If you ask Lokomotiv Moscow fans to name their all-time favourites from the club, they will without a doubt include the legendary Yuri Pavlovich Semin. The current Anzhi Makhachkala head coach has written several pages in the history book of Lokomotiv and Russian Football.
Semin was born in Orenburg, near the Kazakh border, but his parents moved west to Oryol when Semin was young, and thus he started his senior career with Spartak Oryol in the Soviet Second League. Semin was a talented striker and he got his debut on the first team at the age of 16, while he still attended school. His talent was obvious, and it allowed him to wear many legendary shirts through his career – he went on to represent Spartak Moscow, Dinamo Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow, and even Kayrat Almaty before he finished his career in Kuban Krasnodar’s green and yellow shirt in 1980. Despite winning the Soviet Cup with Dinamo in 1970, Semin won’t be remembered for his achievements as a player. He put the boots on the shelf and retired at the age of 33, and he immediately began working towards becoming a football coach.
After two years preparation Semin was ready for his first head coaching job, when he in September, 1982 took over Kuban. Semin was however no success and he was sacked after eight defeats in only 12 matches. After the first failure Semin had to take a step down, and his next job was at the Tajik side CSKA Pamir, where he trained many players who would later join him at Lokomotiv’s facilities in Cherkizovo. Among these players we find the current head coach of the Railroaders, Igor Cherevchenko. Semin only stayed in the Tajik capital Dushanbe for two years, after which he joined Lokomotiv, where he would once and for all prove himself as a coach.
The first years at Cherkizovo, however, was not so easy, as Lokomotiv were in dire need of a revolution, something Semin quickly realized. His goal was to build a team that could compete in the top of the league, but this was a difficult task in a club who had never before won the Soviet League, and furthermore found themselves in the second tier of the Soviet league system. Lokomotiv had for a long time struggled due to the lack of a strong and competent coach, which caused their results to be wildly inconsistent. After finishing sixth in his first season as Lokomotiv coach, Semin developed the club even further, and in 1987 the Railroaders finished second after Chernomorets Odessa, which secured them a return to the top of Soviet football for the first time since the relegation in 1980.
Only two years later, in 1990, Lokomotiv reached the final of USSR Cup, which was lost against Ukrainian powerhouse Dinamo Kyiv. Lokomotiv had come a long way under Semin’s control, but it wasn’t enough for the ambitious Russian who wanted to start building a new reputation for the ‘Railroaders’ and to do so he needed trophies.
Before the 1990 season Lokomotiv had signed the American Dale Mulholland, who was the first Western player in the history of Soviet Football. Mulholland, who had signed a two year contract, played one year for the Red-Greens before he returned to the States where Miami Freedom were waiting for him.
Even though Lokomotiv developed greatly during the first Semin era, they still struggled financially. Therefore, despite the good results, Semin decided to leave the ‘Railroaders’ to seek a new challenge, and he found this with the national team of New Zealand. Semin justified his choice afterward: “I brought back Lokomotiv to the Soviet Top League, but I wanted new challenges. I chose New Zealand as I had the task to qualify the team to the 1992 Olympic Games and to develop the youth football. There was a lot of work to do, the most popular sports were rugby and golf. The Federation really had great projects and even the weather was ideal for us”. Unfortunately for Semin, he failed to qualify New Zealand for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, and therefore he decided to return to Moscow. Semin immediately got his old job at Lokomotiv back, where he replaced his old assistant, Valeri Filatov, as head coach. Filatov was instead promoted to president of the club, and together they continued the work Semin had started six years earlier.
Together with Filatov, Semin helped Loko become a top club not only in Russia, but also in Europe. One of their main tasks was to save the ‘Railroaders’ from bankruptcy, and to do so Semin bought a lot of shares, which he still owns today. At the same time, Lokomotiv aimed at signing cheap players who could be sold with a profit. The players the Filatov/Semin duo signed were primarily Russian speakers from the now former USSR, which meant they easily understood Semin’s instructions. Filatov and Semin were however also looking at the African and American markets. Among the more successful signings South African Jacob Lekgetho, who became one of Russia’s own according to the newspaper Sport-Express, and Nigerian James Obiorah can be mentioned, as they both found themselves happy in Russia
Soon, Semin started building a team based on the values of family, mutual aid and trust. Lokomotiv was transformed from the fifth wheel of the Moscow cart to the best team in Russia. Vadim Evseev, one of the leaders of Semin’s Lokomotiv, explained the success of the Railroaders this way: “The strength of Lokomotiv was the atmosphere into the team, the team’s unity. We were like a family, everyone knew each other. In particular, I need to underline the work of Valeri Filatov and Yuri Semin. They worked together to get those results. Each Semin’s team has character. The team’s soul was ahead the money. When there was only a little money, everything was great.” It amazingly seemed that the fans, the club and the players were a single person.
During the nineties, Loko improved year after year as Semin was able to sign many skilled players like Alenichev, Drozdov, Maminov, Kharlachyov, Kosolapov, Pashinin, Solomatin and Janashia, which created a solid spine of Russian players. The culmination of Semin’s work at Cherkizovo came in 1998 and in 1999, where Lokomotiv two seasons in a row qualified for the semifinals in the Cup Winner’s Cup. At the same time, the modernization of Lokomotiv Stadium helped to develop the club’s image, and it attracted many new fans.
Semin’s great work became clear to everyone when the ‘Railroaders’ won its first league title in 2002 and repeated the triumph in 2004. With the league title in 2002 Lokomotiv became the third club to win a Russian championship, and they broke Spartak’s monopoly on the title, as they had won the league nine out of the previous ten seasons. Despite his own work, Semin didn’t want to take the full responsibility for the club’s achievement, as he told Sport-Express in a recent interview: “We had the most aggressive leaders of RPL on the field – Loskov, Evseev, Ovchinnikov, Sychev, Khokhlov, Gurenko, Lima and even ‘ours’ Bilyaletdinov and Izmailov”. Furthermore, many of these players became football coach, demonstrating how they had an “innate intelligence for football”
For Semin his work with Lokomotiv was about more than just winning titles and creating a strong football team, he also wanted to develop the rest of the club and create a community around the Red-Greens. He worked hard on attracting more fans to the club, and he wanted to make the team available for the fans and create a bond between the two most important parts of a football club – the players and the fans.
One of the protagonists behind the 2004 title was the young striker Dmitriy Sychev, who returned to Russia after a season at French side Marseille and he played a crucial role thanks to the help from Yuri ‘the Russian Ferguson’ Semin. Everything was decided in Yaroslavl, when Lokomotiv were forced to win against Shinnik to steal the title from the reigning champions, CSKA Moscow. The whole stadium supported Semin’s team who won 2-0 thanks to goals by Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Sychyov. At the end of the season Evseev, Sennikov, Maminov, Loskov, and Sychyov were all awarded the title as best on their position. To underline, the great Semin’s work, Sychev said: “As soon as Lokomotiv started being interested in me, I was shocked by the leadership’s ambitions. I immediately accepted the offer. Everything was great. I was warmly welcomed and I felt to be in a family and not in a football team. I think this was the happiest moment in my life. It’s difficult to find such a ‘family’ in the current football.”
The strength of Semin’s Lokomotiv was proved in the 2003/2004 Champions League tournament, where they advanced to the first playoff round, only to be eliminated by the later finalists from Monaco, despite winning 2-1 in Moscow. Semin later expressed his disappointment: “We brilliantly passed the group stage in Champions League, after which we faced French side AS Monaco. However, the referee decided in favour of our opponent and therefore we weren’t able to be qualified to the next round. I wasn’t surprised when Monaco’s head coach Didier Deschamps said we could have reached the final of Champions League instead of them”.
The love story between Semin and Lokomotiv ended in 2005 when the Russian coach decided to leave the Railroaders to coach the Russian national team, where he failed to qualify the team to the 2006 World Cup. After one and half seasons, and a league title, with Dinamo Kyiv, he returned to Lokomotiv in 2010, but his work was strongly criticized by the President Olga Smorodskaya, who sacked the legend after a year in service.
Now, after a great season with Mordovia Saransk, Semin is leading Anzhi, and Lokomotiv’s fans are still dreaming back to the golden days during the Semin era.
Stefano Conforti is editor-in-chief at the English magazine FCLM Magazine about Lokomotiv. The first issue can be found here.
Follow Stefano on Twitter: @ConfortiStefano
Author: Stefano Conforti
Half Russian, half Italian. Football writer and Lokomotiv Moscow supporter. Founder of the FCLMblog, the only blog about Lokomotiv outside Russia, and FCLMmagazine, which is the first magazine in English for an Eastern Europe football club. I’m interested in everything related to Russia and the post-Soviet world.