Before there was Andrei Kanchelskis at Manchester Utd, before there was Andrei Arshavin at Arsenal, even before the Gunners and the Red Devils became big names, the stars of Russian football had British links.
Few now remember the story of Billy Charnock, engineer and amateur sportsman, but his remarkable journey took him from Durham University to wearing the captain’s armband as Russia’s representative football team claimed its first international victory.
Charnock was a keen sportsman in his university days, gaining his ‘palatinate’, Durham’s equivalent to an Oxbridge ‘blue’, for football in the 1904-05 season. He also played for Bishop Auckland, fledgling legends of the amateur game, helping the County Durham team to become the Northern League’s amateur champions in 1906 (Charnock scored the equaliser against Sunderland ‘A’ in a play-off at St. James’ Park, Newcastle, forcing a 1-1 draw that persuaded the league management to hail the Red-and-Whites as professional champions and the Two Blues as the amateur kings). He was also part of that year’s FA Amateur Cup Final line-up.
But his destiny lay far from those Northern Goalfields. Armed with a diploma in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering from Armstrong College, then part of Durham University, he headed to Russia where several other members of the extended Charnock family worked in the fabric mills of Orekhovo-Zuevo.
The Charnocks came from Lancashire, another hotbed of football’s early development, and brought their love of the game to Russia with them. When Gary Charnock took over as mill manager in 1893, he advertised back in England for more staff to join him – and demanded soccer skills as well as engineering experience. The works team, OKS, played in the blue-and-white colours of Blackburn Rovers, the Charnocks’ local team in England, and became one of the heavyweights of the Moscow Football Championship and by the time Billy followed in his uncles’ footsteps the game was attracting Russian players as well as British expats.
Before long there was international competition: in 1910, Charnock represented a Moscow League XI (with just two Russians in the team) against Corinthians, a touring team from Bohemia. By 1913 the balance had shifted following the Russian Empire’s 1912 Olympic debut. Charnock, now captain, was one of just two expat players involved in a historic 3-0 victory over Norway in Moscow on September 7.
Billy, also known as a Russified Vasily, played as ‘central-halfback’, the pivotal role in the heart of midfield in the old 2-3-5 formation of that era. His contribution got a rave review from the ‘Futbolist’ magazine, which wrote: “He only adopted this position very recently but commends himself as a good player, possessed of an amazing facility to move the ball forwards. He has a strong shot and passes the ball perfectly to the forwards, especially the wingers. He has been involved in every Moscow representative team. Moscow has never seen a better central midfielder.”
The 1917 revolution forced the Charnocks to flee Moscow. Billy eventually settled in Leek, Staffs, where he continued his enthusiastic support for the town’s football and cricket teams. His former club, OKS, was turned into a sports club for the Soviet secret police and gained global fame as Dynamo Moscow, still in those Blackburn-inspired blue-and-white kits.
This text was originally written for Russia Beyond the Headlines and appeared, under the byline of Thomas Noll, in a supplement to the Daily Telegraph of April 28, 2016. For more about Russia Beyond the Headlines, see the website at http://www.rbth.com.