Britain’s first Soviet footballer: When Serhiy Baltacha swapped the Eastern Bloc for East Anglia

The Soviet figure skating team had to fight though a media scrum in the arrivals hall at Heathrow Airport. But Britain’s press had not gathered for their benefit. It was January 1989, and also on the flight from Moscow that day was Serhiy Baltacha, a classy sweeper ready to take a step into unknown with Ipswich Town. No Soviet footballer had ever played for an English side before; the communist party didn’t allow them to move overseas back then. But against a backdrop of glasnost and perestroika, change was in the air, and it had been decided that a select few should have their achievements rewarded with a transfer abroad.

One such player was Baltacha. He had been the defensive lynchpin of Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv side for a little over a decade. Hailing from Zhdanov (now Mariupil), an industrial city on the Sea of Azov in south-eastern Ukraine, Baltacha read the game superbly and never seemed to find himself out of position. From a young age he made that position his own at Dynamo – then one of Europe’s strongest sides – and will arguably be ranked among the club’s best ever players. He made 322 appearances for Bilo-Syni (the White-Blues) between 1977 and 1988, winning the league four times, also lifting two Soviet cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1986. Baltacha was also capped 45 times by the USSR, the last of which came in the final of the 1988 European Championship.

Ipswich, then playing in Division Two, had contacted Goskomsport (the Sport Committee of the USSR) that summer and were given a list of around half a dozen or so players available for transfer. They opted for Baltacha, who chose the Tractor Boys ahead of Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax, mainly because he wanted to test himself in England. But it still took several days for a deal to be thrashed out.

“The chairman at the time, Patrick Cobbold, sent me, as a young director, to Moscow with the manager, John Duncan, to complete the deal,” recalled David Sheepshanks, who went on to spend 14 years as Ipswich chairman. “I went into the headquarters of their FA and Serhiy was marched in. I asked if we could complete the deal. ‘What deal?’ they said. We then went for a six-hour lunch where we drank vast quantities of vodka and with the help of an interpreter we got things done.” There were one or two caveats to his transfer, however. Baltacha couldn’t, for example, earn more than the Soviet ambassador to Britain.

Baltacha was capped 45 times by the Soviet Union, scoring twice

It was in mid-January that a 30-year-old Baltacha came to these shores. Strictly speaking, he was not the first Ukrainian player in England. Shortly after the Second World War a striker, Adam Wolanin from Lviv (when western Ukraine belonged to Poland and Lviv was Lwów), had briefly been with Blackpool, but never appeared for the first team. In 1947 goalkeeper Pavel Sidelnyk played at amateur level in Nottingham and occasionally someone with Ukrainian heritage, such as Coventry City’s Peter Hormantschuk, cropped up in the Football League, but it was Baltacha who became the first Soviet (and Ukrainian) footballer to play professionally in the UK.

“Are you a communist or not?” asked the first reporter when Ipswich presented their new signing to the media, much to the disgust of Duncan. The Cold War was hardly at its peak in 1989 of course, yet the Scot was eager to keep football and politics separate. Not that Baltacha was able to understand the question. He came to England armed with just two phrases: the first, “fasten seatbelts” had been mastered on the flight from Moscow and “no problem”, which soon earned him the nickname “Serhiy No-Problem”. Ipswich provided Baltacha with a translator though and twice a week the whole family had English lessons together.

What with the Soviet league following the calendar year, Baltacha arrived in England somewhat short of match practice. The season had finished the previous October for him. But on 21 January he made his debut in a 5-1 victory against Stoke City at Portman Road, scoring his first and, indeed, only goal for the club. Another issue for Baltacha was just where he would fit into the team. After all, Ipswich, like pretty much every other English club at that time, did not employee a sweeper system and although prior to his signature they had been conceding soft goals, the partnership of John Wark and David Linighan was developing well. Duncan was also reluctant to put Baltacha at the heart of defence, on account of his limited command of the English language and he often found himself out of position at right-back or deployed as a defensive midfielder.

The defender challenges for a header during his Ipswich debut against Stoke

Going from that distinct style at Dynamo of the late and great Lobanovskiy to England’s kick-and-rush game also proved problematic for Baltacha, who once joked that all those high balls left him with a sore neck rather than sore legs after matches. In his first season he played 20 times as Ipswich finished eighth. “Before I came of course,” Baltacha once said, “my impression of a typical Englishman, I must say, was that they all wore top hats and carried umbrellas, were very straight-laced, never smiled.” Off the pitch, though, he and his family settled into life very well. As a Soviet footballer Baltacha was awarded certain privileges such as a car and holiday home, but the move saw real tangible benefits for his family.

Being a footballer in England was very different to back home. Soviet teams prepared for matches in isolation for a couple of days at a training base, and then of course you have to factor in the vast distances travelling to and from matches, so he got to spend more time with his young family. There were shortages in Kyiv at that time and the average weekly wage was just £70 per week. As part of the club’s preparations for the new season Ipswich went to Kyiv, but Baltacha would only play eight times that campaign. Throughout his time in England he was dogged by injury. His last two seasons with Dynamo had also been blighted by problems after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup and Baltacha missed the 1986 World Cup. He was only a substitute during the European Championships two years later.

Despite settling well in Ipswich, what Baltacha really yearned for was to be back playing in his natural position as a sweeper. He had considered returning home. Instead, Baltacha instructed his agent to find him a new club that played such a system. The only option was newly-promoted Scottish First Division side St Johnstone, whom he joined on a free transfer in 1990. To sign a player with the pedigree of Baltacha was a real coup for them. Alex Totten’s side were relatively inexperienced at the back but, after a slow start, he really began to marshal the Saints’ defence and soon became a popular figure at McDiarmid Park. Baltacha enjoyed three happy years in Perth where he made 90 appearances, before becoming player-manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

He then spent a few seasons as assistant manager at CSCA-Borysfen Kyiv in his native Ukraine, before making a return to Scotland, where Baltacha took up coaching positions with the Scottish Football Association and, later, St Mirren; he was also briefly at Charlton Athletic. Baltacha now works as head coach at Bacon’s College in London. His son, also called Serhiy, like him, became a professional footballer (he won five under-21 caps for Scotland and Arsène Wenger had wanted to take him from St Mirren to Arsenal at one point), while his daughter, Elena, represents Britain at tennis and is currently ranked 175th in the WTA Women’s rankings.

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