If you're lucky, the bus ride along the single lane highway connecting the cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv takes a shade over two and a half hours. Tell an Odessan that you're making the trip and they'll assume you're going to the zoo, the fourth oldest in the Russian Empire and still the most famous in Ukraine. Say the same to someone from Mykolaiv and they'll answer with a look mingling equal parts incomprehension and pity. "Why?" one asked. "Everything's so dirty." "There's football," I countered. "Is there?" He paused for a second: "The stadium's so small."
"The juggernaut of the Soviet shipbuilding industry"; "Ukraine's hard drug capital (and) the official entry point of AIDS into the country"; "The best part of Mykolaiv is actually leaving." While the guidebooks aren't exactly complimentary, my last visit to the city left more positive memories: its pedestrianised main street - a mini version of Odessa's Deribasovskaya without the cobbles or fancy prices - monuments to Lenin, shipyard workers and the Red Army, and a billboard for an international marriage agency which read 'A Slav Girl! We are born to make you happy!' (When I posted the picture online, someone immediately replied with: "Do you think they've forgotten the 'e'?"). Back then I also joined a stray dog and a crack team of groundskeepers when I snuck in to Central Stadium, home to Mykolaiv's two football teams - third division Enerhiya and MFC (Municipal Football Club), at 93 years old the country's longest surviving club side.
Plucked from the West Division of the Soviet Second League - where they'd been up against the continental might of Dynamo Brest, Zaria Balti, Goyazan Kazakh, Torpedo Taganrog and Qarabağ Ağdam - in 1991, Mykolaiv's top team briefly went head to head with the giants of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk before sinking into obscurity at the end of the decade, five years after Bukovyna Chernivtsi had taken their own last bow from the Ukrainian Premier League. The clubs' most notable recent achievement has been to survive at all - shorn of finance, they sit twelfth and thirteenth in the sixteen team Druha Liga, just a single point above relegation.
I jump off the bus at Radyanska, which has a McDonald's at one end, Lenin at the other and most of the city's best places to eat somewhere in between. The football ground's another twenty minutes away at the very end of Lenina Prospekt, its entrance flanked by a pair of anchors and an outdoor market. Mykolaiv scarves and badges are spread across the pavement but the only things changing hands are fliers for trips to Chernomorets Odessa or Shakhtar Donetsk. A mural shows two Mykolaiv fans clad in Fred Perry and Adidas stamping on an opposition supporter's face, 'Stay True' written along the top. Inside, the stands are sparsely populated. "Mykolaiv," chorus a bunch of 50 or so flag-waving ultras at one end of the pitch. "Mykolaiv," reply a dozen at the other.
The home centre-forward skies ten metres over from five metres out. Bukovyna have a free kick that the goalkeeper flaps back towards the wall. One of the ultras goes topless, his face covered by a scarf and Guy Fawkes mask. There are lots of sliding tackles and my ears get a bit cold. And then the referee blows for half-time. You can almost hear the relief.
The second period starts very much like the first. Mykolaiv's number nine hits his own player with one shot and gets closer to a steeplechase hurdle than goal with a second. Moments later, Bukovyna break down the right and hammer a cross into the centre that Vasyl Palagnyuk prods home. With just over an hour played, Chernivtsi score again, Polish midfielder Oleksandr Temeriwskyj firing a daisycutter under the goalkeeper's late dive. "Are you from Finland?" a passing drunk asks. "We used to have a real team. Can you believe it?"
There are fifteen minutes left when Mykolaiv finally hit the target, Aleksandr Kablash, chesting down a pass and volleying past the keeper. The home side threaten intermittently, the ultras sing to the very end, but most of the few thousand fans shuffle silently home. It's an hour's walk to the bus station, past a sword-wielding statue and a T34 tank, then another 100 metres from the entrance to the zoo. "Odessa, Odessa," the bus driver shouts. I text someone for the Newcastle score. "2-1," he replies, "Pardew's job safe for another week."
Date: October 5th 2013