Spartak, Dynamo, CSKA and Torpedo: For decades these were the four horsemen of Russian football, the quartet of Moscow clubs who invariably dominated the Soviet game alongside regional powers from Kyiv and Tbilisi. As a result of the Soviet societies system, by which each club was affiliated to one of many central organisations, the Moscow teams had first option on any players at their plethora of de facto feeder clubs, and thus were never far from the top of the domestic league.
By contrast, Lokomotiv were poor neighbours – star players often abandoned the club or were only involved for high-profile overseas tours, and in their absence the capital outfit found themselves challenging sporadically through much of the Soviet era, achieving genuine success only in the national cup competitions of 1936 and 1957. Given the greater appeal of their city rivals, Lokomotiv were never able to hold on to their key players, and actually spent a handful of years in the second tier of the Soviet league system, a fate unthinkable for the likes of Spartak and Dynamo. In 1959, a team containing a number of players who would go on to win the 1960 European Championship with their country, secured a second-place finish for the Railwaymen, but it would be the side’s best finish in the Soviet era, the club unable to reach the next level required to claim the title.
Instead, the loss of some of the team’s finest players resulted in a return to the periphery, with Lokomotiv experiencing another relegation in 1963. Despite bouncing back after a single season, the capital club went down again in 1969 after finishing rock bottom of the table, and again in 1972. Only in 1975 did the Railwaymen manage a more respectable final position, but further inconsistency saw them down again at the turn of the decade, sparking ten years of promotion battles and relegation fights. Only the creation of the Russian Top League in 1992 saw Lokomotiv return to the top flight, the arrival of Yuri Semin in 1986 having an effect as the Railwaymen rounded out the top four.
Semin had been in charge of Lokomotiv before, a brief spell with New Zealand’s Under-20 side interrupting an otherwise continuous stint from 1986 through to 2005. His management transformed the club from Moscow also-rans to one of Russia’s strongest sides. Consistent performances ensured that the team did not leave the top six throughout his reign, and created a cup pedigree which remains a record – the Railwaymen won back-to-back trophies twice in 1996, 1997 and 2000, 2001, with a more recent cup in 2007 completing their set of five. Two journeys to the last four of the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup also placed Lokomotiv firmly on the European map, and three consecutive runners-up finishes in the league (1999, 2000, 2001) cemented them as one of Russia’s most talented and well-supported clubs.
Yet for all their hype and ability, the side had yet to win the Russian or Soviet title. In 2002 their chance arrived, the inaugural Russian Premier League seeing Lokomotiv and CSKA storm ahead of the field, ending the campaign tied on points at the top ahead of a Spartak side who had secured nine of the previous ten titles. Despite CSKA having a better goal difference, winning more games and scoring more goals than Lokomotiv, the rules dictated that the championship be decided by a single playoff at a neutral ground.
A capacity crowd packed into Moscow’s Dynamo Stadium, and after just six minutes Dmitri Loskov’s low left-footed drive found the back of net to give the Railwaymen an early lead. One of the most tense games in Russian football history followed, but it was enough – Lokomotiv clung on to claim their first ever title, in the process turning Yuri Semin into a club legend. A new stadium, modern and fit for champions, became their home, and when the club repeated the title-winning trick in 2004, again beating CSKA to the championship by the narrowest of margins, it looked like Lokomotiv were about to embark on their own period of domination much as Spartak before them.
However, it was not to be. Unable to repeat the levels of consistent superiority which were key to their title-winning campaigns, pushed by a strengthening CSKA and the later emergence of Zenit St. Petersburg and Rubin Kazan as domestic powers, the sole addition to Lokomotiv’s trophy cabinet since is their fifth Russian Cup, won in 2007.
The obvious reason for the Railwaymen’s relative decline is the departure of Semin after the second title, the legendary manager leaving to take the reins of the national team. Vladimir Estrekhov’s side collapsed in the final stages to hand the 2005 championship to CSKA, and since then stability has been an ever-present issue – Estrekhov was fired at season’s end, and since then the club have worked their way through no less than seven managers, including an unspectacular return for Semin and a Yuri Krasnozhan regime which lasted less than six months and ended under suspicion of match-fixing. Journeyman Portuguese Jose Couceiro occupies the dugout at the present time, but there is little hope this season of his side overhauling Zenit for the title, European qualification again remaining the aim.
Today, Lokomotiv appear to have drifted from their position of superiority under Yuri Semin. Two defeats in the opening games after this year’s unique league split sees the Railway men sit in sixth place in the table, hoping for internal consistency and the likes of Spartak, Dynamo and Rubin to slip up if they are to entertain any hope of Champions League football next season. The next title may be some way off given the financial clout of Zenit, CSKA and Anzhi Makhachkala, but those days in the sun will always linger in the memories of the Lokomotiv faithful. They have risen from obscurity once before, and today the base for growth is much stronger. Whether they build on it or not remains to be seen.