Russia's oldest club has lived through tragedies but hopes for bright future
Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Russia -- When Oleg Larionov thinks about a hot early summer's day in 2004, the memories come quickly, but the words themselves take longer to form. The visual part is easy: It was the last time Znamya Truda Stadium, the oldest in continuously occupied Russian territory, was packed to the rafters.
Describing the scene is harder. The citizens of Orekhovo-Zuyevo had come to mourn a tragedy, and nobody could quite predict how the rawest of emotions would manifest themselves.
"The stands were overcrowded," Larionov says. "You couldn't find a place because half the city had come here. All you could hear everywhere were sobs. They were sobs for ours; sobs for the ones who were taken away."
The previous week, on May 27, FK Znamya Truda Orekhovo-Zuyevo had been travelling by minibus to a league match on the west side of Moscow in Skolkovo. Their vehicle collided with a wayward lorry, which toppled onto the bus with catastrophic results. Those sitting toward the front barely stood a chance. Nine people -- four footballers and five club personnel -- perished, and a fiercely proud community was shocked to the core.
To remember their friends and, in many cases, idols, they gathered at the ground for a memorial service, with the caskets of the dead brought into the centre circle. They hoped to draw strength together, but the gravity of the occasion was overwhelming.
"It was very warm at that time of year, and people began to faint and fall sick," Larionov says. "Ambulances kept coming to take people to hospital. My son was a small kid and was sitting there crying. I tried to take him away, but I couldn't. These people were heroes of our city, and we will never forget them. It was more than a tragedy: It was a sorrow, a horror."
Larionov is Znamya Truda's stadium director, but in reality, he is so much more than that. In his estimation, he performs around a dozen roles for the club, whose name evocatively means "Banner of Labour" and is Russia's oldest professional football club. It has experienced its fair share of setbacks since its formation in November 1909, and that is no small achievement in a country whose confusing, fragmented football scene renders a number of its members unviable every year.
"We don't employ people who will come here only to work," Larionov says. "We employ people who are here to do their favourite thing." It is the very attitude that keeps a club alive and ensures one of Russian football's most venerable institutions remains intact.
Survival is tough, but Znamya Truda, based 100 km east of Russia's capital and 90 minutes away by suburban train, will battle on in the Professional Football League Zone West -- the third tier -- next season and hope their history might yet be a springboard to better times.
It is a tale that began in what is now a nondescript area of woodland five minutes from the stadium's crumbling edifices. Somewhere among these trees, in front of makeshift wooden stands, it is believed that Russia's first football matches were played and their origins lie in England. These days, Orekhovo-Zuyevo is a hollowed-out town bereft of major industry and employment opportunities, with many of its 120,000 inhabitants taking low-paying work or making the sapping, overcrowded commute to Moscow. A century ago, it was a major centre in the textile industry, and its mills, now abandoned and decaying, worked under English management.
The Charnocks, a family from Blackburn, controlled the operation in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, and one of them, Harry Charnock, first created a works football team in 1897. Kick-abouts in the forest had already been taking place for some years, but English workers were subsequently recruited on the basis of their eagerness for football as well as their professional skill.
For the earliest games in the Moscow and St. Petersburg regions, teams wore blue-and-white halves Blackburn Rovers shirts that the Charnocks had imported from home. Matches in Orekhovo-Zuyevo were played on grass that had also been brought over from England. Within 12 years, the club, which has operated under a number of names, began life formally as "KSO" then "Morozovtsy," named after the local Morozov family who owned the textile mills.
The stadium followed in 1914, but that lies at the heart of Znamya Truda's attempts to modernise and rediscover its relevance. Next year it is due to be redeveloped: Bulldozers will come in to raze those tribunes that have seen such sorrow but plenty of joy, too.
The club's apex came in 1962 when, belying its third-tier status, it reached the USSR cup final. They lost 2-0 to Shakhtar Donetsk in front of 102,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium. The town of Orekhov-Zhuyevo virtually emptied for the day, and Valentina Tereshkova, who would be the first female cosmonaut, was among those cheering them on in Moscow. Spartak Moscow were among those they beat along the way; at least 15,000 people packed into the 10,000-capacity ground that day, with even more watching from fences and posts fronting the adjacent railway line and trains hooting their acknowledgement of the occasion as they shuttled past.
"We want to revive the tradition where the whole city comes out and watches the team," the club's general director, Igor Mayorov, explains. "We have always had a tradition of good support, and it has never died out. With better facilities, more fans will come, although it is the team's performance on the pitch that will make the biggest impression."
That has been an issue, and in the circumstances, it is eye-catching that Znamya Truda, who avoided relegation to the amateur leagues only on goal difference last season after a disastrous post-Christmas run, still pulled in crowds of around 2,000. The midseason departure of coach Andrei Semin, son of the veteran Russian manager Yuri Semin, for Mordovia Saransk was poorly timed, and the aim now is to rebuild under his successor, Vladimir Khodus.
"Our budget for all club operations over the season is 33 million rubles [£425,000]," Mayorov says. "It is small for our division. A lot of clubs with private backing cannot survive difficult times, and many have closed up this year, but we are supported from the local town council's budget. It means we pay very low salaries, but it also means we can survive difficult times.
"I can't really say our club is sustainable because we have to rely on that backing, but we always manage to go on."
Some argue that the club should be put in private hands -- easier said than done in an impoverished town -- with the potential for greater financial support but arguably less security. Back at the stadium, Larionov disagrees but is bullish about what he feels has been a missed opportunity to make more of Znamya Truda's unique heritage and feels there could have been more assistance from the Moscow region in which they are based.
"Right now, there is a new regional governor, Andrei Vorobyov, and I can see he is really enthusiastic -- I agree with his ambitions," he says. "But there were other governors before him. Why didn't they think about the fact that this very place, Orekhovo-Zhuyebo, is the birthplace of Russian football? This is the motherland. Why don't you support it?"
The rebuilt stadium, which the club is keen to open next September with a friendly against English opponents if the work is carried out in time, will be co-funded by the regional government and the city council. Orekhovo-Zuyevo hopes to put itself back on the map and offered its existing facilities as a training camp for Moscow-based teams at next year's World Cup, only to be informed that they were located too far from the city. There are plans to host a special match for media who are covering the tournament instead.
After years of treading water, signs are appearing that the city and its club, who have also launched a smart new website, are gearing up to take advantage of their status.
"We want to advertise ourselves and to create a museum of football in our city," Mayorov says. But there is another way of getting to the heart of football in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, of understanding just how profoundly the disaster of 2004 laid bare the 108-year-old bonds between club and community while comprehending the wider regard the club is held in too.
A short taxi ride out of the town centre brings you to the church of St. George. It is a modern, blue-roofed building set in a quiet garden whose other attraction is an open-air history of Znamya Truda, displayed on a series of boards and photographs. Important dates from the club's existence are inscribed on a plaque.
There must be few places like it. The church was constructed to commemorate all of the town's sporting heroes, though it was built after 2004, and those who died in the road accident receive particular precedence. The church is effectively a shrine to its football club. On the inside wall of an ante-building are scarves and pennants of around 30 rival clubs, big and small. Torpedo Moscow, Kuban Krasnodar, Tom Tomsk, FK Ural, Avangard Kursk and Torpedo Vladimir are among them; when these clubs heard that Znamya Truda (and the people of Orekhovo-Zuyevo) had resolved to build this place, they all made financial contributions. It was an extraordinary piece of camaraderie in aid of a community shorn of many of the things it once held dear, a place whose football club has meaning far beyond the pitch.
"We are definitely respected by the Russian Football Union and the other clubs because we are the oldest," Mayorov says. "The club is supported, and we are going to make sure it is supported in years to come." It is some achievement that they are still here, but with the backing of their community and the memory of their departed friends, Znamya Truda hope the brightest phase of their history is still to come.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.