Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Ground 224: Krystal Stadium, Kherson

"Ooh, heaven is a place on earth," pumps tinnily through the marshrutka's speaker system as the bus grinds, bumps, clunks and clatters its way through the outskirts of Odessa. "What are the chances of getting any sleep?" Richard, visiting from England, mutters, his backpack lodged between knees, nose and the perma-reclined seat in front.  "What do you reckon?" I laugh.  Two and a half hours later I wake up next to a T34 tank in Mykolaiv, having dozed my way through three quarters of the trip.  Richard looks genuinely pained.

"You're going where?" the staffroom had spluttered when I told them I was off to Kherson. "There's nothing there except mail-order brides and watermelons."  A student added "catfish kebabs."  Another just shrugged: "It's not Odessa." The first thing we spot as we enter the city is a MiG on a plinth.  The second's the Sovietski bus station, the third a car crash and the fourth a dead dog.  "The air's a bit chewy," says Richard as I try to navigate to the centre using a pen-drawn map and what I remember from a couple of minutes research on Google.  The fifth, after we drop our bags at the hotel and take a short cut through Lenin Park, are the hulking, rust-flecked floodlights at the Stadion Krytal.  "How much do you think it'll be?" Richard asks.  "10 hryvnia (75p)?!" stammers an old bloke at the turnstile. "Forget it!"

The ground's a concrete bowl with paving stone over the running track, a grassed-over long jump pit and shiny new plastic seats bolted over the terraces on one side.   Kherson kick off, booting a crossfield pass back off the mound of loose rock that runs along the entire length of the far touchline.  A chant of "Krystal Kherson" goes up from somewhere behind, a handful of people clapping along while the rest of the crowd just turn around and laugh.  After the inauspicious opening, Krystal actually play some decent one-touch football, their number nine doing a passable Robin van Persie impression against the four-man Shakhtar Sverdlovsk defence. When Vadym Kucherevskiy nods them ahead from a corner, we're treated to an ear-splitting rendition of 'Ole, ole, ole, ole, Kherson, Kherson' from the speaker stack behind the dugouts and some barking from the fans at the back.  The rest of the half plays out at a languid pace, Kherson doubling their lead from the penalty spot only moments before the break - "The scorer's Roman Lensky, thank you for the goal" says the stadium announcer - before the visitors have a player sent-off, to general bemusement, for a trip midway inside his own half. Happy 235th birthday, Kherson.

Shakhtar make two changes at the interval, come out five minutes early and take another quarter of an hour to reduce the deficit with everyone but Vadym Salatin distracted by a home substitution.  With just over ten minutes left Anton Sharko levels with an over-the-shoulder dink, and in the reshuffle that follows Kherson's centre forward ends up dumped at left back while a centre half is dragged off the pitch and given a public bollocking by the irate coach.  The game ends with a panicky Krystal eleven stringing eight across the back, evacuating midfield and misfiring passes out for goalkicks at the other end of the pitch.  Even all the way out here, where the Dnieper empties into the Black Sea on the edge of the Ukrainian steppe, it's just like watching Newcastle United.

At the final whistle we head back to Ushakova and the John Howard Pub, where Richard orders 'Jerked-off horse meat' and a massive screen shows Shakhtar Donetsk giving Poltava the runaround.  Metres away, Lenin faces the setting sun, pigeon on his head, back turned to a Renault sign, staring past a branch of Privat Bank.

Admission: 10 hr (75p)
Date: Saturday 21st September