Since the tragedy with Pakhtakor was downplayed as much as possible, the championship was normal and rather plain. After its end, few positive changes were observed – apparently, the new limit on ties worked. The scoring slightly increased – at least when compared to the season, hitting rock-bottom: 1977. Looked like the dreadful stream of scoreless ties was coming to end. The general increase of goals immediately affected individual scoring records: for the first time in 11 years the top scorer went over 19 goals. True, only one player scored over 20 goals and the followers were in the usual bracket of 16-17, but by now people had difficulty even remembering when someone scored near 20 goals, let alone more than 20. As for all other aspects of the championship… there was not much to say. It was clear that the whole league was going through transitional period – the promising players were so young, they did not play central role and rightly so, for they were still years away from their peaks. But the previous generation was retiring and talent was short: the increased league only spread it thinner. There was obvious shortage of quality players – most clubs very few players with names, and some of this names were recognizable largely if compared to their anonymous teammates. The squad of Lokomotiv Moscow was typical example – practically, the only ‘classy’ player was the goalkeeper Samokhin. He spend most of his career sitting on the bench of Dynamo Kiev, as ‘eternal’ back-up of Evgeny Rudakov. Even the retirement of revered goalkeeper did not change Samokhin’s position – clearly, he was mediocre player… so his moved to lowly Lokomotiv. At 32, he barely played 100 matches in the league… and he was the most recognizable player of team. Perusing the roster, one can see only only one more name: V. Petrakov. He was 21, still a promise, rather than established ‘star’, but at least he was known. The rest paled, when compared to this two. The lack of reputable players was very dangerous to declining clubs: they were unable to do anything radical – the players they had, declining, lazy, indifferent, injured, appeared still better option, when looking around the league for possible recruits. What was the point of discarding a goalie when the possible replacement was someone like Samokhin? Very likely worse than whoever was at hand, but, most importantly, it was impossible to start building a new team with the likes of Samokhin. They were no leaders and did not represent anything fresh or even slightly ambitious. Nine clubs – exactly half the league – were the same as Lokomotiv. Thus, the new bigger league benefited only two clubs: Lokomotiv, which was saved from relegation and now had a good chance surviving, for there were too many clubs just like it; and Dinamo Minsk, which was promoted by fiat, and having at least more rounded and enthusiastic team than most, suddenly soared. But it was largely a championship of mediocrity – even the best teams were not in great shape and better place in the table depended often on slips and mistakes of the opposition, rather than consistently good play of the leaders. Nothing exciting.
Too many clubs were only concerned with survival, shuffling position frequently, but without real improvement during the season. At the end, Krylya Sovetov (Kuybishev) was last. Nothing strange – they were traditionally outsiders, moving back and forth between first and second division. Promoted in 1978 after winning the second division, relegated back to the same league in 1979… They depended largely on few fading veterans, who never impressed even at their prime (Vl. Abramov, A. Arutyunyan, A. Fetisov). Yu. Eliseev knew better days – 7 years ago. A place above finished Zarya (Voroshilovgrad). The team was in decline practically since they won the championship. Instead of upgrading, they gradually lost their best players, without finding a single inspiring player. By now only four of the champion team remained, all over 30s. Nobody of the younger players was even remotely impressive – goalkeeping and the attack line were particularly poor.
The surprise champions of 1972 were not much even then, but the 1979 vintage was really nothing. Seven years of steady decline reached its logical point: relegation. A very young player was part of this weak team – one 18-years old boy named Aleksandr Zavarov. Nobody noticed him and rightly so. The future mega-star started his career with relegation.
Zarya finished with 20 points – one more than Krylya Sovetov, but 4 behind a thick group of lucky clubs, finishing in safety with 24 points each – Torpedo (Moscow), SKA (Rostov), Neftchi (Baku), Kayrat (Alma-Ata), and Lokomotiv (Moscow). Their final positions were not clearly understandable – goal-difference was not a factor, so it must have been the head-to-head record. But it was not so either, if one looks at the results. Whatever the rule was, Lokomotiv finished at the top of this group – 12th , and Torpedo at the bottom – 16th. All were similar to the relegated – a group of 4-5 aging second-rate veterans, hardly any impressive young player, and problems in almost every line.
SKA (Rostov), just promoted, were happy to survive. They distinguished themselves with one thing: the most ties in the league this season – 14. Which meant they lost 6 points for exceeding the tie limit. Still, 15th place was not so bad for them, for they remained in the league for the next season.
As a team… nothing really. Two players came from the ‘mother’ club CSKA – goalkeeper Radaev and central-defender Andryushtenko. Not all that long ago they were bright promises, playing for Under-21 national team of USSR. Now they were 25 each… Radaev had played only 7 first league matches… promise was long dead, but they were among the better players SKA depended on. The others were two 30-years old veterans, who were well known from other clubs, but not stars – the other central-defender Bondarenko, and the striker Markin. Not much… but SKA had a rising star – S. Andreev, 23 years old striker. He was soon to be constant member of the national team.
Neftchi, usually playing hide and seek with relegation, ended typically low – 14th. If goal-difference determined position, they should have been 16th: with -21, they were at the league very bottom – only Krylya Sovetov had worse record.
Like so many clubs in the league, Neftchi stayed the same for years – it was not declining, like Zarya, but rather did not move at any direction – year after year, they were mediocre. Perhaps their 33-years goalkeeper Kramarenko was the best they had… and he was not a star keeper. A team more suitable for second division, but how to judge them since at least half the league was the same.
Yet, Neftchi and SKA finished above Torpedo (Moscow). Three years ago Torpedo was champion and now pretty much the same squad was struggling to avoid relegation. Decline settled after 1976, but it was peculiar one: the team as a team, not as individual players, reached its peak, aged, and settled on downward course. But since the players were mostly in their best years, it was difficult to discard them. They were not stars – rather second-best in the overall scheme – but looking around the league there was almost nobody better, another problem when considering replacement. Lacking ambition and perhaps knowing that the club was in no position of replacing them, the boys underperformed and almost everyone was playing worse than the previous years. There was no invigorating new talent, no spark. Torpedo was in decline, although the team list did not suggest so. Decline was much stronger pronounced in CSKA – by 1979 there was only a pale shadow of the mighty club once upon a time. CSKA had mediocre team, depending on few veterans like Astapovsky and Olshansky, who no longer were called to play for the national team, and bunch of players best described as failed promises – N. Petrosyan, Yu. Chesnokov, A. Pogorelov, A. Belenkov were not old and had experience, but it was clear that their best seasons were either in the past, or they were not improving. The rot was infectious – only 2 years back L. Nazarenko was playing for the national team, and now, only 24 years old, he was over the hill. It was clear that he was not going to be a star, his development stopped. A. Tarkhanov, at 25, was decent and reliable, but he also promised much more when he was younger – and did not deliver. CSKA clearly needed a whole new team and, unlike Torpedo, had the clout to get whoever they wanted – but the fact they did not meant more than administrative incompetence: there were very few players worth taking around. Very few. So, teams with few reliable second-raters fared better – nobody wanted to snatch players over 25 with known and limited abilities, but their experience was good enough for club they played for: compared to poorer clubs, such a club performed quite well. Like Zenit (Leningrad).
A good coach – Yury Morozov – and cluster of experienced second-rate players – Tkachenko, Golubev, Davydov, Kazachenok, Redkous, Klementiev, Lokhov – was enough for mid-table position. Zenit finished 10th – nothing to do with the top of the league, but well above the bottom. Around them were similar teams – nothing impressive. The top of this kind was Dinamo (Moscow). They were 5th, a good 6 points clear from Dinamo (Minsk), but also 4 points behind the 4th placed club. And Dinamo was obviously yesterday’s news – not that much old squad, but clearly beyond its prime: Pilguy, Gontar, Makhovikov, Nikulin, Dolmatov, Lovchev, Minaev, Yakubik, Maksimenkov, Gershkovich were promising players years ago, and most of them never fulfilled the expectations. Some were dangeroulsy aging – Lovchev, Dolmatov, Gershkovich – and time was not on their side. Others were clearly unlucky – the goalkeepers Pilguy and Gontar were lucky to step in exactly when Yashin retired, but unfortunately they were of the same age, so competing against each other left them both shorthanded. Both played for the national team, but neither became a star. Now both were over 30 – and Gontar did not even play 100 league matches yet! The younger talent was so far shaky – V. Gazzaev, Yu. Reznik, N. Latysh, A. Novikov, A. Bubnov. None was exactly a born leader and with the exception of Bubnov none really became a star player. Yet, Dinamo had a squad most clubs of the league could not even imagine at that time – about 15 solid names! But ‘solid’ does not translate into ‘winning squad’.
Four clubs fought for the title – a rare really competitive season, although due largely to shortcomings and limitations rather than strength. Leaders rotated during the season and for the most time looked like the real battle was Dinamo Kiev and Dinamo Tbilisi. The Georgians, champions of 1978, had perhaps the best rounded team, a good blend of veterans, players at their peak, and young talent. They also had perhaps the ‘deeper’ team in the league – 19 classy players (the bottom 10 clubs combined did not have that many). There was healthy competition and strong back-up for almost every post. But, Dinamo Tbilisi did not play as good as the previous year. No improvement, perhaps a temporary problem, but even with shakier play Dinamo was prime candidate for the title. Perhaps they lost it when they decided to allow the unlucky Pakhtakor to win. It was decent decision, but it was loss. Ups and downs during the year – and 4th place at the end. Against their immediate rivals Dinamo did not lose a single match – 1 win and 5 ties. All other favourites lost matches against each other.
Dinamo Kiev finished 3rd – a point above Dinamo Tbilisi. They lead for a while, but like all other strong clubs they were not consistent. This was still ‘transitional’ Dinamo – aging veterans of the great 1975 team were still around, but clearly declining. The young stars were still just promising players, not real leaders. The problem of goalkeeping was painful search started after Rudakov retired and so far there was no solution. This year Dinamo had 4 keepers, none too experienced. Yurkovsky was benched in favour of Yury Romensky, who had been one of the most talented keepers in second division 4 or 5 years ago. So far, his best moments were in the past – at 27, he had only 38 first league appearances at the start of the season. Two bright youngsters, both under 20, completed the list – Krakovsky and Grishko. Grishko was perhaps the biggest promise. However, none really made it – none was part of the second great team of Lobanovsky, none was major star in Soviet football of the 1980s. Perhaps nobody remember Yurkovsky today and those who remember Romensky, remember his misfortune: he had strong season in 1979 and seemingly was on the road of becoming national team regular. But… Romensky suffered heavy injuries. He already missed two years because of that – and actually was persuaded by Lobanovsky to give another try when he had practically given up and had no club. 1979 was more or less his last season – certainly his last good one. Soon he was injured again, lost his regular place in Dinamo, never fully recovered and eventually had to quit playing football early. So, he was not a solution for the goalkeeping problem. The defensive line was a bit rag-tag – Konkov and Zuev remained from the old team, helped by Baltacha and S. Zhuravlyov. Konkov was dangerously aging, Zuev spent practically all his years with Dinamo as a reserve – the other two were still too young. Baltacha was still unknown – even his name was usually misspelled because of that. Zhuravlyov never really established himself – his greatest strength was zeal and merciless physical approach. Rough player, not skilful. Demyanenko completed the group – and he was just breaking in the first team. The midfield was typically crowded, but it was clear that Veremeev and Kolotov are playing their last days, and Buryak was clashing with Lobanovsky. Berezhnoy, Lozinsky, and particularly Bessonov were the future. But past and future did not mix all that well at the present. The attack as always depended largely on Blokhin. Slobodyan and Khapsalis completed the line, but… Lobanovsky traditionally sacrificed strikers to accommodate the large number of midfielders he always had, so the strikers were more reserves than regulars. May be because of that neither striker becamethe star he was expected to become. They were not the players Lobanovsky really needed as well. The transitional team was not consistent, depended too much on extremely physical, if not outright dirty play, and was very predictable – no wonder they were unable to win the championship.
The unassuming Shakter (Donetzk) edged Dinamo (Kiev) by a point, finishing second. Perhaps nobody truly considered them champions, but they were the steadiest team of the top four. For Shakter, silver medals were pretty much their best achievement. They came very close to winning the title, but it was perhaps impossible task to do – Shakter played strong football for years, were solid, but their good squad depended also on good luck. They were lucky to keep their players,who were not first rate stars and also were not young enough to attract the interest of Dinamo Kiev or one of the Moscow clubs. Thus, Shakter had decent, if not great, squad – experienced, talented enough, well rounded, and complimented by peculiar players giving it an edge. They were not a revelation – they just continued their strong performance.
Silver boys – crouching,from left: L. Maly, M. Sokolovsky, N. Fedorenko, V. Kondratov, V. Pyanykh, V. Rogovsky,A. Varnavsky, Yu. Dudinsky.
Second row: V. Nosov – coach, V. Gorbunov, V. Maly, E. Shaforostov, I. Simonov, Yu. Degtyarev, V. Zvyagintzev, V. Safonov, V. Rudakov, V. Yaremchenko, V. Starukhin, M. Kalinin – team chief.
Most of the regulars played together for years – Degtyarev, Zvyagintzev, Sokolovsky, Pyanykh, Dudunsky, Yaremchenko, Rogovsky, Safonov, Kondratov, Starukhin. Most pf them were between 25 and 30 in 1979. Zvyagintzev played for the national team a few years back, when he was with Dinamo Kiev. Currently, Yury Degtyarev was in the national team. But, although noticed long ago and respected, the best players of Shakter were not interested for other teams – usually, they had similar or better players, or they needed younger ones, or had style the boys from Donetzk did not fit in. This was perhaps why Vitaly Starukhin, one of the most colourful Soviet players of the 1970s, arguably the best centre-forward in the country, and big favourite of the fans, never played for any other club, although all of the big clubs needed strong goal-scoring forward. But he was an English type striker, powerful, and concentrating the game on himself – not the type needed by Dinamo Kiev. Not the type needed by the Moscow clubs too – when Starukhin was younger, the Moscow clubs had their own good strikers, and later they opted for younger talent. Starukhin never played for the national team, always rated somewhat lower than others, but he was a great scorer and more or less defined the style of Shakter. Now, 30 years old, he had his best season:
Vitaly Starukhin scored 26 goals this year. He not only finished as the leagues best scorer, but he was the first player since 1968 to score more than 20 goals in a single season. In fact, only two players scored more goals in the whole history of Soviet football so far: Nikita Simonyan (Spartak Moscow) – 34 in 1950, and Oleg Kopayev (SKA Rostov) – 27 in 1963. N. Simonyan also scored 26 in 1949, but that was all equal or better. The best Oleg Blokhin did was 20 goals in 1974. Starukhin was voted player of the year as well – unique recognition of someone who never played for the national team.
Although Shakter was not seen as possible champion, they not only came close, but, arguably, it was their match which decided the championship. In the 32nd round they met Spartak (Moscow) and lost the match. The conditions were difficult – mud and snow – but both teams made a hearty game.
In the 66th minute E. Sidorov (Spartak) was just a bit quicker than Yu. Degtyarev and scored a header with which Spartak won, built a 2-point lead and in the last two matches preserved it – both teams won their last games, and the crucial goal of Sidorov practically gave the title to Spartak.
Spartak not only was not overwhelming winner, but they were entirely unlikely to win back in August, when the second half of the season started – they were 4th and a bit distant from the other three leaders. Spartak came from behind, slowly adding points, perhaps making fewer mistakes than the competition and taking full advantage of the mistakes of the others. Even at the end of the season observers were cautious – many were glad that Spartak was back at the top (after all, only two years ago the new champions were in second division), Konstantin Beskov was praised (but he was big name for so many years, it was hardly anything new), but it did not look like Spartak was hailed as the great team. Even in their own camp, Spartak was described in sober terms. If Dinamo (Kiev) was in transition, Spartak was still in the making – it was still row squad, not very experienced, with some shaky players. It needed a few changes, few better players, polishing. Most players were still unknown around the league – Dasaev’s name was misspelled at the time – Renat instead of Rinat, as the great star of the 1980s was really named. Even their captain – Oleg Romantzev – was more a curiosity: a second division player suddenly leading his teammates to victory. Was he for real? Vagiz Khidiatulin was just a new promising midfielder, not the defender known around the world in the 1980s. So was the case of other future big names – Fedor Cherenkov was found ‘soft’, Shavlo – promising, if not injured. Most were too young – and clearly the future was to tell what they could be, not the present. Yartzev was already getting old. The most important player was so surprising, people had hard time to really believe that almost hopeless mediocrity a few years back was now influential – Yury Gavrilov was 27 and he was let go from Dinamo (Moscow) as hopeless: no wonder it was hard to accept him as star. A lot of players were entirely unknown youngsters, but there were also remains of the terrible squad which ended in second division – Vl. Bukievsky, V. Samokhin, A. Kokorev, M. Bulgakov. They clearly appeared as ballast best to be off-loaded as soon as possible. Two players were added during the season – Aleksandr Mirzoyan, an experienced defender from Ararat (Ereven), but not a star, and Edgar Gess from second division Pamir (Dushanbe) – a talented unknown, who however suffered an injury. Spartak looked like chancy winner – and not very likely to win anything again. It had potential, but needed almost everything – experience, additional players, more solidity, class. The only really positive thing about Spartak was that they played pleasantly technical football – a welcome contrast to the robotic, physical, and often dirty brand of Dinamo Kiev. But… mellow technical approach was something of the past: the future was in the opposite direction.
It was perhaps the least praised champion in the 1979 – it did not look like positive change, but rather a testimony of deeply troubled national football: Dinamo Kiev and Dinamo Tbilisi were supposed to be the top clubs and they were unable to best second-raters like Shakter and shapeless Spartak. The new champions did not look a team for the future – it was impossible to imagine that this club will be one of the key teams of the 1980s and major part of the revival if Soviet football.
And one last look at the champions: standing from left: K. Beskov – coach, V. Mironov – administrator, Yu. Gavrilov, A. Mirzoyan, S. Shavlo, R. Dasaev, A. Kalashnikov, N. Starostin – team chief, V. Chelnokov – team doctor.
Crouching: V. Khidiatulin, G. Yartzev, O. Romantzev, F. Cherenkov, E. Sidorov, E. Gess.
By the end of the season the great Spartak of the 1980s was getting into shape – Gavrilov, Shavlo, Dasaev, Khidiatulin, Romantzev, Cherenkov were the core. And the master-minds – the unlikely tandem of Starostin and Beskov, who often clashed and hardly ever agreed on anything, but amazingly the impossible combination worked for years. Even when they were no longer even talking to each other. Spartak blossomed at the beginning of the 1980s and remained strong.