Nizhny Novograd v Spartak Moscow 2, Sunday 2nd May 2021, 4pm

Weekends away have pretty much been off the agenda in the last year or so, but with Russia seemingly having put covid firmly into the past and with Jen back in the same country as me it was time for us to take a trip. A bank holiday weekend meant that me working on a Saturday wasn’t an issue and so late afternoon we took a taxi to Kursky station to catch a train to Nizhny Novograd.

Whilst waiting on our platform I noticed a few kids in track suits. Closer inspection revealed that they were the Spartak Moscow second team who were the opponents in the game that we would be seeing the following day. I suppose one of the reasons that they looked so young, apart from everyone looking so young when you get to my age, is that reserve teams are allowed to compete in the second tier and below and are development sides. There’s not much point packing them with grizzled old pro’s even if you could do.

One of the players got separated from his chums and ended up in our carriage. I’m pleased to report that he behaved himself.

The three and three-quarter hour journey was a pleasure. For a start we were facing in the direction of travel. Secondly, we had seats that seemed like business class and finally we were constantly fed and watered with good stuff throughout the journey. My recollection was that I’d just booked bog-standard tickets so every additional benefit was a welcome surprise. We were even given complimentary shoe-horns in case we struggled to get our shoes back on after travelling in the complimentary slippers.

I’d booked a hotel about ten minutes walk from the station. I’ve no idea why I did that as there was nothing going on in the area. I’d have been better off booking somewhere where the bars and restaurants are and avoided having to get a taxi everywhere.

Nizhny Novograd seems to be a city under reconstruction. We went for a wander around their Kremlin but couldn’t get inside due to ongoing refurbishment works. The building dates from around the eleventh century but in the wall repairs that were being carried out the replacement bricks were brand new and cheap looking. I wouldn’t have used them on a garden wall never mind a restoration of an historic monument.

With the Kremlin shut we walked around the old part of town hoping to cross the river in a chair lift but it was a public holiday weekend and I think that half the town had the same idea. Without the time or the inclination to wait in a fifty yard long snaking queue we skipped it and headed for the game instead.

The Nizhny Novograd stadium was built for the World Cup. One of the games that it hosted was the one where England put six past Panama. I remember watching that one in a Saint Petersburg bar with Paul, never imagining that I’d end up working in Russia a couple of years later. I think it might have been the afternoon when I spilled my pint on him.

There were sizeable queues outside the stadium. We had printed out our five quid tickets and were directed to a specific turnstile where we were temperature tested, scanned and searched as is normal these days.

One of the features at Russian games is that it is only me who thinks that the match itself will be enough, so there are often people walking around on stilts, dancers or bands playing. Today we were treated to a line of vintage cars as our added extra. We loitered a little too long and ended up missing the kick-off which is quite embarrassing when you consider that we had arrived in town the previous day.

The stadium wasn’t very impressive for a recent World Cup ground. The design stuck me as a bit dull and the concrete steps up to concourse were already crumbling away. I’d caught a glimpse of the old stadium that it replaced when arriving at the station and I’d have preferred to have seen this second-tier game there.

Spartak had a few hundred fans in the upper tier behind the goal. I’ve watched their development team twice previously and despite this game being outside of Moscow it was a bigger turnout from them than at either of those earlier games.

It was a quiet first half apart from a Spartak player being sent off. The ref had been planning a yellow but the reactions of the home players and no doubt some lino chat in his headphones caused him to pull out a red instead. It might have been the lad that was in our carriage. Perhaps he wasn’t so well-behaved after all.

Nizhny Novograd opened the scoring just before half-time with the fella almost walking the ball into the net. We spent the interval queuing for non-existent coffee and then missed the second Nizzy Novvy goal as we edged our way back to our seats soon after the restart.

There was a third goal right at the end from someone who turned his defender well, bore down on the keeper and then coolly tucked it away. A moment or two later the same bloke won a penalty. His captain wouldn’t let him take it though and someone else made it four. There was almost a fifth goal straight afterwards but someone shot instead of squaring it for an easy opportunity. The win kept Nizhny Novograd in third place with a play-off spot looking likely. Maybe they’ll have the Kremlin finished for a return to the Premier League.

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