Unravelling the enigma of football in the post-Soviet republics
An air of confidence permeated through the Highbury pressroom before Arsenal’s Uefa Cup match against Spartak Moscow.
It was September 1982, and the general consensus among journalists and commentators covering the second leg of their first-round tie had been that the Gunners would win by at least two goals. Manager Terry Neill appeared rather more cautious.
After all, only a fortnight earlier he’d seen his team surrender a two-goal lead in the first game as the Russians deservedly ran out 3-2 winners at the Luzhniki Stadium with a fine display of neat, attacking football. That defeat transpired to be Arsenal’s last away day on the continent for almost a decade. A barren domestic spell, coupled with Uefa banning English clubs from European competition after the Heysel disaster meant that it would be another nine years before they played abroad again.
The season had only just begun when Spartak arrived in England. At least, it had for Arsenal. The Soviet championship followed the calendar year and Konstantin Beskov’s side were flying high in the table. Arsenal, meanwhile, had yet to really get going and found themselves 14th, sandwiched between the two Nottingham clubs, Forest and County, after seven matches. The sluggish start made by Arsène Wenger’s charges this season was the club’s worst since that 1982-83 campaign.
Terry Neill left his post at Tottenham to take over at Arsenal in 1976
Aresnal had earned a place in the Uefa Cup with a fifth-place finish despite having recently lost some key players. Manchester United had snapped-up Frank Stapleton in 1981, while Liam Brady had moved to Juventus a year earlier. So in some respects this was still a side looking to find itself.
Important players leaving, a star striker moving to United and what was a fairly average squad, not to mention a once-popular manager under fire and a frugal board facing criticism; how times have changed at Arsenal.
A certain exoticism had been attached to their visitors from behind the Iron Curtain, mainly because the communist party forbade Soviet footballers from joining foreign clubs. It hadn't been until later that decade, in the spirit of glasnost and perestroika, that a select few were granted transfers abroad. This was 1982 though. Leonid Brezhnev’s long reign had not quite ended – he died six weeks later – so it gave Arsenal supporters a rare opportunity to see firsthand the likes of goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev, who had starred for the USSR at that summer’s World Cup.
Muscovites weren't so lucky. The state broadcaster, Central Television, had been left stunned by the BBC, who owned the rights to the match and were demanding £180,000. Central Television only paid £300,000 for all 52 World Cup games just a few months earlier and baulked at the Beeb’s asking price, so fans back home were unable to watch Narodnaya Komanda (the People’s Club).
Arsenal began on the front foot, but Spartak had not come to defend their one-goal advantage. Far from it, in fact. This talented Spartak side not only included Dasaev, but the likes of Oleg Romantsev, Yuri Gavrilov, Fedor Cherenkov and their all-time leading goalscorer, Sergei Rodionov. The team were renowned for their incisive, attacking style. Even today, Arsenal fans still remember their performance as being one of the finest by any team to visit Highbury.
Spartak hammered Arsenal 5-2, although the scoreline could have been even greater. “Arsenal were given a humiliating lesson in the arts of total football by the richly talented Moscow Spartak side,” gushed the Guardian.
For the most part, Spartak keeper Dassaev kept Arsenal at bay
Arsenal couldn’t cope with the vision and creativity of Spartak’s midfield and the forwards, Rodionov and Gavrilov, were findings gaps across the Arsenal back four as the Russians began to impose themselves on the game. Neill’s side lacked a quality striker. They were unable to get Lee Chapman and Tony Woodcock into the game, so it was little surprise when the visitors opened the scoring on 27 minutes through Sergei Shvetsov. That shook Arsenal.
A goal down at the interval, Neill gambled and swapped John Hollins and Paul Davis for Alan Sunderland and Brian McDermott, as Arsenal moved from a conventional 4-4-2 to a more attacking 4-2-4. It didn’t pay off. The midfield was overrun and Spartak were able to pick them off at will with some scintillating football. They zipped the ball about with a speed and accuracy that Arsenal simply couldn’t deal with.
Spartak doubled their lead on 57 minutes when the impressive Edgar Gess switched play with a superb cross-field pass to Rodionov, who played a one-two with Cherenkov before firing past George Wood. Arsenal were one-dimensional in comparison; their performance perhaps summed up by Kenny Sansom’s poor back-pass to Wood that Cherenkov gleefully intercepted 10 minutes later for Spartak’s third. Highbury fell silent.
The visitors’ one-touch football and movement became a joy to behold. They always managed to find an extra yard of space. Sergei Shavlov’s terrific volley shortly afterwards put them four goals up and, while McDermott did reduce the arrears in the 74th minute, it was too late for Arsenal to mount any sort of comeback. Even their fans showed appreciation for Gess’ smart run and shot that brought Spartak’s fifth.
Chapman pulled one back just before the final whistle, but rather than the chorus of boos that resonated around the Emirates after Saturday’s defeat to Blackburn, almost the entire stadium – stewards and police included – stood to applaud the Spartak players off the pitch.
Chapman is felled by Romantsev on a frustrating evening for Arsenal's forwards
To this day, it remains the biggest home European defeat in the club’s history. Eighteen years later Romantsev led the Spartak side that also inflicted their joint-biggest away European defeat when Arsenal were humbled 4-1 in a Champions League group game at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Spartak were paired with the Dutch side Haarlem in the second round, although the tie became largely irrelevant. Instead, the first leg at the Luzhniki Stadium shall forever be remembered as Russian football’s darkest day.
On 20 October just 15,000 supporters – all put into the eastern sector by authorities – braved the wintery weather to supporter their team. Many would never return home.
With Spartak leading 1-0 and the match petering out, fans began filing out of the stadium, only for Shvetsov to double their lead with 20 seconds remaining. “I wish I hadn't scored,” he would later say.
The departing crowd descending the slippery steps heard the cheers and attempted to rush back into the stadium, creating panic as people lost their footing in the dark. Soviet authorities listed the dead at 66 in the crush, although the tragedy was somewhat hushed up and the real figure lies somewhere closer to 350. Not until the final days of the Soviet Union did some semblance of the truth emerge.
Spartak won the tie, but were knocked out by Valencia in the next round. Arsenal posted their worst league position of Neill’s seven-year tenure, 10th, and eventually he was sacked in December 1983. Don Howe came in and steadied things – Tony Adams made his debut that season – plus David Dein joined the club. After Howe left three years later, George Graham was appointed manager and, aside from leading Arsenal to a first league title since his playing days at the club, arguably laid the foundations for future success.
Arsenal 2-5 Spartak Moscow (agg 4-8); Uefa cup, first round second leg (29 September 1982).Arsenal George Wood, John Hollins (Alan Sunderland 46’), Kenny Sansom, Bryan Talbot, David O’Leary, Chris Whyte, Paul Davis (Brian McDermott 46’), Stewart Robson, Lee Chapman, Tony Woodcock, Graham Rix.Goals: McDermott 74’, Chapman 90’.Spartak Moscow Rinat Dasaev (Aleksei Prudnikov 80’), Vladimir Sochnov, Boris Pozdnyakov, Vladimir Shcherbak, Oleg Romantsev, Sergei Shavlov, Sergei Shvetsov, Edgar Gess (Yevgeni Kuznetsov 80’), Yuri Gavrilov, Fedor Cherenkov, Sergei Rodionov. Goals: Shvetsov 27’, Rodionov 56’, Cherenkov 66’, Shavlov 71’, Gess 77’.
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