For football fans who habitually travel to away matches as well as their team’s home fixtures, there are certain rituals which will seem familiar. The pre-dawn gathering to board a coach which will be on the road for several hours. Scoping out the best places to get food and drink prior to entering the stadium. Trying to out-sing the home crowd and mocking their apparent solemnity through song. Cheering a goal for your team in a corner with your fellow brethren while the home fans sit silent, or possibly ring out the boos if things are especially unsatisfactory. The return journey home, which may be boisterous or funereal depending on the result. Arriving back home at an ungodly hour, wondering why you put yourself through this all the time but knowing that you’d badly miss it if you didn’t.
If your club is playing at a national level and based on the geographical periphery of your country, there may be some rather long journeys to undertake, particularly if you’ve been handed a raw deal with a midweek kick-off in the 8pm time range. It’s a dilemma with which supporters of the likes of Carlisle, Newcastle, Hartlepool, Portsmouth, Brighton and Exeter, to name but a few, will be all too familiar.
Those 700-mile round journeys can be tiring, no doubt, so try for a moment to comprehend what a round trip of 8,000 miles would be like. For supporters of FC Luch Vladivostok, or other Russian clubs who would travel there for away days, they don’t need to imagine. When you experience something like that, it tends to stay in the memory.
Even since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia remains the world’s largest country by land mass, transcending no fewer than 11 time zones. Football fans who travelled there for the 2018 World Cup and bounced between cities will have some idea of its sheer enormity, yet that tournament was concentrated entirely within the western third of this incomparably vast nation. So too are most of its top-flight football teams, but at certain periods during the 1990s and since, there was one very notable exception.
FC Luch are based in Vladivostok, a city in Russia’s far east which geographically hangs not far over Japan. Despite being in the same country as Moscow, it is closer as the crow flies to cities such as Darwin in Australia and Anchorage in Alaska. Likewise, the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu is closer to Vladivostok than the Russian metropolis of Sochi. That puts the journey from Cumbria to Devon into some bit of perspective.
Understandably, the city’s flagship football team played within regional Soviet confines for much of its history, but earned promotion to the country’s top flight in 1993. They were swiftly relegated and returned to regionalised divisions for a period before getting back to a nationwide level with promotion to the second tier in 2003. Two years later, they were back among the big time, winning the Russian First Division with an impressive haul of 92 points under Sergei Pavlov. The promotion charge was propelled by Dmitry Smirnov, who made a name for himself not so much for his surname’s likeness to a well-known vodka but rather for the 19 goals which shot Luch-Energiya, as they were known at the time, back into the Premier League.
Another player who formed part of that squad, Jurģis Pučinskis, became a trivia buff’s best friend at Euro 2004 when he was named among Latvia’s 23-man squad for the tournament, which was held in Portugal. It ensured that he would have by far the longest distance to travel for the finals and, despite that being a tournament solely under UEFA’s jurisdiction, he would have had a much shorter journey to the preceding FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea had his nation qualified for that competition.
While Luch-Energiya may have taken many by surprise with their ninth-place finish in the 2006 season, it would come as no shock that 35 of their 41 points were won at home, with Spartak Moscow and Rubin Kazan among the teams who faced a thankless trek back from Vladivostok following defeat. Perhaps the most memorable home match of that campaign, though, was one which the eastern natives lost 2-0 to Zenit St Petersburg.
Three hardy Zenit supporters made the 15,000-kilometre trip to Vladivostok…in a 20-year-old Honda. Their satisfaction at witnessing the team collect three points, with Andrei Arshavin among the scorers, was quelled by what happened after the game. Shortly after beginning the arduous trip home, their vehicle broke down, forcing them to take the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way back to St Petersburg, which lies not far from the borders with Finland and Estonia and took them almost a full week to reach. Upon hearing of the trio’s film-worthy adventure, Zenit generously bought the loyal supporters a new car, their old one later being preserved in the club’s museum. Suffice to say that Zenit had the energy-induced wealth to more than cover the expense.
Not long after that result, Luch-Energiya were even pushing for a UEFA Cup spot, but mercifully for supporters of clubs who ultimately did qualify for the competition (most notably Icelandic outfit Keflavik, the most westerly team who took part), Pavlov’s side fell short in the final weeks of the season.
The 2007 campaign was much harder as the Vladivostok side only avoided relegation courtesy of a better head-to-record than Kuban Krasnodar, who tied with them for points and even had a better goal difference. The standout result was undoubtedly a 4-0 home thrashing of champions CSKA Moscow, who had won the UEFA Cup just two years previously. CSKA goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who was well-travelled given his status as long-serving Russian number one, angrily declared afterwards that Luch-Energiya should be forced to play domestic football in Japan, to whom they are much closer geographically.
Pavlov, the most successful coach in the club’s history, left at the end of the season and their fortunes declined thereafter. Neutrals would not have been sorry to see them finish bottom of the Premier League in 2008, ending their three-year stay in the top flight; while financial difficulties forced a fire sale of their best players, a scenario which significantly lessened their once-sizeable home advantage. Three years later, they went back down to the third tier, although they won promotion at the first attempt in 2012.
While opposition players such as Akinfeev publicly expressed their disdain for Luch-Energiya’s presence at national level, some of their own players also bemoaned the enormous amount of travelling involved in representing the east Russian outfit. Croatian defender Matija Kristić, who spent four years at the club, made the valid point that while Luch’s opponents only had to travel to Vladivostok and back once per season, they were forced to undertake pan-Russian away trips multiple times in a single campaign, a scenario which clearly became exhausting.
Luch-Energiya spent the bulk of the last decade in the second tier of Russian football but never truly threatened for promotion. The 2017/18 campaign was a particularly arduous one, with the team only spared from relegation due to other clubs failing to obtain a league licence. Midway through the season, their players staged a match-delaying protest to voice their disgruntlement over deferred wages and living conditions. The squad went four months without being paid and some were even evicted from their accommodation as a result, with a few relying on the benevolence of a supporters’ group to provide their meals.
The club was renamed FC Luch the following year and its death knell in the upper echelons of Russian football came about from global circumstances rather than club mismanagement. In the early throes of coronavirus in April 2020, the government of Primorsky Krai, the federal region in which Vladivostok is located, revoked all professional contracts with sports clubs in the region in order to divert funds towards combating the rapidly escalating pandemic. FC Luch duly dropped back to the amateur ranks.
In the UK, away days have finally returned, with Boris Johnson’s government relaxing the bulk of COVID restrictions. Football fans who yearn for a return to those weekend (and sometimes weekday) mornings of rising well before dawn to traverse the length and breadth of the country, all in the name of the club to whom they have pinned their loyalty, now have back one of their most treasured traditions.
Perhaps the 400-mile trip home after a 4-0 shellacking in the freezing January rain might not be the stuff of dreams, but at least on these shores, the football faithful will never have to worry about mulling over such a result at the hands of FC Luch on the way back from the extreme UEFA-affiliated outpost that is Vladivostok. Let’s just say it would take more than one filling station stop-off for nourishment and a toilet break to make that particular journey somewhat bearable.