The post-match comments from Ukraine players and manager after the San Marino victory last week were Premier League-esque in their banality: it was not the time to celebrate, but time to focus on the England game; the record nine goals scored were for the fans; team spirit was what helped see them though. But with the sarcastic and moaning Oleh Blokhin no longer national coach, and the talented but wayward Artem Milevskiy – who turned up to the presentation of Blokhin as Dinamo Kyiv manager wearing a blue dressing gown – well out of favour, it’s perhaps not surprising the Ukrainians seen calmer and more focused.
Instead they are letting their football do the talking. Following a poor start to the qualifying campaign Mykhaylo Fomenko was appointed national coach, and under him the side recorded impressive away wins in Montenegro (0-4) and Poland (1-3). A regular comment from fans on sport.ua this week has been that they were wrong to criticise the FFU (Football Federation of Ukraine) for appointing Fomenko instead of the bigger names linked with the post (Sven Goran-Eriksson and Harry Redknapp were in the frame). Fomenko’s record as a manager is fairly modest, but includes a Ukrainian league title and a 3-1 victory over Barcelona in the Champions League when he was Dinamo coach in 1993 – one fan commented the FFU should have appointed him back then.
Most fans are united in recognising young winger Yevhen Konoplianka – who scored against England at Wembley last year – as the side’s current best player. Another young prospect, Andriy Yarmolenko – once described as the new Andriy Shevchenko – has been criticised for a recent lack of effort. One message boarder on ua-football.com suggested he was turning into the new Milevskiy – more interested in stardom than football.
In terms of England, some don’t know what kind of opponent will turn up: ‘they [England] could beat us with their second team but lose to us with their first,’ commented one fan on sport.ua, which, as an England supporter myself, seems apt. ‘England are England – it’ll be tough whoever they pick,’ commented another, the type of response one fan took exception to: ‘It’s as if you’ve all got old fart syndrome…who apart from you thinks England has a strong side? What have they won in the past fifty years to be considered elite? Wake up, people!’
There is more optimism amongst Ukraine fans than there was before the 1-1 draw between the two sides almost exactly a year ago, though the more cautious voices think a win is essential – they expect England to take six points out of six in the two final home games. I wish that I shared their optimism – but, not expecting much from this game, I’m at least glad I don’t have ‘old fart syndrome’.
Saul Pope is a contributor to When Saturday Comes magazine. His Twitter is @saulpope