Nikolai Starostin: My Football Years (Chapter 4 part 1) – Eleven is our Number

Monument of Nikolai Starostin and his three brothers inside Spartak Moscow's Otkritie Arena.

Monument of Nikolai Starostin and his three brothers inside Spartak Moscow’s Otkritie Arena.

 Nikolai Petrovich Starostin (1902-1996) was a Soviet football player and official. He was the co-founder of Spartak Moscow, which turned into the most popular club in the USSR and Russia, and worked as its head administrator for most of his life. Starostin is considered one of the most legendary and universally revered figures of Soviet football.

In 1986, he published the book ‘My Football Years’ with Lev Filatov, and even well into his eighties, he retained a keen understanding of the game, spotting and predicting most of the modern football trends. The book also offers some fascinating insights on the history of Soviet football, related by someone who’d seen it in its entirety. 

Every Tuesday, we bring a chapter from the book.

In chapter four, Starostin discusses team selection, while he also share the story of how he temporarily retired and later how Spartak were rebuilt with legendary head coach Konstantin Beskov. Due to the length of this chapter, it is split into two with the second part being published tomorrow.

Read chapter one: A Hint to the Future

Read chapter two: Captain’s Memory

Read chapter three: Who Should Govern Football?

Eleven Is Our Number

I’m stepping onto a new minefield. I do understand that I’ll be vulnerable here. But I can’t avoid this topic in any serious football talk. This topic is team selection. I’m vulnerable from two sides here. First of all, this topic is very controversial and much discussed, there are a lot of precedents in football history that can be used to prove almost any point of view. Secondly, I sometimes contradicted my own view that I’d formulated over the years and am going to state here. If someone says “But back then, you did that!” and accuses me of inconsistency and even hypocrisy, I’ll be the first to raise my arms and say, “Yes, Spartak does have its share of skeletons in the closet.” (I’ve already warned you at the very beginning that I wasn’t going to lecture anybody, just to say what I’d wanted to say for a long time.) I think that nobody involved in team selection and transfers can honestly say they’re immaculate. But we’ll only muddle the matter further if we start throwing accusations around.

Coaches like to complain about the “short bench” – in other words, about the lack of players. If you assemble your team at random, you can get enough players to fill the seats of a trolley-bus, and it’ll still seem to you that your bench is short. I remember Spartak in the years of its greatest successes (1938-39, 1956-58, 1962-63, 1969-70, 1979), and the first thing that comes to mind is a team of eleven quality players, the primary line-up, and three or four reserve players who could always come off the bench and help. It was the same in the Dinamos of Moscow, Kyiv, Minsk, Tbilisi, or in CDKA [The current CSKA]. Quantity does not guarantee quality in football. Eleven is our number, and we must strive to get to that number.

Team selection is an art. Sometimes it’s presented like a lucky coincidence, such as a lottery win. But this concept is too simplified, it’s how people outside judge the process because they see only the results. In fact, team managers and administrators are constantly working on team selection and scouting. There’s also the infamous “generation change”. So, I can’t remember a single day without discussing some prospective player or the other, or searching for a long-term or even short-term replacement for a current first-team player.

A lot has been done for every team to have the opportunity to prepare a new generation of players without stepping outside its boundaries. Spartak Moscow also has its own children’s academy for 420 boys, with a director, a head teacher, 13 coaches, and administrators. And the school works: Gennady Morozov, Evgeny Sidorov, Sergey Rodionov, Fyodor Cherenkov, Sergey Novikov, Mikhail Rusyaev are all Spartak alumni. We can also add Alexey Prudnikov and Boris Pozdnyakov from Dynamo Moscow, Viktor Samokhin and Dmitry Galyamin from CSKA, Vyacheslav Murashkintsev from Fakel Voronezh to the same list, as well as all ex-Spartak players from League 1 and League 2 – as you see, the school is quite effective.

READ MORE: Fyodor Cherenkov – The Story of a Spartak Legend

However, I can’t boast (even though I would really like to) that I constantly keep an eye on the school. I’ve only learned from the newspapers that Igor Shalimov, 17, was invited to the Soviet youth national team from Spartak. Neither Beskov nor me, to my greatest shame, knew anything about this youngster. (He’s currently playing in the first team.) Of course, I could complain about being busy, lack of time, constant travelling, as other team bosses do when asked about their club schools. But the sad truth is all our clubs are largely oriented on scouting players outside their own boundaries rather than within them.

Inviting a bunch of well-known players is the fate and consolation of mediocre managers. On the other hand, to nurture an unknown youngster and make him a star is a sure sign of the coach’s talent and great work of the team’s administration that supported him.

Spartak Moscow have a lot of players to be proud of. I could name many names of Distinguished Masters of Sports, eight Olympic champions, three Euro 1960 winners. The number of Spartak players in the Soviet team since 1952 is second only to Dinamo Kyiv. And I’m most proud of the fact that most of those great players were either Spartak school alumni, or were discovered by Spartak coaches and became stars there.

Here’s the famous Olympic lineup of 1956: Nikolai Tischenko, Mikhail Ogonkov, Anatoly Maslenkin, Alexei Paramonov, Igor Netto, Boris Tatushin, Anatoly Isaev, Nikita Simonyan, Sergey Salnikov, Anatoly Ilyin; all of them owe Spartak no less than Spartak owes them. And they knew and still know it, remaining fiercely loyal to their sports society.

READ MORE: Anatoly Ilyin – The Golden Striker

Much later, I was very glad to see Fyodor Cherenkov, Gennady Morozov and Sergei Rodionov in the USSR national team shirts – I remember them as small boys in the Spartak uniform. I’m also very glad for Rinat Dasaev, Vladimir Sochnov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Sergei Novikov, Sergei Shavlo, Georgi Yartsev, Vagiz Khidiyatullin, Oleg Romantsev – all of them became stars at Spartak after beginning their careers in obscurity.

I think this is the right place to remember how Spartak got relegated from the Higher League in 1976 and how they returned to it a year later. One just can’t keep silent about that, it’s an integral part of Spartak’s history. But there’s a more important lesson in this story, which should be learned by everyone working in football.

In 1975, as most of you probably remember, Dinamo Kyiv attracted a lot of attention with their brilliant season. They won a treble: the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the European Supercup and the Soviet championship. Our Spartak was in the shadows: we finished only 10th, not a usual place for us. But while most football fans gushed over Dinamo Kyiv, which, incidentally, formed almost the entire Soviet national squad at the time (which also performed quite well), the leaders of the Spartak sports society and the trade unions paid very close attention to our misfortunes.

This shouldn’t surprise anybody. I still remember how in 1963, Nikita Simonyan (head coach) and me (head administrator) were reprimanded because Spartak finished second, not first, just like a year ago. I should also mention that in 1963, Spartak also won the Soviet Cup. Still, we were basically told that we had failed miserably. It was very unpleasant to read the reprimand order (I still keep it in my archive). But still, we at least felt how great were the expectations from us. But in 1975, we finished 10th – right after being runners-up in 1974.

So, in autumn 1975, the Spartak executives decided to “rejuvenate the team leadership”. Nikolai Gulyaev and I were told that “it’s time to take a rest”. Of course, we immediately filed letters of resignations.

The team leadership was indeed rejuvenated. Ivan Varlamov was appointed as the head administrator, with Anatoly Krutikov as the head coach and Galimzyan Khusainov as his assistant. All three were great footballers at Spartak – this was the main consideration. But one small thing wasn’t taken into consideration at all: one’s authority as a player doesn’t equal his authority as a coach. This happens all too often: other teams would frequently appoint their famous veterans as coaches, thinking that this alone was enough for them to do their job well. Underlying such rash decisions, in my view, is the lack of respect (not open, but covert) for the coaching job; for some reason, people tend to think that a coach should play football well and can easily learn everything else on the job.

I was appointed as the head of the football department in Spartak society’s Moscow council; I worked with teams that played in the Moscow championship and with children’s sport schools. I had nothing to do with the first Spartak team, and I knew that Krutikov was not keen to work with me.

Spartak’s showing in 1976 was extremely poor. There were two championships back then: spring and autumn ones. In the spring championship, Spartak finished 14th (out of 16). This should have rung a bell, but it was ignored.

Parents love even their ugly and infirm children. I just couldn’t turn away from the team, my heart was aching. I couldn’t do much besides covertly contacting players, asking them to uphold Spartak’s honour. I was never resentful: I visited all Spartak’s matches and watched all their training sessions from afar.

Krutikov was let down by his overconfidence. As I watched him, I felt like he was trying to rebuild an entire house despite having only a hammer in his hand. As usual in such cases, he started to experiment with the lineup – it’s the easiest thing to do, with risky substitutions and reshuffling between games. It almost seemed that the head coach didn’t want to listen to anybody (that’s the dictatorship for you!), that he wanted to transform Spartak, raise it up with some miraculous move, show his strong personality, and gain recognition as one of the best coaches in the country. It all tasted of some kind of cult; Spartak became a stake in the gamble of a man who blindly believed in luck. And he lost that gamble.

At the end of the autumn championship, the most discussed question was whether Spartak woud be relegated or survive. This was totally unheard of. When another famous club, CSKA Moscow, was relegated to League 1 later, there was much less buzz because we did it first. But back then, it was akin to shaking the very foundations of our football. In the last few rounds, the journalists, as though analyzing a chess game, found 14 (!) variants for Spartak’s survival, taking into consideration the games of both Spartak and many other teams. Let me remind you that Spartak ultimately scored just 13 points and finished next to last, while five teams scored 14 points. Of course, everything was hanging by a thread.

But still, it was the 15th variant that played out, and all our illusory chances disappeared. As though on purpose! I can’t say anything for sure, of course, but some matches seemed deliberately fixed to me, as though someone wanted to have fun and see what would happen if the great Spartak got relegated. Of course, some supporters launched a petition to change the championship’s structure and save Spartak from relegation – there were some precedents, after all. For instance, in 1967 Zenit Leningrad finished dead last, but got a reprieve, and the Higher League was increased from 19 teams to 20. I was against such petitions: you can’t support your reputation with concessions and mercy, and I didn’t want to lose our honour.

Still, when the dust settled, there was work to do. Who should be the next head coach? There are some surgeons that are willing to operate patients after other doctors have refused. Spartak needed a similar man at the time. I can’t say that the team was completely destroyed, but it was in need of significant renovations.

My brother Andrei Petrovich offered to bring Konstantin Beskov in. Beskov, like me, had been relegated to a desk job in his Dinamo society, pushing papers. He agreed to join Spartak and asked to reinstate me as the head administrator. I, of course, agreed without much thought.

READ MORE: Konstantin Beskov – The Muscovite Tactician

We were often called “two bears in one den” – people thought we’d never be able to work together. Indeed, in the beginning, we were quite wary towards each other. Shortly before, when I worked with Beskov in the Olympic team, we didn’t exactly see eye to eye.

Some people can hold grudges for a very long time, but after joining Spartak, Beskov quickly let go of the past. Above all, he was a professional coach, and the work lying ahead demanded our agreement.

I’ve worked along with many coaches, and I have the opportunity to compare. Very quickly it became clear that Beskov is extremely well-suited for the job he had to do in the half-devastated Spartak.

He’s one of those coaches who know exactly what they want and relentlessly pursue their goal. Returning Spartak to the top flight was just an intermediate, incidental, obvious goal. If another coach was in his place, he’d probably set promotion as his main goal, and it’s unclear whether he’d solve this limited problem. Beskov, on the other hand, wanted to create a team that could win championships again. He had his own scale of demands for players, his “dream players”, as I might put it. He also had his own demands for team play. His favourite phrase was, “These are the demands of tomorrow’s football”. In other words, he’s working for the future. And finally, Beskov likes to work with young players, he believes in them.

Spartak, of course, needed new players. Where could we get them? “Grab” someone famous? This was a very important question. I think if we gave in to the knee-jerk reaction and started chasing big names, we wouldn’t be able to make Spartak as strong as it became in 1979.

Georgy Yartsev, a quick and nimble striker, was noticed by Beskov in Spartak Kostroma, during the January indoor Spartak society tournament. He was 29 years old, but this didn’t stop us: we were in desperate need of a goalscorer.

Goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev from the Astrakhan Spartak team playing in League 2 was recommended by Fyodor Novikov, Beskov’s assistant. Midfielder Sergei Shavlo was noticed by Beskov in Sochi, at Daugava Riga’s training camp. Beskov was told that Shavlo wasn’t held in high regard: he was employed as a centre forward, but didn’t score much. The Daugava coaches kindly allowed me to speak to Shavlo and agreed to let him go. Yuri Gavrilov worked with Beskov in Dinamo Moscow for a while. This natural playmaker lost his place in the Dinamo first eleven, so the Dinamo bosses let him go after our request.

In our reserve team, we had the 18-year-old Vagiz Khidiyatullin and Valery Glushakov. We also got back the defender Oleg Romantsev, who returned to Krasnoyarsk after the previous season. Right now, all those players are famous. But back in 1977, I was hearing from everyone, “Do you really hope to win the promotion with those?”

I must emphasize that there was no “magic” or incredible luck involved in our return to the Higher League in 1978 and championship win in 1979. We weren’t magicians – we just worked hard, pushing the limits of our skills and knowledge. Spartak lost quite a few games even in the League 1, and in the first half of 1978, we were quite close to relegation; only in the second leg of the tournament we found our own game, won the spectators’ hearts and finished in a respectful fifth place.

Part two of this chapter will be published Wednesday.

Author: Alexey Spektrowski

I’m a Spartak Moscow fan who dabbles in Soviet/Russian football history (mostly numerical and statistical). Contributed some data to the Spartak Moscow museum at Otkrytie Arena.

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