Comrade Yakov Iordanov: Spartak Moscow’s Lone Englishman?

Yakov Eordahnov, seemingly a typically Russian name, right? Not quite. In reality, this was James Riordan, the former professor of Russian Studies at the University of Surrey who led a rather interesting life as an academic, celebrity, class fighter and spy. But he was also the only ever Englishman to play for Spartak Moscow. At least according to Riordan himself. Many, including official Spartak club historians, have cast a doubt over his story’s provenance.

 

Riordan’s Account

Riordan graduated from the Higher Party School in Moscow, the centre of the Communist International’s espionage efforts. As a student, he courted in the same circles as other British-Communists such as Kim Philby, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn and the most famous member of the Cambridge spy ring; Guy Burgess – whom of which he was a pallbearer at his funeral. He made his debut for Spartak in 1963 at the Lenin Stadium, as then Spartak manager Nikita Simonyan saw him playing a match with other members of the Diplomatic Corps as Captain of the UK and Ireland team.

Right-back Gennady Logofet recommended Simonyan to watch Riordan, a comrade who applauded his footballing ability. Genna, as Riordan affectionately recalls, ‘said to me after the match “lucky you didn’t tread on any toes with your big feet”’, to which they all laughed. Simonyan remarked “molodets”, played well and subsequently invited him to the Spartak training ground to train with the first-team. Riordan only originally saw this as an opportunity to follow-up his doctoral thesis on Soviet Sport, recalling; ‘I thought he [Genna] was joking when he shouted to “bring your boots”’. Nevertheless, Riordan the next day took the hour-long train ride from Komsomol Square to Tarasovka in northern Moscow.

Yet this experience was not beyond Riordan’s abilities; he has long been playing semi-professional football in Portsmouth in the Dockyard League before he was called-up to the RAF for military service. While in the RAF he played for the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry Football Team, mostly in the Rhine playing local German teams in 1955/56.

When he arrived at Tarasovka, Riordan nervously waited outside the facilities as players, physiotherapists, club doctors and the assistant coach, Nikolai Dementiev, passed him by. Simonyan eventually appeared and took him into the dressing-room. To Riordan’s bemusement and shock, he treat him not as an outsider but as a high-class international footballer – in a room which also included fellow high-class internationals such as captain Igor Netto, striker Yuri Falin, Ukrainian-born goalkeeper Vladimir Maslachenko, star player Galimzyan Khusainov and Logofet himself. He was introduced to the team as ‘Comrade Yakov Eordahnov, an English army team star’. Riordan claims from that point he had become ‘one of them, a футболист (footballer)…more than that, an армеец (solider/army man)’. This was Simonyan’s great out-manoeuvring of both the players’ intransigence at the lanky Englishman ahead of them, but also of the party officials. If Khrushchev, himself ignorant to all sports bar Chess, had found out Yakov Eordahnov was in fact Englishman Jim Riordan, Simonyan alike to his great mentor Nikolai Starostin would have almost certainly spent ten years imprisoned in the Gulag amidst a tense geopolitical context merely a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

READ MORE: Igor Netto – The Greatest Captain of Them All

A few days later, Riordan made his debut for Spartak against the Tashkent-based Pakhator, lining-up at centre-half a few days after comrade Guy Burgess’ funeral. Riordan recalls that he was in a dream, racked with nerves and tiredness from playing in a practice match just hours earlier, making him barely even register the 50,000 supporters. Riordan claims he did not know where he was until Igor Netto baulked at him ‘стои в середине’ (stand in the middle). Even during the game, Netto continued to shout orders at him – as customary of the powerful midfielder and ex-ice hockey player – and gave him a particular ear-bashing after Riordan cleared the ball high up-field. A furious Netto responded with ‘pass to a man, not the crowd’, castigating him for his ‘typical direct English football’. Spartak went into halftime at 2-0 down, but Simonyan, a sombre, thinking manager in the guise of Sir Alf Ramsey or Martin O’Neill came to speak to Riordan privately, remarking;

You’re doing well Yasha. The goals were not your fault, stay tight to their number nine. When you head the ball, lean into your man and jump above him, using your arms to launch yourself…I want you to win every single ball’.

Simonyan then gave Riordan a miserly piece of advice stemming from a century-old proved; Умная голова ногам покой – a wise head gives the feet a rest.

In the second half, Slava Ambartsumyan played in Valeri Reingold who confidently swept the ball into the far corner. A late equaliser came – a Reingold penalty – but not before Riordan had a chance to equalise. A corner came in toward the 6’5 Riordan. He lost his marker and was set to head the ball into an empty net, but he ‘lost his concentration amidst the excitement’ and missed the ball completely. He recalls that the Spartak fans chanted ‘Иорданов шея для мыла’ – ‘Riordan’s neck for a soaping’, but defended well throughout the second half.

The next week, he turned out against Kairat Almaty in a 1-1 draw. Riordan claimed he did not perform as high a standard as on his debut, and thus it was his final appearance for the Spartak first-team. Riordan did play for the reserves a few times but ultimately moved back to his native Portsmouth where he played in the eighth division of the Portsmouth Dockyard League once again.

 

Fact or Fiction?

Riordan says he returned to Moscow for the first time in 2005 for a BBC Radio program, but only Khusainov would meet with him, not even his ‘good friend’ Logofet. He says his records have since been expunged from footballing memory in both the USSR and Russia today. He claimed he could’ve been hailed as a ‘hero of socialist labour’, but even that was not certain as all of the great Eduard Streltsov’s goals were deleted from party records after he was sent to Vyatlag prison camp. Possibly, the overall manager of Spartak Sports Society, Nikolai Starostin had found out that a capitalist national had appeared for Spartak and feared for the club. Starostin would’ve likely taken no chances after previously being sentenced to the GULAG for ten years imprisonment for ‘propagandising bourgeois sport’, apparently in the act of selling sporting goods an overseer of a sports store.

READ MORE: Nikolai Starostin – From Hero to Gulag and Back Again

The more likely case, however, is that he has simply lied.

Many, including Robert Edelman, author of Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers State cast doubt upon Riordan’s story, and some even believe the whole story to be completely made up. Both Logofet and Khusainov have claimed they have never heard of a Yakov Eordhanov, and can’t recall any Englishman playing for Spartak in the early 1960s.

Spartak historians claim there are no records of neither an Iordanov nor a Riordan playing in any match for Spartak. Here are a few facts, provided by Spartak statistician and RFN writer Alexey Spektrowski:

  • Supposed ‘good friend’ Gennady Logofet has claimed he has no knowledge of any James Riordan ever playing for Spartak.
  • Simonyan and Khusainov likewise denied any knowledge of any James Riordan or Yakov Iordanov, nor an Englishman playing for Spartak at all.
  • Riordan claims the games took place shortly after Guy Burgess’ funeral, in early September 1963. During this time, Spartak played Krylia Sovetov Kuibyshev and SKA Rostov, not Kairat and Pakhtakor.
  • Both games were easy 2-0 victories, not a closely fought loss and win.
  • Spartak did not play Pakhtakor and Kairat in successive weeks in 1963, but on 15 November and 26 November at home.
  • That game against Pakhtakor ended 4-4.
  • Two matches against these two sides in the 1963/64 season ended 2-2 and 1-0 as he claims, but they were in April and away from home.
  • Spartak only once came back from 2 behind against Pakhtakor – in an away game in 1962, which they proceeded to win 3-2.
  • Valeri Reingold often scored important equalizers and winning goals, but he did not take a single penalty during his Spartak career.
  • He also only ever scored once in the same game as Ambartsumyan, in 1966 against Krylia Sovetov.
  • Galimzyan Khusainov was diagnosed with a serious case of brain entropy and suffered frequent memory lapses from the mid-90s onwards (he ultimately died in 2010). Therefore if Riordan had met with him, it is likely he had no idea who he was.
  • Football journalist Valery Vinokurov, who covered Spartak’s matches in 1963, does not recall whatsoever that the announcer at the Lenin Stadium ever uttered Yakov Iordanov.

A quote by the late Yuri Sevidov, one of Riordan’s alleged teammates particularly resonates;

What nonsense! Using a player who wasn’t even registered in the squad? Spartak would be immediately disqualified! And upon learning he was a foreigner, they would forever ban him from travelling abroad, even he was 150 times a communist!

This seems to be what is known within Russia as a байка; a funny and rather interestingly exaggerated story which both may and may not include a modicum of truth, usually the latter. Mayhaps, Riordan jumped at both the chance to sell his book and make his name and morphed his own history of playing amateur football games in Moscow with that of Boris Mayorov, a hockey player who featured twice for Spartak himself. Mayorov’s own story is as follows;

I played two games, against Pakhtakor and Kairat. Replacing Boris Tatushin, by the way. I was a right-winger. The Spartak line-up was fantastic back then. My teammates? Logofet, Maslenkin, Krutikov, Falin, Reingold, Khusainov, Lesha Korneev. Igor Netto was also still playing for Spartak, but was away with the national team [Maslenkin did not, in fact, play in Mayorov’s two matches].

The hockey federation did raise hell: I was already playing for the Soviet hockey national team! [In 1962, Mayorov became its captain.] They were infuriated: why does Mayorov play football? It was 1961, artificial ice rinks already appeared. So it was impossible to play both sports because football and hockey seasons now overlapped.

The provenance of Riordan’s claim seems to be heavily doubtful and under-fire. His story simply does not match-up with the facts and is eerily close to Mayorov’s above. Nevertheless is a fascinating story, and the whole saga is still well-worth recanting.

Author: James Nickels

Born and raised in South Shields, the direct mid-point between Sunderland and Newcastle in North-East England during an era of sustained success and European football for the Magpies, while the Black Cats floundered in the lower divisions, so naturally I decided to support Sunderland. I’ve developed an interest in Russian football over the last decade or so, but it piqued while studying for my Masters’ Degree in Russian and Soviet History, and I’ve been hooked by Spartak Moscow ever since. Considers Eduard Streltsov the best of his generation, and a fond proponent of his repatriation.

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