Who'd support Dnipro? An Englishman's journey

Ukraine 1

Alan Sutton is an expatriate Wrexham fan who finds himself living in the Ukranian city of Dnepropetrovsk. Over eight chapters he tells us about his journey to the Europa League final with Dnipro - as well as the many obstacles along the way...

  1. Who'd Support Dnipro?
  2. Home games 300 miles away
  3. Policing at Olympiakos
  4. Sequestered tickets - Ajax
  5. The bailiffs in Bruge
  6. Keeping fit for Napoli
  7. The football's not bad either
  8. Epilogue: Club or country

Who’d support Dnipro?

Home matches 300 miles away from home, over-zealous policing, sequestered tickets, bailiffs and always a battle to get in, Dnipro’s road to Warsaw has not been a smooth one – and that is before we even talk about the football.

I have supported Dnipro Dnepropetrovsk since 2002, having moved to the city in 1997.  The club have been regulars in the Europa League, and in the UEFA Cup before that, for most of the seasons I have been watching them. During this time, on four occasions, Dnipro has got through group stages, which take place during the first part of the Ukrainian season. But then we have a long winter break of three months, running from early December till March, and on each occasion Dnipro has gotten through to the knock-out phase it has been eliminated in the first round which takes place during February, still during our winter break. Thus I have seen them go out in the first knock-out round to Olympic Marseilles (2004), Partizan Belgrade (2005) Basel (2013) and Tottenham Hotspur (2014). This season though, has been quite different.

Home matches 300 miles away – the Olympic Stadium in Kiev

I blame this one on Copenhagen. After four years as  Dnipro coach, Juande Ramos took the team to second place in the Ukrainian Premier League, and with it a place in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, where we were drawn last July to play Copenhagen. Copenhagen immediately started to make noises about how they did not want to play in Dnepropetrovsk. Initially UEFA turned down their requests, in my opinion correctly.

Firstly despite all the problems in Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk has been something of an oasis of calm. In fact in July there were disturbances in Kiev, and Dnepropetrovsk was perhaps quieter. Secondly, it did not seem to have bothered Tottenham who had played at the Dnipro Arena on their way to knocking us out in February last year, a time when there really were incidents in Dnepropetrovsk, the match taking place only a few days before the then President Yanukovich fled the country and while there was shooting in Kiev. Thirdly, to be blunt, if I can live there, then I don’t see why they can’t visit for a couple of days. It smelt of gamesmanship.

Then UEFA changed its mind, and we were obliged to play our home leg at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. About 23,000 spectators, I would say around 2,000 from Dnepropetrovsk and the rest from Kiev, turned up to chant Dnipro cha-cha-cha, sing the Putin song and watch a turgid 0-0 draw. And there we have stayed ever since for "home" UEFA matches. Having set the precedent, all 8 of our subsequent home Europa League matches have been held at the same ground and I have been to 7 of them.

If you imagine that you support a London club and have been ordered to play all your home matches in Hampden Park, - and there are no budget airlines - you will have a fair idea of how it has been. First, the trip takes out a whole day and a night. The matches are always on a Thursday. To go by train means taking the morning train up, which leaves Dnepropetrovsk at 7.20 a.m., getting to Kiev five-and-a-half hours later, hanging around till the evening for the match, and a dash for the night train back after the match if it’s a 9pm, or a night in Kiev it it’s a 10pm kick off – and as for 10pm kick offs, who’s for extra time after midnight?

Next, the ground. I loathe this ground. Yes, it was wonderful when England beat Sweden there in the Euros and then held out against the Italians, but, except for the last match against Napoli, it has had all the atmosphere of an empty warehouse. The Olympic Stadium was constructed for the Euros in 2012 and has a capacity of 70,000. As the temperature dropped, so did the numbers of locals coming to watch us: from just over 10,000 for the Europa League play-off against Hajduk Split and 25,000 for the first group match against Inter Milan, we got down to four figures for the rest of the group matches.

The low point must surely have been the match against Karabakh (or Qarabag as UEFA insist on spelling it – Carrier Bag then). On a freezing cold night at the end of October, we managed to lose 1-0 against a surprisingly efficient team of players with russified Islamic names like Ahmedov and Yusifov in front of just over 2,400, including a noisy group of Azeris whose chants echoed around the cavernous vaults of this empty ground.  I suppose we should be thankful: Karabakh have not played in their home ground in Aghdam for 21 years, but have been obliged to play all home matches in Baku.

Dnipro StEtienneFollowing that night though, our fortunes reversed. In the return leg in Baku, - which I was unable to visit as visas to go there are a lot more complicated and expensive for us now than they were in 2006 when I went there with England - we won 2-1 in front of a very hostile crowd, prompting our coach to comment that it was perhaps easier to motivate the players in front of a hostile crowd than in front of nobody.

The group stages went down to the final minute of the final match. This was against St Etienne, who had played 5, drawn 5. We had to win, and Karabakh had to draw or lose at home to Inter Milan for us to go through. We won 1-0 but then heard that Karabakh had gone 1-0 up in the 94th minute. The players were trudging off the pitch when the news came through that somehow the Karabakh goal had been disallowed, and we had scraped through to the knockout stage. There were only 2,569 of us at this match but at least we left happy.

The only away match I managed to get to in the first half of the season was the first one, in Copenhagen, which I visited with a group of friends in the mistaken belief that this would be our only European trip for the season: I did not realise then that on losing we dropped into the Europa League fourth qualifying round. It was an enjoyable trip, revisiting a ground I had been to twice with England, and I was pleased to find the same bar I had been to then, and renew acquaintance with one of the best beers I have ever had, a lethal black brew from the village of Thisted in north Jutland. We didn’t play very well, lost the match 2-0 and so dropped into the Europa League play-offs where we defeated Hajduk Split, to play Inter Milan, St Etienne and Karabakh in the group stages.

Policing at Olympiakos: 39 stewards for 26 fans

For the first knock-out round, we were drawn against Olympiakos of Piraeus near Athens. Again expecting us to exit at this stage as we had done previously, I made the trip with the same group of friends. We had won the first leg 2-0 in front of 5,837 spectators, having played well, but I was convinced that what I call the Ukrainian self-destruct gene would strike in the second leg and we would go out.

Dnipro had not requested any tickets for visiting fans from Olympiakos and someone in the club’s administration had in fact informed them that we would not be bringing any supporters and so there was no need for them to open an away sector. When I tried to buy tickets from one of the offices at the ground they refused to sell to me, saying this was “UEFA rules”. Marvellous. One wonders what goes through the heads of some of these people: any fan who has travelled that kind of distance to see their team will go in whatever the consequences, possibly meaning buying a ticket for the opposition’s sector, which is neither safe, nor, I am sure, what UEFA would want.

A small group of us had formed outside the ground, and after about an hour and a half of asking and being told to wait, finally one of the Dnipro administrators appeared with some tickets, and the Greeks opened a section for us. I had been on the verge of going in as a neutral tourist and had already warned the person I was with that I would talk to him in English and he would have to pretend to understand it.

Well we couldn’t complain that the Greeks didn’t look after us. Yes, it was an away sector, with fishing nets around the side and in front so we had to watch the match through netting, but then we were shooed right to the top at the back. I counted our supporters: there were 23 of us. With us in the sector were 17 stewards crouched around us like close fielders round the last batsman, and 6 police.

Policing OlympiakosWhen three more of our supporters arrived late I told one of the stewards he’d better ring for five more of his friends to look after them.  Going to the toilet at half time, we found just round the corner from us an additional 16 riot police with batons and shields. So there were 39 police and stewards to look after 26 supporters – all, as they kept telling us, for our safety.

Well, nice to see the Greeks are sorting out their unemployment problem. After the match we were held behind for 45 minutes, so long in fact that the ground perimeter fence was locked and there were further delays while they found the key. Not to worry. It was a tough match, a 2-2 draw, and not for the first time, I thought we had made the opposition look ordinary, but for the first time we were through to the next round.

Sequestered tickets - Ajax

I think someone at the club’s administration may have taken note of a rather dry post I put on Dnipro’s forum concerning tickets, as for the second round, against Ajax, they actually posted some information, namely that despite all their efforts they had not been able to get any tickets for supporters visiting Ajax, and that anyone wishing to go should purchase tickets via the Ajax website.

This is an interesting one because if you actually try to do this, you will find that one of Ajax’s terms and conditions is that it is forbidden for away supporters to use this method to obtain tickets. Most of our group missed this match, so it was time to put on the English tourist act again, and for 60 Euros, I obtained a package of one ticket, a half-and-half scarf which had the wrong shade of blue for Dnipro, and a free programme. The seat was in what I would call the tourist sector, given that my neighbours were Brazilian on the left, Greek to the right, and Japanese in front and behind.

We had won the home leg 1-0 in front of 10,581, and again, had made our much more fancied opponents look ordinary at times. In particular they had failed to cope with Konoplyanka. However, I was not optimistic about the return leg, and, with four of our key players out through suspension or injury, with manager Markevich not travelling as he was in hospital, I thought this would be our last trip this year, and so decided to go, despite the cost.

I had been to the Amsterdam ArenA twice before with England for friendlies, including the famous one in 2009 when we drew 2-2 after being 2-0 down, so made this a flying visit in and out. The atmosphere before the game was superb with rollicking Dutch barrel organ style music and everyone waving flags in time to it. Ajax got their goal and the match went to extra time. But at this point Ajax just wilted.

It was quite clear their stamina had run out whereas our players just kept on running. Konoplyanka broke away down the left, did his trademark run across towards the penalty area instead of passing, and scored a lovely goal. I then had my “Jasper Carrot” moment of jumping up being seemingly the only person in the stadium to do so, and jumping down again. Having scored, Dnipro went to pieces, but we held on to the end.

The truth about the tickets though was not what we were told. Apparently, when the Dnipro Arena was completed in 2009, there were over-runs on the construction which the club’s owner had disputed and not paid. The German company which performed the building appears to have been majority owned by a Spanish company with ties to the President of Real Madrid. He had sued unsuccessfully for his money in the Ukrainian courts, was now pursuing the club in its European ventures, and had succeeded in getting a Dutch court to embargo our tickets.

Basically, Ajax were ordered to open what would have been our sector to home supporters and to hand over any monies earned to this company. This was completely wrong for various reasons, which I explain in the next round, but Ajax complied with the order, and that was why we were not given any tickets.

Bailiffs in Bruges

In the quarter-finals, we were drawn to meet FC Bruges, with the away leg first. This is a rather homely club and stadium to which I had also been before, but as a guest of the club (OK, my ex-boss is one of the Directors and it was a gala match against Wolfsburg with which they opened the season two years before). Moreover I remember Dnipro beating Bruges in 2004 in the old UEFA cup.

The same palaver now appeared over the tickets. At the last minute, the bailiffs arrived at the club, demanded our tickets, ordered Bruges not to open a sector for us and said that, if they did, they would count the number of supporters in it and demand the income from Bruges. As FC Bruges explained after doing some research, this is not correct. This is not the FA Cup and there is no division of monies: gate receipts go 100% to the home club. The bailiffs were thus effectively punishing Bruges not us.

Moreover, I would add, that Dnipro is not Wrexham either: the fans do not own the club, but are distinct entities, and it is not correct to punish the fans for the alleged sins of the owners – imagine Chelsea fans being denied tickets because some other bigwig has a dispute with Abramovich, and you will understand what I mean. A way was found round the problem and Bruges opened a section for us, so full marks to them for refusing to be bullied, no marks to Ajax for rolling over with their legs in the air and banana skins to the President of Real Madrid for trying to bully fans.

As for the match, it was a good game for a 0-0 draw. Bruges were suffering from fixture congestion and were without several key players, being weak in defence, apart from a good goalkeeper who kept them in it.  

In the home leg, our crowd reached 16,234 the numbers being largely more locals from Kiev. Another stalemate ensued, with Bruges back at strength and having studied Konoplyanka’s moves. Then in about the 85th minute, a superbly made long pass reached Shakhov, who scored a really excellent goal. Again we fell apart in the last 5 minutes – this is what I refer to as the Ukrainian “self-destruct” gene - but we held out.

Keeping fit - Napoli

For the semi-final, where we had Napoli with the away leg first, the club administration went one better and actually tried to get tickets. We had to send them an email with all our personal details on it and they would get us tickets. Meet outside our sector at 7.30 pm and pay 35 Euros. Well in theory anyway.

This was another ground I had already seen: I had travelled to Napoli for a Europa League match in November 2012 when Dnipro played them in the group stages and lost 4-2 having beaten them 3-1 at home. Cavani scored all 4 goals on that occasion. 

The fun on this trip resulted less from the club than from the vagaries of flying. Wizzair, which had got me to the other matches, closed down in Ukraine in April thanks to the current problems, and, although Wizzair Hungary has retained some routes, none of them go to Italy.

Two of our group thus drove down. Four more drove to Budapest and flew Wizzair to Napoli on the Tuesday while I was flying to Rome via Budapest and onward by train on the morning of the match. This was the day a fire closed the airport at Fiumicino. Two hours wait in Budapest were followed by half an hour in a queue, then a sudden realisation that Ryanair had a flight to Rome Ciampino at 2pm, and a dash to get the last ticket on it – much to the annoyance of the Italian behind me in the queue who did his best to make me feel guilty.

On arrival a dash for a bus to the station to find a train to Naples leaving in two minutes, a sprint for that, and a dash at the other end to reach our flat at 7.15.

Well none of the officials at the stadium knew where our sector was, neither stewards nor police, the ticket office said our tickets were “feeneeshed” and one steward at one entrance said I was crazy, I would never get a ticket and I should go to a restaurant eat a pizza and watch the match on television.

Again, what goes through these people’s heads? I’ve gone all the way to Naples to eat a pizza? I don’t even like pizza. I went to another ticket office and did my English tourist act again. Certainly sir, 25 Euros, 45 or 85? I went for 45 on the grounds that this was less likely to be where their ultras would be, remembering the match in 2012 which was another one glimpsed through fishnets.

As it turned out we did have a sector – in the same place as last time – and it was the next corner from where I was and no I could not go there. So I watched surrounded by locals and was obliged to applaud when Napoli went 1-0 up. This was by far the best side we had met this season (though I did not see Inter) and better than Copenghagen as well. We had to thank Boiko for several saves that kept us in the match.

Napoli closed Konoplanka down completely and he had very little say in the match. Then, towards the end, Rotan had a run down the other side, and found Seleznov, who had only just come on as a substitute, and he scored – some way offside as it turned out, but the goal was given, and, with better self-control this time, no Jasper Carrot moment.

They seem to close the metro and stop the buses in Naples on match days. For the record, it takes an hour and a half to walk back to the town centre through the tunnels, and judging by the traffic jams, longer if you drive.

One of the sad things about Dnipro’s cup run has been how few of our fans have been able to see most of it. About 2,000 made it up for the Copenhagen match but thereafter, the numbers in the Dnipro fan-sector were usually only a few hundred, and not even that against Karabakh.

For the return leg against Napoli though, this was reversed. I would say around 8-10,000 made the trip to Kiev, and a huge number of Kievites turned up to give us a crowd of just over 62,344. For the first time in the whole competition, we had a decent home crowd behind the side and a positive atmosphere. As in the first leg, I think we defended very well, and Seleznov scored again. Sorry for Rafa Benitez: I don’t know what the Ukrainian is for “you’re getting sacked in the morning”.

A pity that, having got a decent crowd for once, the organisation was so poor. This involved waiting in a pushing and shoving queue in the street outside the ground in the pouring rain for the police check. The police wanted to spend a long time checking each supporter one by one to confiscate their cigarette lighters. However they could not cope with the volume, and there was a surge in which I got caught, and we got waved through with a pat on the back taking place of the search. Next there were problems at the next queue with the electronic turnstiles as many people’s tickets had turned to mush in the rain and the scanners couldn’t read them.

The flares and the pitch invasion at the end of the match seem to have received a lot of coverage. As anyone who visited Dnepropetrovsk with England in 2009 will know, Dnipro’s fans are European Champions at setting off flares. They are so de rigueur at every match, I really have stopped noticing them, though I do remember one home league match against Chernomorets where there were so many let off and so much smoke that the referee had to stop the match for tem minutes to let it clear.

Besides which, Napoli’s supporters also set off flares after their goal there. As for the end of the match, I do agree that it was out of order for those of the more Neanderthal elements of our ultras to go baiting the Napoli section, but years ago pitch invasions at such moments were quite commonplace.

Football - The Messi of the East

Oh and the football. When I first arrived in Ukraine, Dnipro had a “thing” about only using Ukrainian players. From about 2004 foreign players started to trickle in. Although it does now have some Brazilians and others, there is still a strong home-grown element in the squad arising from the club’s Academy, and so Dnipro has always had a good share of Ukrainian internationals.

Ramos gave the team a rather attractive passing style and put some discipline in the side but with mixed success. When Markevich arrived, at the start of this season, I did not care for his style at all. It seemed to be about unlearning all that they had learnt in the previous four years, and we did not play well at all at the start of the season. I now think differently. He has retained the discipline, and turned an unfancied side with one star player into a very efficient unit which plays coherently as a team, stifles the opposition making them unable to play, and applies the pressure very effectively.

Also noticeable is that they seem to enjoy it. As an England fan it is lovely to see them do all the things England don’t do. They keep possession, they don’t give the ball away, they don’t foul at the back, when clearing or heading the ball down to the ground, they do it to a teammate, not just haphazardly, the goalkeeper does not punt the ball to an opposing player, (are you reading this Joe Hart?), and towards the end of the match, rather than try for one more and risk a counter attack, they go down to the corner flag and waste time legally.

I would admit that they do push it a bit. At the quarter-final stage we had committed the most fouls but interestingly were also the most fouled against. Then, of course we have Konoplyanka. While not going as far as the Napoli programme which described him as the “Messi of the East”, I would say he has been an absolute joy to watch, and plays with the ball like a cat with a ball of wool. I like the times he takes on three defenders at once and then nutmegs one of them, also the one where he drags the ball across to himself. A pity he will probably leave as his contract is up, but given the limitations of the Ukrainian Premier League, depending on where he goes, will help his career.

Epilogue: Club or country – Warsaw

17 hours in a sweltering, airless old Soviet sleeping carriage from Kiev formed the last part of my own road to Warsaw. In order to keep us entertained, we were kept amused along the way by a series of passport controls and customs inspections between 1.30 and 4.30am, in particular by Polish officials looking for cigarettes and meat.

My companions in the compartment were also going to the match. One was from Kharkov – supposedly our most hated rivals – and one from Zaporozhye. Both said they were going to support Dnipro as it was their way of supporting their country. I tried to imagine Liverpool fans wrapping themselves up in England flags to support Manchester United in the Champions League: difficult.

But this was the theme of this match. Our support had all through the campaign been swelled by supporters of other clubs coming to support a Ukrainian club. You can spot them straight away as they wear national colours rather than club ones, they usually carry Ukrainian flags, and then they get the chants wrong.

This time it was quite overwhelming. Of Dnipro’s allocation of 9,234 tickets, I would say between 1,000 and 1,500 went to regular Dnipro supporters and the rest to supporters of other Ukrainian clubs or to Ukrainians living in Poland. The flags in the stadium had parallels with an England match: Ukrainian flags showing the names of various towns and villages such as Biely Tserkva, Zhitomir and Sumy, even Gomel in Belarus, all a long way from Dnepropetrovsk.

If you saw the match, it was a great one for neutrals, especially the first half. Kalinic opened the scoring from a cross from Matteus after seven minutes, but Sevilla hit back with two goals in rapid succession, the second when we had some rare poor defence. Dnipro equalised from a direct free kick by Rotan in a move I have seen before, when he and Konoplyanka line up to take the kick and then the “wrong” player takes it. Boiko made a couple more superb saves, but Sevilla achieved their winner in the second half, and the final 15 minutes were something of an anti-climax.

What of the future then? The Saturday before the final, Markevich dropped nine first team players and played four reserves I had never heard of for a domestic league match against a rather tired looking Shaktar Donetsk, and Dnipro still won 3-2. The Under-21 team has won its domestic league and the Under-19 and Under-17 teams have all performed well this season. So the future is looking good. I think we will be back.

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