Back at the turn of the century it was considered bad form to fire the coach before October. A glance at the history books shows just a single instance – Sergei Borisov’s departure from Khabarovsk – for the whole era. But as this century has progressed, the patience of the club management has worn thinner and thinner, and more and more coaches have found themselves unexpectedly unemployed before September is even out. The only exception was season 2005-06, when the first to go was Anatoly Bogdanov from Vityaz. He was within a week of making it to November.
The list of September victims could be shortened slightly if we accept the official leaving date of Dynamo Moscow’s Sergei Kotov’s as October 2 last year, even though in reality it was September 30, and Kotov was not fired, but resigned – a resignation which was refused at first by club president Mikhail Golovkov, but here too the official version and the reality tend to diverge.
So the current championship, without a single coach falling on his sword until October, is the first welcome sign of a small but welcome increase in trust in the coaches and a reduction of (usually baseless) panic among the clubs’ management. We could even call it the second sign if we include last season, when the sole casualty, Amur’s Alexander Blinov, not only left of his own free will but returned three months later and stayed in charge of the Khabarovsk men for the rest of the season.
Blinov’s exit aside, last season’s “firing squad” did not claim a single victim until October. Atlant waved goodbye to Nikolai Borshchevsky on the 4th, the following day Andrei Sidorenko was ejected from Traktor, it was all quiet on the 6th, but a day later Milos Riha was given the push by Spartak.
This season the 6th was the day the ax was first swung: when the Magnitogorsk men were overrun by Traktor in Chelyabinsk, the Metallurg management showed Alexander Barkov the door.
Even before this defeat the Steelworkers had already dropped out of the play-off zone. Although their main rivals – Yugra, Barys and Metallurg Novokuznetsk– had also lost their previous one, two, and three games respectively, Magnitka had performed even worse, going four straight games without a single point. Four games on the road, it must be said, but certainly far from being a tour of all the toughest venues: Astana – Nizhnekamsk – Kazan – Chelyabinsk. Such a showing would be unthinkable for the Metallurg of yesteryear, but we should bear in mind that only nine of last season’s skaters – six forwards and three defensemen – remain at the club, plus Georgy Misharin, who joined toward the end of the regular season.
The Steelworkers’ shopping spree was certainly impressive, both by the names on the list and the quantity – for a while. But on closer examination the list of new arrivals did not give the impression they had been assembled to implement a definite strategy; if anything, it seemed the club had gone out to buy whichever players they could afford. A notable exception was the Glazachev – Spiridonov offensive pair. The two had played together at three clubs over the last four years and been highly effective, even if their teams had not enjoyed much success. However, as if to embody the chaos that was about to envelop the new-look Metallurg, the pairing was split up in preseason.
And yet Magnitka’s preseason could scarcely have gone better: victorious in two tournaments and runners-up in another. Glazachev, although separated from Spiridonov, nonetheless struck up an immediate understanding with Sergei Mozyakin – easily the pick of the summer sales. At Barkov’s first interview following his appointment he had promised us attacking hockey, and the preseason successes suggested he wasn’t joking.
Everyone knows, of course, that summer games are a poor indicator of things to come, and often lead to unrealistic expectations which are soon painfully shattered, but Metallurg’s preseason could only be viewed in a positive light: with over half the roster made up of summer purchases, and a young and inexperienced coach, it seemed the summer victories would be a useful boost in confidence for the long road ahead.
As the championship got underway all was well, or seemed well, with Magnitogorsk. If there was nothing particularly heroic about a win at debutants Lev (although, as they say, three points is three points), then the next game, a 5-1 hammering of their fiercest rivals, Traktor, looked like an ominous warning that Magnitka meant business.
But here they began to go off the rails. Four more home games yielded alternate victories and defeats, followed by that disastrous four-match spell on the road. The 5-1 revenge thrashing from Traktor, in which the Chelyabinsk men were indisputably superior in every area, was the last straw. Already suffering a rare dry spell in front of goal, Sergei Mozyakin finished the game with a -3 to his account; he had finished September’s encounter with a hat-trick.
Is the coach to blame? Of course, like any coach at any club, has to take some share of the blame; he is hardly a peripheral figure who can produce an alibi. The question is: how big a share? The situation at Metallurg in preseason was crystal clear – a root and branch reform. To entrust a man with a root and branch reform but lose faith just nine games into the new season looks strange, if not absurd.
The placing of a young specialist, one with neither the necessary coaching experience nor the authority, in charge of a team overflowing with players of both experience and authority, is a risky enough business. Nothing wrong with risk, but it must be evaluated, and of course accompanied by a generous reserve of patience and nerve. Simply put, either you have no faith at all, in which case you search for a proven and experienced boss, or you put your faith in youth and inexperience and you should not lose your nerve after the first setback. Otherwise, it is akin to playing the silly schoolboy prank with the wallet attached to a hidden thread.
Fyodor Kanareikin has now taken Barkov’s place at the helm, and the feeling is that this will be good for Metallurg, at least in the short term. All the same, young Alexander Barkov has every right to feel offended.
Oleg Protasov, special to khl.ru