What on Earth is John Gregory doing in Kazakhstan?

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Some say it was English merchants who introduced football to Kazakhstan early in the 20th Century during Tsarist times at Semey – then known as Semipalatinsk – a trading post in the north-east of the country close to the Russian border. Never before has an Englishman managed in the central Asian republic, though.

So John Gregory is something of a pioneer in taking charge of Kairat, a team from Kazakhstan’s former capital of Almaty where he’s faced with the challenge of resurrecting the fortunes of what is historically its biggest club.

Kairat were the sole Kazakh representatives in the Soviet Top League, where they spent a total of 24 seasons; seventh in 1986 constitutes a best-ever finish at the highest level of the USSR’s football pyramid. After the fragmentation of the Soviet Union in 1991 Kairat won the first post-independent championship of Kazakhstan, but had to wait another 12 years for their only other title and their recent history has been far from illustrious.

Temir Zholy (Kazakhstan Railways) withdrew its patronage after a three-year sponsorship deal ended in 2006 and a period of economic uncertainty followed, eventually culminating in Kairat’s voluntary removal from the top flight two years ago that left Kazakhstan’s largest city without a Premier League football team for the first time.

Wanted man: File photo of Gregory in socks-and-sandals misdemeanour

It was a brief departure, though. Kairat won promotion at the first attempt, but once again they struggled both on and off the pitch; relegation was narrowly avoided in 2010 amid reports the players hadn’t been paid for two or three months.

The 12-team top division operates on a summer calendar and splits after 22 matches into relegation and championship pools. In December, Gregory’s predecessor Vladimir Nikitenko was given an increased budget of around €4m to create a competitive side with a core of Almaty players capable of once again challenging at the top.

It has been a disappointing season so far though. Nikitenko tendered his resignation citing “family reasons”, and Gregory arrives with Kairat once again hovering above the relegation zone in 10th.

"I wouldn't have come to Almaty if the team didn't have problems," the former Aston Villa manager said at a press conference after signing a two-year deal. "Unfortunately I don't have much time to improve the situation."

The 57-year-old has been given the use of a car and driver, but neither will be of much use to him on matchdays. The Premier League’s 12 clubs are dotted around the world’s ninth-largest country in 12 different cities, which will certainly pose a challenge in preparing for games. Almaty is located in the south-east of the country, close to its border with Kyrgyzstan, at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains.

Former Spartak Moscow coach Andrei Chernyshov, who now manages Akzhaiyk Uralsk, once said in an interview: “Every away game is preceded by a long journey. I never imagined there were such huge distances involved in working in Kazakhstan. We usually have to get a charter flight to some big city near our destination and then go by bus the rest of the way. It really is a huge country!"

Gregory, whose wife will be joining him in central Asia, was chosen ahead of coaches from Bulgaria and Poland, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts in Kazakhstan. Kairat’s precarious position means he’ll have to quickly become accustomed to new surroundings and a different style of football.
Perhaps a new approach and Western methods will provide an impetus. For now though Gregory has put more lofty ambitions on hold, instead taking a more pragmatic stance by accepting that merely surviving is the goal for this season.

A limit on foreign players in the Premier League means he’ll mainly have to play the Kazakh market in the summer transfer window that recently opened. Regardless of the ruling, unlike Tony Adams at Qäbälä in Azerbaijan he appeared to discount recruiting in Britain – at least in terms of playing staff.

Kairat are a side chiefly of Kazakh players, although already Gregory has had an agent on the phone offering him the services of three players based in Israel, where he previously worked with Maccabi Ahi Nazareth and Ashdod.

His first addition has been to bring in a familiar assistant: Richard Hill has worked as Gregory’s deputy at several clubs in England and the 47-year-old was also part of the setup while Iffy Onuora was in charge of the Ethiopian national team.

Meanwhile, England fans will perhaps recognise Kairat’s home stadium. Fabio Capello’s side made the onerous 7,000-mile round trip to central Asia to face Kazakhstan in a World Cup qualifier at the club’s 23,084-seater Almaty Central Stadium, winning 4-0 in June 2009.

Home: Gregory's new stamping ground

But Gregory's Kazakh era began away, in a baptism of fire last weekend. Kairat travelled 600 miles north to Kazakhstan’s capital to face Astana (the culmination of a merger between two Almaty clubs, Megasport Depot and Alma-Ata who upped sticks in 2009 after a sponsorship deal involving, yep, you guessed it, railway bods Temir Zholy), the league’s leaders who are living up to their billing as title favourites under the tutelage of another pioneering western European coach, the German Holgar Fach.

NMTB, June 2009: Kazakhstan's MK Dons stuck in the siding

Moldovan international Igor Bugaev gave the home side the lead after just three minutes and Astana clocked up another five before Sergey Strukov scored a consolation for Kairat in the last minute.

Certainly whoever they faced it would have been difficult for Gregory. He complained in the press conference at the Astana Arena afterwards that he’d only had a couple of days to work with the team and it was impossible to implement his ideas in such a short space of time.

Eleventh-placed Vostok drew at Ordabasy Shymkent on Sunday, leaving Kairat four points above the relegation places. Gregory has had all this week to work with his team to prepare them for the first home game of his reign this coming Saturday against last season’s champions Tobol Kostanay, a side who could rather do with the three points after finding themselves in midtable this season.