In May 1986 at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, Atlético Madrid and Dynamo Kyiv met in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, with Dynamo winning 3-0 under the guidance of legendary coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi, one of European football’s most successful b.osses
The centre-back pairing was Serhiy Baltacha and Oleh Kuznetsov, with Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko on the bench, three players who as a young Aberdeen fan, I would jeer rather than cheer during their time in Scotland, playing as they did for rival sides against my beloved Aberdeen.
When Baltacha joined Ipswich Town in 1988 he became the first Soviet player to arrive in England and a slow sliver of Ukrainians followed, with Andrei Kanchelskis next in 1991 before Serhiy Yuran joined Millwall in 1996 and Oleksandr Yevtushok joined Coventry City in 1997, making him the first Ukrainian international to play in the Premiership, followed by Oleh Luzhny to Arsenal in 1999.
It was not until after the millennium that the golden boys of Ukrainian football came to play in the so-called greatest league in the world, with Serhiy Rebrov, Andriy Voronin and Ukraine’s all-time footballing hero Andriy Shevchenko. That broad spectrum of different quality players was not mirrored in Scotland, where the Ukrainians who arrived all made distinctive impacts.
A history of Ukrainians in Scotland
Ukraine has a long, rich, often complex and extremely turbulent history – the country moved back and forth between empires, the front line in two wars, and has suffered genocide and revolution – and in a nutshell is the lost soul of Europe, longing to be accepted by the west but still living in the shadow of Russia. For centuries everyone wanted “the breadbasket” of Europe, with it fought over by the Mongols, Lithuania, Russia, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires up to the First World War.
After the war, Ukrainian land was divided up between the newly independent states of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, until the Second World War when the western parts were annexed by the Soviet Union and incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, before the long road to independence finally achieved on 24 August 1991.
Ukrainians first arrived in Scotland in the 1750s to study at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, but during the latter half of the 19th century, many people arrived from the Russian empire – from what is now part of Ukraine – to escape poverty and persecution in the anti-Semitic pogroms and Russification oppression policies.
They arrived on Lothian Coal Company ships returning to Leith from Baltic ports, and onwards to Glasgow, which at the time was known as the second city of the British Empire with an influx of immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe as a transit point to reach North America. Those who could not afford the onward transatlantic voyage settled in Scotland, particularly around the Gorbals in Glasgow, Newtongrange in Midlothian, Coatbridge, Bellshill and many other towns across Lanarkshire and Ayrshire.
The Second World War brought another wave of Ukrainians, most of whom were among the 38,000 exiled Polish Armed Forces (then pre-war citizens of Poland) stationed in Scotland or Prisoners of War arriving from Allied prison camps in Italy. Most of these post-war Ukrainians settled in the Edinburgh area, with a sizable Ukrainian population settling in Galashiels, Perth and Dundee. In
In Perth, they used the local Polish club for functions, as well as celebrating Ukrainian Greek Catholic mass in St John’s Church. The journalist and broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove was an altar boy at this church and was coached in basic Ukrainian by his uncle Peter ‘Petro’ Shawel.
The Ukrainian-Scottish football league
During the war, Ukraine was caught in the middle of the struggle between Nazism and communism, and while certainly wary of the Germans, they hated Moscow even more. Joining the war effort against the Soviet Union was viewed as the lesser of two great evils to free them from the brutal Stalin regime.
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Following Pope Pius XII’s appeal for leniency after the war, and despite Soviet protests, Ukrainian prisoners of war had their status changed to ‘surrendered enemy personnel’ and resettled in the UK.
Upon arrival in Scotland, 700 Ukrainian soldiers, along with their families, were placed in hostels or at one of the 43 camps set up at Haddington, Macmerry, East Fortune and Lockerbie. There they became part of the local communities, working in agriculture and other vital industries such as the coal pits of Fife, as bus drivers in Edinburgh and dismantling warships on the Clyde.
To pass the time in the camps, Ukrainian cultural and recreational activities were organised like choral singing and folk dancing groups, as well as sporting events, especially football.
Football’s popularity across Ukraine dates back to the late 1800s when British sailors founded Odessa Athletic in 1878, the first football team in the Russian Empire. The game’s popularity spread to other cities, with the first documented football match taking place in 1894 between Lviv and Krakow (then both part of Austro-Hungaria). As a result, Lviv is still considered the cradle of both Polish and Ukrainian football.
In 1949 a Ukrainian football league was set up in Scotland consisting of teams of PoW and Displaced Persons from the camps. It remained in operation until the early 1950s when most of these Ukrainians left for a new life in Canada, the United States and England.
The first Ukrainians in Scottish football
The first known person in Scottish football with links to Ukraine was the former Hamilton Accies chairman Jan Stepek. He was of Polish origin, born on a farm in present-day Ukraine between the cities of Lviv and Lutsk in 1922, then part of Poland. After his homeland was annexed from Poland by the Soviet Union, he arrived in Scotland in 1946 and made his money from his chain of electrical high street shops throughout central Scotland.
Joining the Accies board in 1970, Stepek set about a deal to bring three Polish internationals to Douglas Park. The first players from behind the Iron Curtain came to play in Britain in exchange for fridge freezers and other household appliances which were sent to Poland in return.
While the Rugby player Iwan Tukalo was the first high profile Scottish sportsman of Ukrainian heritage, the first known football player with links was John Sokoluk. The son of a Ukrainian exile who settled in the Edinburgh area after the war, he started out as a right-back for Hibernian in the early 1980s, then moved on to East Fife before spending five years – split by a stint in Australia – with Berwick Rangers.
A native of Dalkeith, he was raised in the Ukrainian community of Edinburgh Ukraine Club, now the only Ukrainian club left in Scotland. In his teenage years, he was a member of the club’s Cossack dance group that travelled to gatherings of Ukrainian communities in other cities like Manchester, Nottingham and Bradford.
Serhiy Baltacha: the first Ukrainian player in Scotland
Serhiy Baltacha was born on 17 February 1958 in Mariupol, Ukraine and was spotted by Dynamo Kyiv manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi as a teenager at the Metalist Kharkiv academy of footballing excellence, which he had attended since the age of 13. For Serhiy to have his raw talent nurtured by an innovative mentor, who was notorious for his highly scientific and excessively disciplinarian approach to management, proved beneficial to his career as he went on to make his reputation as a sweeper in the Dynamo defence throughout the 1980s, winning 12 domestic trophies and the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Soon he became a vital part of the Soviet team, playing in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, while a snapped Achilles tendon sustained in the ECWC final just two weeks before the 1986 finals robbed him of his place in that tournament. He would play in the final of the 1988 European Championships, where the last of his 49 caps came against the Netherlands, which saw Lobanovskyi scientific approach against the Dutch Total Football immortalised by Marco van Basten’s unfeasibly dipping volley.
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After the tournament, he left Dynamo and signed for Ipswich Town for £20,000, rejecting offers from Italy and Switzerland. Starting with a dream debut for the Tractor Boys, netting a rare career goal in a 5-1 mauling of Stoke City, it soon turned into an unhappy time, which saw him frequently played out of position and contesting long balls against likes of Wimbledon.
After two years, the first Ukrainian-born player in Scottish football moved on a free transfer to St Johnstone – certainly not where you would expect to find one of Europe’s all-time footballing stars who played in major international tournaments and won continental trophies. But these were changed days with a domino effect of significant events bringing political and economic reforms across Eastern Europe: Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost, Solidarity in Poland, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the Berlin Wall coming down in East Germany.
St Johnstone had just gained promotion to the Premier League under the guidance of Alex Totten, who had taken the club from the Second Division to the top-flight, plus a Scottish Cup semi-final, in the space of three seasons.
The move to bring Baltacha to Perth was set up by Ipswich team-mate Ian Redford, a midfielder from Perth who had started out at Dundee, then moving to Rangers in 1980, playing there for six seasons before being sold to Ipswich, where the two became good friends away from football. Knowing he wanted a move, Redford made the call to friend and St Johnstone Chairman, Geoff Brown, to recommend Baltacha to the Saints.
Arriving in Perth with nothing more than the family car and suitcases, they were made welcome by the small Ukrainian community, with Stuart Cosgrove’s uncle Petro providing translation services for them.
The previous season the club had moved into their new McDiarmid Park home, the UK’s first purpose-built all-seater stadium, and prototype for today’s modern stadiums. With a capacity of 10,740, it was a far cry from playing in front of 100,000 fans at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium, and with a signing the calibre of Baltacha that was like no other the club had signed before, the Saints were looking forward to their first season back in the top flight in seven years.
Baltacha said: “St Johnstone had been promoted to the Premier League and my agent told me they were a good club in a good town with a new stadium. I had three really great years there under Alex Totten, who liked and understood the sweeper system.”
Despite a slow start, seeing them knocked out the League Cup to Clyde, followed with a 3-1 opening day league defeat to Dundee United, the Saints finished in seventh, with a season highlight being a 5-0 victory over Aberdeen. There was also a series of superb performances against Rangers, Celtic and Hearts, a Scottish Cup semi-final, and Alex Totten received the Scottish Football Writers’ Manager of the year award.
Serhiy Baltacha: the first Ukrainian manager in Scotland
Baltacha would spend three years with the Perth club, making just short of 100 appearances. With his career coming to an end and falling out of favour with Totten’s replacement John McClelland, he moved up the A7 to Inverness to join Highland League side Caledonian FC as player-manager and set about using what he had learnt under Lobanovskyi.
Though difficult and with no investment put into the team, Baltacha’s arrival coincided with the start of exciting football times in the Highland capital. League reconstruction saw two new places in the Scottish Football League, and plans were set for a controversial merger with local rivals Inverness Thistle FC, to form Caledonian Thistle FC. This move still divides opinion within the city, as Baltacha reflected: “A lot of folk, including ex-players, campaigned against it. I recall attending a public meeting. The atmosphere was quite aggressive.”
After being granted membership – along with fellow Highlanders Ross County – for the 1994–95 season, Baltacha now found himself being the first Ukrainian manager in Scottish football. Baltacha remained at Caley Thistle, playing a further nine games, for just one season, and despite a good start and being on top of the Third Division at one point, they would finish in a respectable mid-table position of sixth place before he left to be closer to his family home in Perth.
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Though his time there was short, he set the foundations that played an important role in the future of the club as they won the Third Division title two seasons later, and in 2000, when ‘Super Caley went ballistic’, they knocked Celtic out of the Scottish Cup at Parkhead before finally reaching the Scottish Premier League in 2004.
In the mid-1990s, Serhiy returned to the newly independent Ukraine to take up a coaching role at Dynamo Kyiv and start a football agents business alongside Ian Redford, believing that there was a vast wealth of footballing talent to capitalise on now that communism was gone and a new free market economy emerged.
Like a lot of Eastern European countries at the time, there was a degree of lawlessness that came with this new found freedom and capitalism, with corruption high and the mafia effectively running the economy of the country. After run-ins with the mafia while trying to get his agency started, Baltacha returned to Scotland and took up roles as assistant manager at St Mirren and the Scottish FA as a community coach in Dumfries and Galloway.
The Baltacha family’s legacy in Scotland
During his return to Scotland, Baltacha oversaw the emergence of his two children in sport, both of whom would represent Scotland and Britain in their chosen sports. Son Serhiy Jr joined his father at St Mirren and made 64 appearances for the Paisley club as a left-back, while daughter Elena went on to play tennis, becoming Britain’s number 1 women’s tennis player and reaching 49th in the world rankings.
As kids they went to Oakbank School in Perth, and at weekends were regular visitors to the Perth leisure pool, where Serhiy Senior would sit in the cafe watching Serhiy Jr and Elena get their swimming lessons, while happily talking about football with the staff and other parents.
Sergei Jr became the school’s footballing sensation, being the under-13 team’s top goalscorer, and Elena played tennis locally, coached by Andy Murray’s mother Judy. The family interest in sport is no great surprise, as their mother Olga had been in contention for a place in the Soviet Olympic pentathlon team at 1980 Olympics, but choosing instead to stay and care for Serhiy Jr.
Serhiy and Elena, who unfortunately died aged just 30 from liver cancer in 2014, considered themselves to be true Scots due to their childhood in Perth and Paisley.
Serhiy represented Scotland at under-21 level against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1999 in the first of his three caps, a match that saw him lining up beside Dalglish, Strachan and Jordan (Paul, Gavin and Andrew), also the offspring of famous fathers, namely Kenny, Gordon and Joe.
Starting his football career a couple of years behind Shevchenko at Dynamo’s football academy, and despite offers to play in England, he would win a First Division winner’s medal in 2000 with the Buddies, before transferring to London club Millwall in 2003. Released after only two appearances, he returned to Scotland to play in junior football before retiring in 2006 due to injury.
Oleh Kuznetsov: the Ukrainian Baresi
Not long after Baltacha arrived, he was followed by another Ukrainian from across the Iron Curtain, when Oleh Kuznetsov signed for Rangers in September 1990. Born on 22 March 1963 in Magdeburg in East Germany to Ukrainian parents, he had also made a name for himself at Dynamo Kyiv, winning three Soviet League titles and the 1986 Cup Winners’ Cup.
At his peak he was considered one of the best defenders in the world, coming 11th in the 1988 Ballon d’Or, and upon signing for Rangers, Graeme Souness said he was up there with Franco Baresi as the best defender in Europe. This pedigree was evident when he strolled through his debut against St Mirren in a 5-0 victory, a performance that included rattling the post with a shot from 25 yards, and all signs pointed to another star signing by Souness.
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Unfortunately, disaster struck against St Johnstone a week later, when he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury after a tackle from Harry Curran – which made Souness comment that Scottish football was full of “hammer throwers” – that ruled Kuznetsov out for a year,
Returning at the start of the following season, it was clear he was never going to be the same player after that injury. His career never recovered, with only 18 appearances that season, and a further eight games the following season, which would not see him play any part in Rangers’ Champions League run that saw them miss out on a place in the final.
Kuznetsov earned his place in the Rangers’ fans hearts when he scored his only goal for the club- after fellow Ukrainian Mikhailichenko had netted a first-half double – in a 4-2 New Year’s Day match against arch-rivals Celtic at Parkhead in 1994.
After leaving Rangers he would wind down his career in Israel and Ukraine, before coaching at various levels of the Ukraine national team (including a spell as assistant at the 2006 World Cup), where he now manages the under-19 team.
Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko: the perfect footballer
While Kuznetsov was out injured, Rangers signed another Ukrainian when attacking playmaker Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko was recruited by new Rangers manager Walter Smith in the summer of 1991 for £2.2 million.
Born in Kyiv on 30 March 1963, Oleksiy was a product of the Dynamo youth academy, joining the club at the age of 10 and promoted to the first team for the 1981 season, when Dynamo won the Soviet Championship. By the mid-1980s, Mykhaylychenko was a key player for Dynamo, winning a host of domestic honours.
Described by Lobanovskyi as the ”perfect footballer”, in 1987 he was named the Ukrainian Footballer of the Year and Soviet Player of Year in 1988; he also came fourth in the Ballon d’Or behind Dutch masters van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
In 1990 he moved to Italian side Sampdoria, part of a wave of former team-mates leaving the Soviet Union for the more stable and wealthier leagues in Western Europe. His time in Italy was short, lasting one season, but his impact was profound, playing for a Sampdoria team considered one of football’s great modern fairy-tales, fresh from winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup under the leadership of veteran Yugoslav coach Vujadin Boškov.
He found himself amongst a host of stars like Vialli, Lombardo, Mancini and Vierchowod (himself the son of a Ukrainian), when I Blucerchiati won their first ever Serie A title, making Myhaylychenko the first Ukrainian to win a Scudetto. Despite this success, Myhaylychenko struggled to settle in Italy. Drifting out of the team in the second half of the season, he was on the move again to join Rangers.
Miko, as he was called by Rangers fans, enjoyed five very successful seasons at Ibrox. He became an integral part of the side helping secure the league title, plus the League and Scottish Cup double in his first season. This success found him in the record books for winning the top league in each of his debut seasons – Dynamo 1981, Sampdoria 1991 and Rangers 1992 – as well winning seven consecutive league titles in three different countries between 1989 and 1996.
In 1996, at 33-years-old, he retired from playing and returned to Dynamo, working as assistant to Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Following Lobanovskyi’s death in 2002 from a stroke suffered during a match against Zaporizhya (at the Champions League final in Glasgow at Hampden Park after his death there was a minute’s silence in his honour) it was appropriate his favoured son Myhaylychenko would follow in his footsteps.
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His time as manager proved difficult. The boots were too big and he stepped down in 2004 due to the emergence of Shakhtar Donetsk and his poor results in Europe. A year as national team coach followed, as well as holding talks about the vacant Hearts job in 2006, before he returned to Dynamo as Sporting Director, where he remains to this day.
Like Baltacha, both Kuznetsov and Myhaylychenko were vital members of the Soviet team, with all three key members of the Euro 88 team, though Kuznetsov missed the final through suspension. Four years later the Soviet Union would be gone from the world map. Never again would we see those famous CCCP branded shirts, and with that, Mykhailychenko and Koznetsov went on to play for the newly formed Ukrainian national team.
Andrei Kanchelskis: tainted legend or traitor?
The final high-profile Ukrainian to arrive in Scotland was Andrei Kanchelskis. Born to Lithuanian parents in the central Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskyi on 23 January 1969, he started his career at Dynamo. A move to Shakhtar followed in 1990 where he won the Soviet Cup, and it was not long before Lobanovskyi called him up to play for the Soviet Union, making his debut against Poland in 1989.
After starring for the Soviet side that won the 1990 Under-21 European Championships, it was while gaining his sixth cap in a friendly against Scotland at Ibrox in 1991 that he first attracted British attention, especially that of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Signing for £650,000 and playing alongside the likes of Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona, Kanchelskis played a significant role in Ferguson’s first great Red Devils side, one which would win two Premier League titles plus the FA and League Cups.
After the emergence of David Beckham, there were spells at Everton and Fiorentina. His career stalled amid a scandal about payments in his move to United. He finally arrived at Rangers for a Scottish transfer record of £5.5 million in the summer of 1998.
At Rangers he hit the ground running, and given the freedom to express his style of play by Dick Advocaat. Few can forget his audacious trick during a 7-0 Scottish Cup semi-final thumping of Ayr United where he stopped the ball by standing on it to cheekily peek at potential crossing targets, saluting the Rangers fans, and then carrying on dribbling.
His first season saw Rangers win the domestic treble of trophies, the first of his two league titles and three Scottish Cups winners’ medals as well as becoming the only player to score in the Manchester, Merseyside and Glasgow derbies.
After Euro 92, given his tangled ethnic roots and with the rump of the Soviet national team now playing as the Commonwealth of Independent States (most republics disbanded into 15 individual states) left him with a choice of who to represent. Kanchelskis, who scored the Soviet Union’s last goal against Cyprus, never played for his country of birth or his parent’s homeland, choosing instead to represent Russia. FIFA regarded Russia as the Soviet Union’s official successor, so players involved with the Soviet Union were eligible for Russia.
Russia qualified for the 1994 World Cup with a predominantly Russian squad, but it included a sizeable Ukrainian contingent plus Georgian, Belarusian and Estonian players. This caused controversy given how big an influence Ukraine had had on Soviet football throughout the 1980s, when Dynamo virtually doubled as the Soviet national team. Ukraine felt they should have been better acknowledged. As a result, Kanchelskis rarely gets mentioned in the Ukrainian media among legends or best players, and is effectively branded a traitor for abandoning Ukraine.
Oleg Salenko: Scottish football’s great enigma
Though an unrecognised match against Turkey took place in 1933, Ukraine’s first official game was a friendly against Hungary in April 1992, with the Hungarians winning 3-1. Playing in that game was another player who would go on to become one of the great enigmas of Scottish football, namely Oleg Salenko.
Born to a Ukrainian father and Russian mother in Saint Petersburg, Salenko played for Dynamo Kyiv after signing from Zenit Saint Petersburg in 1989. A move to Spanish side Logroñés followed in 1993, where he netted 28 goals in just over a year, with the 1994 World Cup being the pinnacle of his career.
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After only one game for Ukraine, Salenko switched to Russia and went on to share the golden boot with Hristo Stoichkov after scoring six goals in the World Cup (five of which came against Cameroon), netting more than the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann, Romário and Roberto Baggio.
A move to Valencia which followed saw a loss of form before Rangers signed him for £2.5 million in the summer of 1995. Viewed as a prize catch, Salenko said he joined the club because he believed they had a chance of winning the Champions League after signing England international Paul Gascoigne, so he was greeted with some fanfare.
Though regarded as lazy by fans (he would play only 17 games) he did score eight goals, before a quick swap deal with İstanbulspor of Turkey to bring Dutch striker Peter van Vossen.
Salenko, who described his time in Scotland as “very boring” and wasted his career at Ibrox, quit the game through injury at just 31 and returned to representing Ukraine with the national beach football team. He now works with the Ukrainian National Team coaching set up as well as doing commentary work on Ukrainian TV.
Other Ukrainians in Scottish football
The last Ukrainian player in Scotland was Dmytro Pronevych who arrived at Kilmarnock from Obolon Kyiv in 2005, before going on to make appearances for Partick Thistle – whose fans referred to him as ‘Dave the Ukrainian’ – and then Queen of the South.
When the Russian-born Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov arrived in Edinburgh to buy a majority stake in Hearts in 2004, he was to put an Eastern European stamp on the club. One of his many Eastern European players included the German-born Ukrainian defender Denis Prychynenko, who is part of the Prychynenko family that are heavily involved with Crimean team Tavriya Simferopol (as players and coaches). Denis, a Ukraine youth international, made eight appearances at Hearts along with five loan appearances at Raith Rovers, before returning to Ukraine to play for FC Sevastopol.
Now, Celtic’s Danish-born defender Erik Sviatchenko is the only player of Ukrainian heritage in Scotland, who is the son of an artist originally from Kharkiv.
Off the field, it was the appointment of Anatoliy Korobochka as director of football at Hearts that would bring a bit of Ukrainian football to the dugout for the first time since the Baltacha spell at Caley Thistle a decade earlier.
Crimean-born Korobochka joined Hearts as director of football in 2006 and was later made interim coach by Romanov in March of the following year during a period of absence by the club’s Lithuanian head coach Valdas Ivanauskas, despite speaking little or no English at the time. Assisted by Stevie Frail, Korobochka was in charge of the team going into season 2007-08, but by January, with Hearts in the bottom half of the table, he returned to the role of sporting director.
He left Hearts in 2009 with wild, yet not entirely surprising, claims that he was sacked after refusing to play 60-year-old Romanov in a pre-season friendly against Barcelona when Ronaldinho was playing at his peak.
A marriage of mutual benefit
From the boardroom at Hamilton Accies in the 1970s to the sons of Ukrainian immigrants playing at Methil and Shielfield in the 1980s, before Ballon d’Or listed internationals and Cup Winners’ Cup winners came to the top-flight in the 1990s, and finally to the dugout at Telford Street Park in Inverness in the Highland League, it is quite incredible just how grand an influence the nation of Ukraine has had on Scottish football.
Though Baltacha was past his prime by the time he arrived in Perth, and Kuznetsov was unlucky with injuries, for every ‘Dave the Ukrainian’ and Oleg Salenko, there was a Mykhaylychenko and Kanchelskis showing Scottish football how to play the game the way Valeriy Lobanovskyi felt it should have been.
By Clark Gillies @wanderer1982