The man spreading Sheffield United's message across Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and beyond

If Vitaly Iskakov’s hunch is correct and Sheffield United really are the most ‘English’ of all English clubs, then what started as a hobby on his laptop computer will eventually spawn a new army of supporters stretching from Moscow and St Petersburg, then across the Siberian Plateau, to places like Vladivostok and Yatusk.

Tuesday, 14th April 2020, 6:09 pm

“Football in your country is different,” he says, explaining why, after being seduced by its passion, he decided to become a Blade. “It differs from Russian in terms of technique, speed and spirituality. But this team one displays the main character trait. For me, that is militancy.”

Iskakov is the founder of a page which publishes news, views and vlogs about life at Bramall Lane on Russia’s most popular social media network. Its creator, helped by a dedicated band of contributors, is committed to introducing United to an audience which, according to his own research, has grown “exponentially” since a television network in the region began broadcasting Premier League games.

Iskakov’s relationship with United, however, began long before last season’s promotion back to the top-flight. It traces back to their time in the third tier when, under Chris Wilder’s predecessor Danny Wilson, they made the first of five unsuccessful attempts to regain Championship status after being relegated in 2011.

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“Perhaps at that moment I was bribed by the powerful start to the season,” Iskakov says, recounting how United appeared destined to power their way out of the division before succumbing in the play-offs following a series of unfortunate events. “Eventually we finished fifth and stayed down but that didn’t matter; my love for the club had grown stronger and stronger.”

Eight months after United’s heartbreaking defeat at Wembley and 75 before their return to the top-flight, Iskakov decided to turn his obsession into something more concrete. The preview he composed ahead of an FA Cup tie at Reading - where Russian centre-forward Pavel Pogrebnyak was playing at the time - marked the birth of the website he now runs with two Russian friends.

“I did something for that one, looking forward to the game,” Iskakov continues. “We lost, but again it didn’t matter because that is not how you should decide who you are with.”

Iskakov believes the narrative surrounding United’s return to the highest level should resonate with fans in his homeland and the former Soviet republics. It is a tale of success achieved against all odds and whose principal characters - Wilder and his captain Billy Sharp - are both lifelong supporters.

Vitaly Iskakov has set up a website dedicated to helping fans from across Russia and the rest of Eurasia keep up to date with Sheffield United

Yaroslav Matveev also ensures folk across Eurasia are familiar with the story’s plot line, after deciding to help Isakov chart United’s remarkable journey. Having just finished mid-table in League One when Wilder took charge four years ago, they were seventh in the PL when the fixture calendar was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 13.

“I have always been a football fan so, when I realised that I would be coming to Sheffield, I started digging into football here,” Matveev, a Muscovite studying journalism at one of the city’s universities, says. “I am not going to lie, I considered both United and Sheffield Wednesday and I have been to Hillsborough as well. But I felt for The Blades more, I felt everything about them was better and more exciting, so I got a season ticket and have been going home and away ever since. I made the right choice.”

“Because of my studies, I decided to combine the joy of watching us play with some of the skills I was acquiring,” Matveev continues. “I found a group about The Blades on a Russian social network called Vkontakte and contacted the host of that, who was Vitaly, and offered my help. Firstly, I was sending pictures and stories from matches and then I started doing some vlogs. Now I am helping organise content for the group, I edit some posts and am just generally a person on the inside if you like.

“We are doing everything that we are doing for one simple reason: We passionately love this club and we find it important to enlighten people about how magnificent it is. It has a huge history, it has been through so many things and had so many great players. So why would we not want to talk about it?

Yaroslav Matveev (right) helps provide content for the website

“Now we would love to be recognised by the club itself, we want it to know that we exist and we want to represent The Blades in the biggest country in the world. We want to attract new members and show that we are friendly and kind.”

With one of his recent dispatches being shown on a YouTube channel boasting more than a quarter of a million subscribers, Iskakov agrees Matveev is a vital cog in his project’s wheel.

“Yaroslav is so important for us,” Iskakov says. “He brings us pictures and videos and lots of other information too. The policy is simple. The Star newspaper gives us the news and he gives us the photos!

“Friendship and help are important components of our community. In 2014, I was drafted into the army where I served for one year. At that moment, I could not write posts for a social network and so (another member) Vladimir Efremov came to my aid and to this day, he also helps fill the community with the necessary information.”

Vitaly Iskakov and his wife, who is now also a Sheffield United fan, at their home in St Petersburg

By his own admission, Iskakov’s postings were initially sporadic.

“Unfortunately, when I first started the community, matches on television involving United only numbered one or two a year. This was not enough for my personal satisfaction or for the community.

“We tried, but we could not do much.”

As United climbed the pyramid, particularly when they secured the second of their two promotions under Wilder towards the end of last term, so Iskakov’s opportunities to produce fresh material grew. Interest in what he curates has predictably increased since United reached the highest level, with subscribers from countries including Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan totally around 1,300 at the last count.

“Before the season started, a lot of commentators in Russia who naively called themselves ‘experts’ spoke very unflatteringly about Sheffield United, but now they are silent,” Iskakov grins. “We are pleased that Chris and his team are destroying this unbelief, which is a saying we have in Russia when you gain superiority over people who did not respect you before.

“English football is popular here and now, with all the matches being shown, more people are interested, more people are writing and more people are joining.

Sheffield United's exploits are chronicled on the Russian website: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“We are from Russia and we are Blades.”

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Bramall Lane, the home of Premier League club Sheffield United: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.