Rostov, home of the Russian Brian Clough

Rostov FC’s rise to the top of the Russian Premier League has prompted comparisons with Leicester City’s unlikely title push in England – but this challenger’s roots might have more in common with a hero of two other East Midlands cities.

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Rostov FC head coach Kurban Berdyev. Picture used under creative commons license. Original source, photographer Svetlana Beketova.

Kurban Berdyev, the idiosyncratic head coach of Rostov, makes a plausible bid for the title of Russia’s Brian Clough. A man who stands apart from the footballing establishment. A coach who brings glories to provincial also-rans. A motivator who turns unregarded journeymen into stars. And, at least during his Rubin days, he even had a penchant for a green sweater in the dug-out.

At first sight the parallels aren’t so obvious. Berdyev’s self-consciously quiet demeanour is light years away from Clough’s swagger and wisecracking. Yet, just as Clough’s outspoken approach made him the greatest manager England never had, so Berdyev, a devout Muslim, teetotal, born in Soviet Turkmenistan, is an awkward fit with the country’s current sports set-up. The FA’s blazers, reputedly happiest with cosy agreements over port and cigars in a gentleman’s club, couldn’t handle an outspoken Clough’s refusal to doff his cap. Berdyev, similarly, doesn’t fit in with the impression that Russia’s Football Union gives of vodka shots in a steamy banya. When the Russians looked for foreign influence – Hiddink, Advocaat, Capello – Berdyev wasn’t foreign enough. When the time came to return to home values, he wasn’t sufficiently Russian to fit in.

But in Russian league football over the past decade or so, Berdyev’s record has been impressive. Pound-for-pound, he arguably outstrips legends like Oleg Romantsev or Valery Gazzayev, the most titled coaches of post-Soviet Russia. When he took over at Rubin Kazan in 2001, the team from the Tatar capital was much like Derby or Forest – a trademark for provincial mediocrity. A history spent bobbing around the lower reaches of Soviet football was followed by the slight improvement of a stint in Russia’s second tier after the USSR collapsed. Berdyev won promotion in 2002, but without the historic glamour of Spartak or the financial firepower of Lokomotiv, CSKA or Zenit, midtable was the target.

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Christian Noboa in his Rubin days. The midfielder rejoined Berdyev at Rostov this season. Photo by Yulia Novikova for Used here under creative common license.

Berdyev gloriously exceeded that modest remit. The team came third in its first top-flight campaign winning the league in 2008 to celebrate the club’s 50th anniversary then repeating the trick in 2009, throwing in a Champions League group stage win at Camp Nou for good measure. There were more trophies to come: the Russian Cup in 2012, and the Super Cup in 2010 and 2012. After that 2010 Super Cup win, which I covered for The Moscow News in frosty -7C temperatures at Luzhniki, Berdyev’s press conference was a masterclass in awkwardness. Slinking into the luxurious press suite beneath the stadium with his baseball cap low over his eyes, Berdyev mumbled a few platitudes in a barely audible monotone. When the floor was opened for questions, he gripped his prayer beads tightly – although a devout Muslim, he has said that these are as much a footballing ritual as a religious one – and offered borderline incoherent phrases in response. I don’t recall what he said: his talking, after all, had been done on the pitch where an Alexander Bukharov goal 10 minutes before half time gave Rubin a 1-0 win over CSKA.

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Central Stadium, Kazan, where Berdyev led Rubin to five major domestic trophies after decades of under-achievement.

Bukharov, goalscorer that day and a lynchpin of his Rubin team, is now reunited with his mentor at Rostov. And mentor is exactly the word. For, just as Clough was renowned for spotting the player buried beneath the journeyman, so Berdyev has excelled at getting the best from his men. At Rubin, Bukharov was a fearsome forward. His powerful aerial threat made him a handful, but a call-up for the Russian national team was elusive. Finally Zenit, under Luciano Spaletti, splashed the cash. An unhappy editorial in a Kazan newspaper lamented that, once again, the city slickers were raiding the provinces and noted with some bitterness that Bukharov might regret a move to a team that ‘isn’t noted for playing football on the second floor’. Whatever the writer’s motivation, he was proved correct. Bukharov’s break-out season proved a flash-in-the-pan; he never got close to repeating his haul of 16 in 23 in the 2009 campaign, and after just 10 goals in 42 league games for Zenit he was a forgotten man of Russian football. It’s tempting to draw parallels with the likes of Garry Birtles – unstoppable at Clough’s Forest, invisible at Manchester United.

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Rostov’s Olimp-2 Stadium has been sold out as Kurban Berdyev leads the team in pursuit of an unlikely championship dream. Photo by Dmitry Kosov, used under creative commons license.

Now Berdyev is performing wonders with another unheralded provincial team in Rostov. He joined the club during last season’s new year break – the third manager that season – and saved the team from relegation via an end-of-season play-off win over National League high-flier FC Tosno.

In the summer Berdyev rebuilt the team completely. Russian internationals Vladimir Granat and Artyom Dzyuba ended their loan stints and headed to Zenit, but familiar faces arrived. Christian Noboa and Cesar Navas, two of the key men in Rubin’s success, rejoined their old boss. Bukharov still features up front, but the top scorer is Dmitry Poloz, occasionally called into Russia’s squad but another player who has struggled to really fulfil his potential. Goalie Soslan Dzhanayev, who struggled to hold down a place at Spartak, continues the trend of being plucked from obscurity to become a star. Ever present this season, he’s conceded just 16 in 22 as he marshals the best defence in the Russian Premier League.

Today Rostov heads to Anzhi Makhachkala – another provincial team that aimed impossibly high (remember Roberto Carlos? Remember Samuel Eto’o?) without reaching Berdyev’s heights at Rubin. Victory would open up a four-point gap over CSKA ahead of the Army Men’s home game against Mordovia on Saturday. With just seven more games left after this weekend, the Clough-like dream of leading a second underdog to championship glory is still very much alive.

Interested in Russian football? Groundhoppers’ new e-book, Snow on the Seats, gives a personal journey around the country and its stadiums. Written in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, it offers a glimpse at how Russia, and its football, has changed in the run-up to the tournament. Available for download to Kindle devices and a bargain at £3.49, it’s a unique primer for this summer’s excitement. Find it here

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