He was already a veteran supporter of Newcastle, but Matthew Roche remembers the first time he saw them play in Minsk

Sorting through my Newcastle videos the other day I noticed several were missing. Where was the “Abject failure dressed up as excitement” compilation? Who had swiped my record of the abortive 1990-91 campaign? Then a guilty thought struck me – Dynamo Minsk must still have them.

In Summer 1993 a friend with good contacts at the club came to Moscow where I was living armed with the grim news that Dynamo were suffocating in the mediocre Belarussian league set up after the Soviet collapse. With cash and outstanding players gone, the club needed help. Could I perhaps lend them a few videos to help the coaches study advanced Western techniques?

Dazed at the idea of Dynamo relying on scratchy footage of Benny Kristensen and Kevin Brock, I thought back to the autumn months of 1984 I spent as a student in Minsk. Boredom rapidly set in and our descent into catatonic alcoholism was only prevented by a sympathetic teacher who offered to take us to a match. Dynamo were good, he explained, third in the league, still basking in the glory of their shock 1982 championship win. And what’s more, they were in the UEFA Cup.

So we creaked our way across town in a crumpled tram to the spartan Dynamo stadium, where a few kopecks earned us the right to sit on a freezing bench,watch the risibly untalented amateurs of HJK Helsinki and defy a particularly repressive local regime. Soccer matches were about the only occasions when thousands of people could gather together to have fun without the risk of being harangued for hours about dubious Communist feats in the grain belt. The authorities satisfied themselves by sending in hundreds of soldiers with crushed-glass faces to spend the entire match watching the crowd for signs of trouble.

We soon mastered the skill of whistling continuously to unnerve the opposition and abusing the grossly misnomered Viktor Sokol, a young striker undergoing a colossal confidence crisis. Sokol means “falcon” in Russian but his bird was a drunk penguin. Uttering cries of “Rubbish, Sokol!” and “Get Sokol off, he’s even worse than last time!” may not have helped his morale, but it kept us amused while ensuring we blended into the crowd. Instead we admired the defensive work of Andrei Zygmantovich and Sergei Gerasimets, who like midfielder Sergei Gotsmanov (later with Brighton and Southampton) and beefy striker Georgy Kondratyev all went on to enjoy good international careers.

The vagaries of the Spring-to-Autumn season meant the later games were played in either a monsoon or an ice-storm. In that first match Georgy swam through the HJK back four to net a sodden first-half hat-trick, leaving us drenched but happy. In the next round defender Sergei Borovsky celebrated his call-up to the Soviet squad by scoring an own goal of exquisite beauty, breaking up an end-to-end Sporting Lisbon attack outside the Minsk area and then lobbing the keeper from 25 yards to help John Toshack’s boys to a 2-0 home win.

We took a thick blanket with us to the home leg but stood no chance against the skin-splitting Frost From Hell. Sokol must have been out in the truck park siphoning anti-freeze because he was the only moving part in the stadium, smacking home two beauties in the first 18 minutes before both teams clotted. After our boys had finally won 5-3 on penalties I distinctly remember leaving the most delicate parts of my anatomy stuck to the bench, but the existence of my infant daughter suggests otherwise.

The league fare was much less nourishing and Minsk’s frustrating inability to beat patently inferior teams eventually robbed them of a place in Europe the following season. We were so innocent then. I wonder now how many of those games were thrown and how many referees were bribed. It was only years later that I heard about the rampant corruption, how anywhere up to a quarter of games in a season were fixed in advance. The way in which Minsk won the 1982 title – a surprise last-day 4-3 win at Spartak Moscow while Dynamo Kiev were losing at home to lowly opposition – fairly shrieked of skullduggery on closer inspection.

A decade later they were begging for my videos, so I lent them them a limited selection. On the off-chance someone at Dynamo might link the club’s continuing obscurity to the skills the players may have picked up, I don’t think I’ll ask for the tapes back.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month

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