. Not a fag. But they pyro and no steward  politely requests a stubbing out. You can’t smoke but you can put up a scarlet smokescreen of such intensity it could have been the precursor for an attack at Ypres.

The 200 or so ultras in the corner whip out the red flares and make like it’s someone’s birthday.

With 16 to go, more dreary defending as a free-kick by Ruslan Malynovskii  into the box is missed by everybody – that’s about ten players – and falls at the feet of Artem Hordienko. Even the babushki would have scored, while selling you some coackroach poo nuts and he makes it 2-0.

Ten minutes to go and the Zorya substitutes are warming up on the touchline.

For two guys in front of me the sight of Dennis Yarmash, ex-Vorskla, is too tempting.

A quick swoop and scoop with the hands is enough to amass a decent snowball, or, given the melt has started, an iceball, cricket-ball hard.

Yarmash is 40 yards away. The first missile doesn’t miss by much. And isn’t spotted by its intended victim.

The second is close, still missing, but Yarmash notices, does his best to make eye contact and any more Yarmash coconut shy might mean events get a bit tasty.

Annoyed glances are thrown over but the Vorskla lads don’t fancy any more.

Yarmash goes on with seven minutes to go and with the game over at 2-0 his enemies cut their losses and clear off.

This was one of the most even games I’ve yet witnessed in kooky UPL-land.

Despite the 1,500 attendance – Vorskla’s worst of the season, well it was a wee bit nippy – no roof, track round the pitch, few frills, the crowd provided a good-natured atmosphere and the standard was competitive and high.

Apart from Metalist Kharkiv in their prime, this seems to be the club closest to its fan base.

For Zorya, the Shakhtar loan player Budkivskiy might be lost as he heads back to his mother club – he could well appear at Euro 2016 having made the national side recently.

He would also be a decent replacement for Alex Texeira should he be sold, as is being rumoured, to Chelsea.

Vorskla meanwhile will aim for Europa League qualification.

Unlike the Celtic/Rangers-esque axis of Dynamo/Shakhtar, Vorskla though owned of course by yet another rich guy, has the feel of a club rooted in its community.

Dynamo at the Olimpiski in Kyiv, is cold – Shakhtar are hitching hoboes hoping to head home to Donetsk but only Putin can fix that and anyway the stadium is in shreds.

Metalist in Kharkiv, apparently owned by a 27-year-old billionaire who fled the revolution, can’t pay players and are in the doldrums.

So Vorskla are one of the few big-city Ukrainian sides to offer an authentic day at the football rather than an oligarch’s idea of what the game should be.

I’m coming back as soon as possible.IMG_3942


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