Russian revolution on hold

COMMENTARY

It was to have been a Russian revolution in London SE16, the day Millwall would lob a Molotov cocktail through the corporate windows of the Premiership. In the event it was a damp squib, though scarcely of the flammable variety.

Grafting two of Spartak Moscow's finest, Vassily Kulkov and Sergei Yuran, on to a faltering First Division team seemed a sound proposition. There is, after all, a saying, as old as the Urals, that good players speak the same language.

If that is true, we must deduce two things from Port Vale's 2-1 win at the New Den. The first is that Millwall have too few good players; the second that the language in question is not Anglo-Russian.

The last time Kulkov and Yuran had appeared on an English pitch, at Blackburn in September, they made telling contributions to the first of Spartak's six successive victories in the Champions League. Kulkov was the midfield clearing house through whom everything was channelled in a build-up based on technique and mobility. Yuran scored the only goal.

On this occasion, the Spartak Two found the big boot on the other foot. Bereft of confidence after a 10-match run without a win, the hosts were out-passed and outfought by a Vale side who had lost their previous away fixture 5-1 at Ipswich. Millwall were reduced to pumping aimless high balls forward, yet seldom troubled a defence only Juninho or Georgi Kinkladze would consider tall.

Kulkov has 45 caps and has been likened to Franco Baresi. The great Italian would not have been amused by the comparison on Saturday. Kulkov looked seriously short of match-fitness, having scarcely kicked a ball in earnest since Spartak reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

Yuran, a veteran of 29 internationals, at least avoided the indignity of being substituted like his compatriot. A target man in the English mould, he is known as "The Tank". Until he becomes sharper, "The Tractor" might be more apposite. He has the bulk, but tended to chug around rather than power through Vale's barricades.

Nevertheless, it is too soon to dismiss Millwall's double loan signing as a failure. Mick McCarthy, their manager, admitted the newcomers found it all "fairly quick and a bit surprising", though that can be resolved on the training ground. Communication should also be less of a problem once they are more aware of the capabilities (or otherwise) of their colleagues.

And as they try to come to terms with the culture shock, Kulkov and Yuran have each other for comradeship. So many of the best foreign imports have been two together - Muhren and Thijssen, Ardiles and Villa, Popescu and Dumitrescu (OK, but two out of three isn't bad) - that it is tempting to wonder whether Stan Flashman brokered the deals.

Those players all wanted to build careers in this country; Kulkov and Yuran are here as a financial expedient. In that respect, their arrival is reminiscent of Alan Simonsen's bizarre move to neighbouring Charlton from Barcelona more than a decade ago. One suspects it may be similarly short-lived.

In terms of reviving interest, however, McCarthy's coup had the desired effect. The crowd of more than 14,000, Millwall's best this season, was almost double the previous gate. Kick-off had to be delayed because of the clamour outside - shades of Moscow Dynamo's visit to the capital half a century ago - and The Lion Roars fanzine had even incorporated a hammer and sickle into its masthead.

But will the part-time fans be back? The sense of expectation merely compounded the anticlimax, especially during an opening half-hour which Vale turned into the football equivalent of a single-party state. Bottom of the table when Millwall led it as recently as last month, the Potteries team are becoming experts at stealing the show when cast as the supporting act.

In mid-December they won at Wolves for the first match of Mark McGhee's reign. "We spoilt their party and we've done it again," Vale's long-serving manager John Rudge beamed. "There are some away games where you pinch a result, but this wasn't one of them. No disrespect to the Russians, who need time to settle in, but I didn't see a great deal of them."

Two players of whom Millwall saw more than would have liked were Vale's Jon McCarthy and Steve Guppy. They exposed the full-backs, Ricky Newman and the highly rated Ben Thatcher, to the extent that Martin Foyle ought to have had a hat-trick by half-time. Here was one Thatcher who was for turning, for whom a single right-winger was one too many.

His tormentor, Jon McCarthy, crossed to create an early tap-in for Foyle. It was against the run of play when Alex Rae equalised after Paul Musselwhite fumbled under a heavy challenge from Yuran.

Vale regained the initiative when McCarthy's ball from the byline was converted by the outstanding Tony Naylor. Kulkov, having moved languidly to close down the pass, was promptly withdrawn. "I wish I'd done it five minutes earlier," Mick McCarthy sighed.

Millwall's free fall could not have been worse timed for the credibility of their manager, who was originally seen as Jack Charlton's natural successor with the Republic of Ireland. Ironically, what his team lack most is a battler in McCarthy's own image or that of Harry Cripps, who was laid to rest last week. Not so much the Russian bear, more the Millwall lion.

Goals: Foyle (6) 0-1; Rae (33) 1-1; Naylor (62) 1-2.

Millwall (4-4-2): Carter; Newman, Witter, Webber (Forbes, 79), Thatcher; Bowry, Kulkov (Taylor, 63), Rae (Lavin, 87), Van Blerk; Yuran, Malkin.

Port Vale (4-4-2): Musselwhite; Porter, Hill, D Glover, Tankard; McCarthy, Talbot, Bogie, Guppy; Foyle, Naylor. Substitutes not used: Walker, Mills, L Glover.

Referee: U Rennie (Sheffield).

Bookings: Milwall: Rae. Port Vale: Tankard, Hill.

Man of the match: Naylor. Attendance: 14,220.

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