From Russia with Shrugs: The Unholy Union of Millwall and Sergei Yuran

Posted: June 22, 2017 in English Football
Tags: , , ,

Picture the scene: Paulo Dybala and Claudio Marchisio stride into the Juventus dressing room. Life is sweet in Turin. They’re top of Serie A. They’ve breezed through their Champions League group. Yet the duo are here to say their goodbyes. Arrivederci, Gigi. Adios, Gonzalo. For they have heard the clarion call of the English Championship. And those play-offs won’t win themselves…

Perhaps that’s not an entirely fitting parallel to the journey a similarly fêted duo made from Moscow to Bermondsey in early 1996, but it’s not far off. Storming the group stage of the 1995-96 Champions League, Spartak Moscow side were one of the decade’s great nearly-teams. They won all six games, humbling Alan Shearer’s Blackburn Rovers in notorious circumstances in the process, and their reward was an eminently winnable quarter final against Nantes. Inexplicably, however, the team had been dismantled by the time the tie came round, and they shuffled tamely out of the competition. Among the family silver pawned were star striker Sergei Yuran and midfield engine Vasili Kulkov, leaving on loan for the bright lights of London. Would the Russian internationals team up with the newly arrived Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal or Ruud Gullit at Chelsea? Would they fill the Klinsmann-shaped hole in the hearts of Tottenham fans? In a word, no…

These winter soldiers were heading for Cold Blow Lane.

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The Coup

English football – still fully six months away from coming home – was only just coming to terms with its status as a home for the game’s big fish. The second tier wasn’t even getting the scraps from the table. Now they had some poster boys of their own.

Lions’ manager Mick McCarthy had been tipped off about their availability by none other than Sir Bobby Robson, who’d managed them at Porto.  Why Millwall? Signing-on fees of £150,000 apiece, plus a quadrupling of their respective wages to £5,000 a week, would appear to solve that particular riddle.

Still, they at least made the effort to be polite, announcing at their unveiling (through an interpreter): “Obviously we have played for some of the great clubs in Europe, but this is the pinnacle of our careers”.

Kulkov, a midfield Trojan nicknamed ‘The Tank’, had been the driving force of title winning teams in Russia and Portugal. Yuran, however, was the star attraction. Despite a burly frame more closely resembling a roadie for Reef than an Ivan Drago-like Soviet specimen, he was a surprisingly deft, elegant footballer. It was he who’d been tipped pre-tournament as the dangerman for Russia at USA ’94 (having opted against playing for Ukraine, his country of birth). He was also familiar to English fans having helped to slay Arsenal in his Benfica days and made Tim Flowers look like Mike Flowers with a smash and grab winner at Ewood Park earlier that season. As one of the top scorers in the European Cup that term, what on earth was he going to have in store for the likes of Neil Aspin?

Season in jeopardy

The raid on Spartak was supposed to be a pick-me-up, Baby Bio to Millwall’s wilting promotion aspirations. Pre-season, there had been considerable excitement and expectation, a feeling that it was finally ‘their time’. In three of the previous five seasons they’d finished third, seventh and fifth, and if the previous campaign’s mid-table mediocrity had disappointed, the board’s close-season ambition did not.

Only the perennially extravagant Wolves spent more than Millwall in the summer of 1995. Goals having proven hard to come by the term prior, the bulk of the cash was lavished on strikers. There was particular buzz surrounding target man Uwe Fuchs, a £750,000 capture from Fortuna Köln, fresh off a loan spell at Middlesbrough that had delivered (in just 13 appearances) nine goals, a straight red card and rumours of a whirlwind romance with Jet from Gladiators. Chairman Peter Mead boasted that his new strike force would score 30-40 goals, while claiming that The New Den, as the UK’s first all-seater stadium to be built in the wake of the Taylor Report, made the club Premier League in everything but name.

The Lions’ start to the season further cemented the feelgood factor. Millwall lost just two of their first 18 games, and proved especially impressive away from home. They even claimed the scalp of FA Cup holders Everton in the League Cup in thrilling fashion, overcoming a two-goal deficit to win 4-2 at Goodison. A televised first win at Selhurst Park for nearly 20 years was a particularly satisfying way of reaching the division’s summit, and they stayed there for six weeks.

Not everything was perfect; the goals still weren’t flowing, and Fuchs’ form was cause for concern, taking 15 games to open his account and earning the nickname ‘Duvet’ from supporters owing to the amount of time he spent on his back. A strong back line overseen by Ben Thatcher and the excellent US goalkeeper Kasey Keller, coupled with the orchestrating midfield talents of Alex Rae, nevertheless kept the plan on track…

…and then the plan spectacularly derailed. Millwall would endure a worse Christmas than Hans Gruber. A run of five straight defeats, among them a 6-0 pumping from promotion rivals Sunderland, saw them plunge from top to seventh, out of contention completely, and for all talk of a blip, the bad results continued to stack up like a miserable game of Jenga.

Things weren’t help by events at Anfield 12 days before Christmas, when Ireland’s Euro ’96 play-off defeat to the Netherlands brought down the curtain on Jack Charlton’s managerial career. The search for a successor saw Irish eyes cast admiring glances in the direction of Bermondsey…

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Chaos reigns

It soon became clear that McCarthy was Charlton’s anointed successor, and the Yorkshireman was receptive to the overtures. But the FAI, never a beacon of efficiency, dragged their feet, while Mead, despite the team’s ailing form, opted to fight to retain a manager he’d invested heavily in. The saga grew ever more protracted, while the team struggled to recapture their form.

In the midst of this disarray, on 13th January, the Russians made their debuts. Kick off against Port Vale at The New Den had to be delayed as a bumper gate turned up to see the shiny new trinkets. Neither looked in peak condition, and Yuran, never the sveltest, appeared to have gone ‘full Meatloaf’, resembling the chunkiest Russian this side of Robbie Coltrane in Goldeneye. Nevertheless, they initially impressed. Kulkov displayed a touch and vision rarely glimpsed in a division where midfields were still gripped firmly by the Pollocks (and Redfearns. And Fitzroy Simpsons).

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Yuran was a mash-up of flair player tropes, collar up a la Cantona, socks round his ankles Waddle-style, and his quality link play and intelligent runs didn’t seem too far removed from that ilk.

Their presence failed to improve results though, while on 3rd February, McCarthy finally left for Lansdowne Road. In his stead, Jimmy Nicholl, architect of Raith Rovers’ miraculous Scottish League Cup win, was appointed, but there was no new manager bounce.

For a while, the ex-Spartak pair continued to show promise. Yuran stood out against Wolves, running them ragged and creating chances before lamping Eric Young and getting himself sent off. But as the downward momentum gathered speed, both tired of being surrounded by duffers. Kulkov got injured after six games and headed back to Moscow. Yuran stuck around but in name only, essentially downing tools. He rarely made it to training. He went out on the lash constantly. He was arrested for drink-driving.

Still, at least he was in love: “My honeymoon lasted six months,” he later told The Evening Standard. I forgot about football. I’d turn up for training after yet another wild night at a disco with my beloved new wife.” Marvellously, he managed to convince her that this “was the way all footballers live in England”. He scored just one goal for the club.

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The Fall

Not that Yuran was the only Millwall player with a questionable attitude. Even as the play-offs disappeared from view, even as they fell into the table’s lower reaches while the teams below them began to improve, relegation never seemed to be considered a remote possibility. It was as if a turnaround in results was just assumed, with the odd result here and there always just doing enough to keep them out of serious mither.

The team’s appalling discipline however (73 yellow cards and seven reds accrued over the season), would rob it of its one reliable department. Suspensions ripped apart the defence, and now Millwall were somehow grinding out defeats. One loss to fellow strugglers Oldham came with their entire first-choice back banned. The proverbial frog in a saucepan, with the final weekend looming they found themselves fourth from bottom and in genuine danger of the drop.

They needed to get a result at play-off hunting Ipswich and hope that Portsmouth, directly below them, didn’t better it. Nicholl’s cautious approach restored some solidity and they were able to frustrate their hosts and nick a draw…only to learn that Pompey had won away at Huddersfield to stay up on goals scored.

Having not been in the bottom three at any prior stage of the season, and seemingly primed for the Premier League at Christmas, Millwall were relegated.

Recriminations

If anything, it was that early season success that ultimately punctured them. The club appeared awash with the attitude (bar their long-suffering supporters, the only ones to see this coming) that they were an uncrowned Premier League side. The players believed their own hype, Mead bought into it, and none of them saw the iceberg until it was too late. Nicholl was out of his depth and probably the wrong appointment, but the stain of malaise had seeped into the fabric well before his arrival.

A lot of the blame has to reside with McCarthy. Finally given some money to spend, he proceeded to bring in a succession of players who continue to feature in ‘worst Lions XI’ polls to this day – Fuchs, Anton Rogan, Bobby Bowery, Ricky Newman. Moreover, Mead misjudged the prevailing mood; there was no great appetite among the support to fight to keep the manager. While he’d done very well upon inheriting a strong side from Bruce Rioch in the early 90s, the more the team became his own, the blunter and blander it got, and even when they’d sat atop the league they’d struggled to convince. The fun and games with the  FAI, meanwhile, provided a fatal distraction at at crucial time, just before the rot really set in.

Yuran, needless to say, didn’t hang about, and though he was somehow capped again by Russia, his career never fully recovered. “Not only did I learn nothing,” he’d lament of his experience, “but I lost what I did know.” He branded Millwall “the worst club…in the world” and complained that everyone in England bar the top clubs “plays rugby”.

Nicholl, for his part, didn’t hold back: “Sergei was an absolute disgrace. He contributed the worst level of enthusiasm and commitment I’ve ever seen, and was an embarrassment to himself and the club. The only thing the other players could have possibly learned from him was how to steal a living.”

In time, the striker would admit Nicholl had a point, telling The Evening Standard in his 2002 mea culpa: “Jimmy Nicholl said I was the most unprofessional player he’d ever met. And that was true.”

Millwall paid a hefty price for their half-baked aspirations. The lengthy contracts and generous wages dished out to McCarthy’s signings, and the Premier League infrastructure of which they were so proud, meant they didn’t just want promotion, they needed promotion.

Already living beyond their means, relegation to the third tier pushed them to the edge of the precipice. The club was in administration within a year.

 

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