Alan Hansen, sweet dreams and scouting vacancies (must be willing to travel)

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaall the way over in Central Asia (or very eastern Europe, in UEFA land) fop-haired purveyor of all things footy in Kazakhstan, Roman Lopatenko, will probably think twice before he starts trying to wind up supporters again.

Their man-on-the telly had an Alan Hansen “You’ll never win anything with kids” moment in the former Soviet republic recently.

“If Tobol are able to keep their advantage of one point in the remaining three rounds, I am ready to go to Kostanay for a couple of days and work as a janitor at the local stadium,” he affirmed last month after they were hammered 5-2 at home by second-placed FK Aktobe.

Tobol Kostanay have picked up the nickname “the Dreamers” in Kazakhstan, on account of having finished in the top three for seven of the past eight years, but never quite managing to clinch the championship.

Aktobe had chipped away at their 12-point lead in the closing stages of the season and won their final three matches, although unfortunately for Lopatenko, so did Tobol, meaning a first league title for Ravil Sabitov’s team and a stint with the broom at their Tcentralny Stadion for him.

“Usually I win bets,” the pundit for the country’s Kazakhstan channel said, "but this time Tobol were better than I thought. I take my hat off to them."

This month he flew over 900 miles from Almaty (Kazakhstan’s capital until Nursultan Nazarbayev moved it lock, stock and barrel 13 years ago to what is now Astana) to Kostanay, where Lopatenko was put to work.

Yeah, OK, it descended into something of a publicity stunt with all the assembled media (and they’re getting in the way of him actually sweeping up), but Never Mind the Bolsheviks will forgive them for that; Kazakh football needs all the publicity it can get.

It’s not that bad. The country’s natural resources might have paid for that swanky new stadium in Astana, but they haven’t quite got a team fit to grace it yet, however. And besides, they obviously aren’t too fussed about exposure over here. This blog has been trying for the best part of a week to contact them without success.

Despite the media circus, Lopatenko spent an hour sweeping the stands and at one point he was on his hands and knees picking up pine cones, but Tobol excused him a second day.

Instead, he joined them as a guest of honour at their medal ceremony, where he was ushered on stage with his broom to a standing ovation from the players and fans for honouring his bet after Tobol won a hard-fought title in Sabitov’s first season in charge.

They have had their problems; scouting their opposition being the main one. The 12 Premier League teams in one of the world’s largest countries are inconveniently located in 12 different cities, and the former Dinamo Moskva and Lokomotiv Moskva defender admitted at times his side were going into matches “blindfolded”.

All that travelling takes a fair old chunk out of the 42-year-old’s budget, too. Tobol take chartered flights for their away games.

It doesn’t seem to have affected the players, though, and two of the Tobol team who have contributed massively to their inaugural championship have been Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev and Ulugbek Bakaev, scorers of 31 of the club’s 53 league goals this season.

And it’s not just Roman Lopatenko with a promise. Tobol have kept their word to Stanimir Dimitrov, a stalwart of their midfield for some years who is now back in his native Bulgaria with Neftochimic Burgas 1986. He was told when he left in 2009 that if they ever won the Premier League he’d receive a medal, a vow the club will honour.

As NMTB mentioned, Kazakh football is a bit of an unknown quantity in the West, much like the country as a whole, but the Premier League’s foreign coaches – Subitov included – have been surprised at the standard of the competition (pleasantly surprised, NMTB should add) and Aktobe beat AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands in the Europa League not so long ago.

The national team isn't up to much, mind.

But for Tobol, these are exciting times. There’s a stadium expansion in the offing and the Dreamers are going to sleep at night with thoughts of the Champions League group stages in their heads.

There’s a frightening prospect for Manchester United et al…


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