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Ukrainian refugee footballer rebuilding his life in England’s non league

There is a Ukrainian refugee footballer who is currently rebuilding his life in England’s non league, finding a new club this week.

Redditch United have announced the signing of fullback, Yan Osadchyi, pending international clearance by the Football Association.

The highly experienced player has played multiple games under the alias of ‘trialist’ in recent weeks, impressing manager Matt Clarke.

Osadchyi, 28, was previously playing in the Persha Liga/Ukrainian First League (second tier) with Alians Lypova Dolyna.

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Over the winter, the side travelled to Turkey to warm weather train and escape the baltic Ukrainian winter before the League was set to commence again in April.

However, before they could go back to their home country, the Ukrainian War broke out in February as Russia invaded. The team were then split up as some players chose to go back to Ukraine to fight in the war and the other half fled to different European countries for safety.

Yan and his partner have now settled in Worcester as he looks to rebuild his footballing career in England.

Redditch boss Matt Clarke was impressed by his quality, particularly considering he hasn’t played since his time in Ukraine. Yan has tremendous pedigree playing in the League below the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, Alians Lypova Dolyna were 3rd in the second tier.

Yan reflected on the time he was out in Turkey for training, saying that he was struggling to sleep at 5am whilst in a hotel room with his teammates.

He and his teammates were out there, hoping for promotion to the Ukrainian Premier League. But on the day (February 24) they were getting set for intense training, Yan’s mind was elsewhere.

Worrying reports emerged about what was going on back in Ukraine, with Russian troops and tanks moving into the Donbas region with Vladimir Putin calling it a “peacekeeping mission” when really, war was about to take place.

Yan couldn’t help but be worried, seeing social media on his phone and said: “Maybe I felt something”.

On his screen, appearing one after another in real time, emerged updates from reporters and citizens with headlines on missile strikes and explosions in Kyiv, Odesa and his parents’ home city of Kharkiv.

Five months later, he and his girlfriend, Alina Shtyl, shared their story with The Athletic.

He and partner Alina want their lives to get back to normal, thankful they are looked after, but the 28-year-old wants to be a footballer again – so he’s now getting prepared for the Southern League Premier Division Central, the seventh tier of English football.

He started his career at the bottom, getting noticed at academy level for three big clubs (Metalist Kharkiv, Arsenal Kharkiv and Metalurh Donetsk) and then dropped down to amateur level, only to be offered the chance to force his way back up again with FC Alians Lypova Dolyna.

It was an ambitious new club, formed in 2016 and became professional upon promotion to the third tier three years later. It’s name, Lypova Dolyna, comes from the club’s president who wanted his village to be recognised, Yan says: “We never went there. The team played in the city of Sumy (in north east Ukraine, about 30 miles from the Russian border and a 90-minute drive from Lypova Dolyna).

“I started playing when it was an amateur team, so I went all the way from amateur level to the Second League (third tier) to the First League (second tier). Last season, we had the objective to get to the Premier League. We were third in the table at the start of the winter break. We trained the whole winter to be ready when the season restarted.”

Living in Sumy, he found Alina, an English tutor from the south-eastern Donbas region, and area has suffered years of conflict with pro-Russian forces. “Yan was my student,” she says with a laugh as she interprets on his behalf.

She and her family fled the region in 2014, with Russian forces beginning to annex the area. “So this was my second war,” she says.

“But since then, everything was going better and better in Ukraine. Step by step, our country was developing. They built very good roads. Life was good.”

Alina talks about the 24th of February: “So many missed calls and messages on my phone,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘What has happened?’.”

“I called my parents in Kharkiv,” Yan says. “They were OK but they told me about all the explosions. They said the city had been bombed.

“We (he and his team-mates) were in Turkey and we were all very worried, and we didn’t know how to help. Everyone was very stressed. We wanted to talk to our families because that was the only way we could be sure everyone was OK.”

Russian forces attacked Sumy that morning, with Ukrainian soldiers and militia working out a plan to defend their city, though fighting and the air strikes continued for five weeks before the region’s governor claimed Sumy had defeated the Russian invaders.

Alina and Yan were terrified, the latter stuck in Turkey with no clue as to how he and his team would be getting home, how they could help others stay safe or whether to join friends and relatives in the war effort. From an early stage, their thoughts were on evacuation.

Alina got away from Sumy and went to her parents’ house in a village nearby. “It felt safer there but we couldn’t leave there because the area was surrounded,” she says. “And there was very, very little food in the shops. Things were very bad but one thing is that my father, before it all happened, brought a huge amount of petrol, thinking we were going to have to try to escape.”

Yan says he has “lost” people in the conflict. “Some of my friends are soldiers,” he says. “Some people are gone. Some of them are very badly injured. Or different traumas.”

Alina added: “Especially in Kharkiv, some parts are occupied now. We know a lot of people there and you can’t call them or contact them. You call them and the phone doesn’t connect. We hope they’re OK but there’s no internet or the lines are down. We don’t know what happened to them.”

The Athletic report that a figure of twenty-two people, including two children, were killed in a Russian airstrike on Sumy on the 8th of March. On the same day, Ukrainian authorities managed to open a “green corridor” to evacuate people from Sumy and several other cities. For Alina and her family, it was the only hope or getting out alive.

Meanwhile, Yan and his team-mates in Turkey, football and promotion was put to the back of their mind. It was all about trying to find somewhere safe where his family could join him.

He and Alina plotted to reunite in Hungary’s capital Budapest, the west of Ukraine.

But Alina needed safety if she was going to go from Sumy and Kharkiv in the north east of Ukraine.

“Yan’s family left Kharkiv on March 2,” Alina says. “It was very difficult because there were still explosions and fighting. They were driving very, very fast to leave the city. There was a risk that the car could be blown up because there were lots of Russian soldiers around. It was his parents and his young brother… and their cat.”

They got out of the city alive, made the journey across Ukraine. Alina discovered six days later when she and her family tried to join the green corridor out of Sumy, that it was very dangerous.

They got out of the city alive and began to make that perilous journey across Ukraine. As Alina discovered six days later, as she and her family tried to join the green corridor out of Sumy, it was an arduous, dangerous journey.

“The first time they opened a green corridor, we couldn’t join because there were so many people — it was getting dark and there were explosions,” she says. “We tried the next day, which was March 8, and there were two corridors: one for private cars and one for buses.

“That day, there was a special route from Sumy to Poltava, another big city. We were very lucky because we were able to spend the night in a hotel. Most people stayed in special camps. Next, we moved on to Kropyvnytskyi, another big city in the centre of Ukraine. We stayed upstairs at a nice old woman’s house. My parents stayed there for some time. It was kind of a safe region.”

At this point, Yan got to Budapest where he and his partner were able to keep each other informed of every movement they were making, still living in the hope they would meet each other again.

“There were no trains, so we didn’t know how I could get there,” Alina says. “We had my parents’ car but they couldn’t drive me to Budapest. In the end, I was lucky because there was an evacuation train to Lviv, near the western border with Poland. It went very quietly in the night with the lights switched off. I went with my niece, who is 18. It was so frightening.”

There was talk that the train was going to be bombed, which explains why they travelled under the cover of darkness.

“We were sitting on the train in complete darkness for maybe 15 hours, trying to hear what was going on,” she says. “It was probably the scariest part of the whole journey.”

The train arrived at Lviv, it is there of the realisation at how many others were trying to cross the border into Poland. Around 1.8 million Ukrainians were estimated to have gone into Poland in the first three weeks of the conflict. Those who were only just arriving in Lviv were being urged to consider other routes. “It was so crowded,” Alina says. “People were standing there for two or three days.”

Alina and her niece moved on to Chop, the last Ukrainian city before the border with Hungary. They got to get a train out of the country and seven days after leaving her parents’ home on the outskirts of Sumy, into Budapest.

“We got there at five in the morning and I was crying because, after that long journey, I was so happy to be with Yan again,” she says. “Yan and his mother were in a hotel in Budapest, so when my niece arrived, there were four of us in a double room with one bed, but it was so nice just to have a shower again after this horrible trip. And we were together again.”

Yan and Alina hoped to stay in Budapest for a few weeks to try to work out their next step but the life of a refugee meant it wasn’t going to be as easy as that, not even being able to see a future for themselves in Hungary made harder when unable to speak the language. So with heavy heart, they said an emotional farewell to Yan’s family and had no choice but to keep moving west: onwards, initially, to Austria.

The Ukrainian refugee footballer rebuilding his life in England's lower  leagues - The Athletic

“First we went to Vienna but there was nowhere for us to live,” Alina says. “We ended up going to Graz. We lived there for about one and a half months. It was while we were in Austria that we learned there might be an opportunity to come to England. We were very happy because Austria is a German-speaking country and, although I studied some German in the past, it’s completely different in real life.

“We learned there was an opportunity to apply for a UK visa but before you can do this, you have to find what they call a sponsor — someone who can provide you with a room or somewhere to stay. There are different websites to help you find sponsors. There was a really big number of British people who wanted to help Ukrainians.”

They got an offer from the Hartley family, based near Droitwich in Worcestershire — not far from Birmingham and were happy with what they saw after pictures were sent showing the happy family and various pets that would been greeting them.

“Oh, and also they told us their daughter goes to school with a girl whose mother came to the UK from Ukraine 10 years ago,” Alina says. “They offered for us to talk to the girl’s mother and — I couldn’t believe it — she used to live very close to where I used to live, and she went to the same university as I did. We talked on the phone with her and she told us, ‘Trust me. I know these people. They are very nice, very good people’.”

Late April, they found out their UK visa application was successful, giving them something to look forward to for the first time in two months.

How to get 1,000 miles from Graz to Worcestershire — “trains, trains, trains,” Alina says with rail companies across Europe allowing free travel for Ukrainian refugees on services where there were places available.

They planned to take a route by train that took them via Cologne, Brussels, Paris and London. After some hiccups, missed connections, nights spent in refugee camps, they took a selfie outside the Louvre in Paris.

“We didn’t have a chance to look around anywhere and we were exhausted — especially Yan, who was carrying the big bags,” Alina says. “And in the end, we got the train from Paris to London to Birmingham to Worcester, where our host kindly collected us.”

“It felt like being in a film,” Alina says. “In Ukraine, when we learn English, we learn about different parts of life here — about the Queen, the weather, the countryside and so on — so we had somehow felt connected to England since our childhood, even though we hadn’t been here before.

“We liked it so much. It’s very green; very, very nice nature. And the people are very, very friendly. When we see some people we don’t know, they always smile. In Ukraine, that doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen to us in other countries we went through.”

The Hartley family gave them all the support that was needed, helped Alina find a job as a liaison officer for the local council, working with refugees.

When Yan arrived in Budapest, he was still feeling confused. Even when they came in the UK in May, the only clothes he had were the kits and tracksuits he had taken to Turkey for the training camp. “No jeans, no normal sneakers, anything,” Alina says.

Some of his former team-mates have been left wondering how they also have now found themselves go from being a footballer to a refugee. Two of them, Kostyantyn Yaroshenko and Konstantin Pikul, signed for Icelandic second-tier club Throttur Reykjavik. Another, midfielder Oleksandr Snizhko, found himself in the Faroe Islands, playing for AB Argir.

Six of his teammates got to Paris and started training with AS Poissy, of Championnat National 2, the regionalised fourth tier — and later was joined by their former coach at Alians, Yuri Yaroshenko — as part of an initiative by the club’s owner Olivier Szewczuk, whose parents are Ukrainian. Szewczuk told Le Parisien in mid-July that it wasn’t going to plan due to a lack of financial assistance, so some footballers moved on.

As for Yan’s club, Alians put their promotion bid on hold of course with the season unable to restart due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. It was decided that two clubs above them, Metalist Kharkiv and Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih, were promoted, while Alians withdrew from the coming season citing “the impossibility of ensuring a safe training and competition process on the territory of the Sumy region, which is subject to artillery shelling from the territory of the aggressor country every day”.

Back in Worcestershire, Mr Hartley tried to help normalize Yan’s life even more, knowing he wanted to return to what he was doing in being a footballer, so called a number of clubs with no idea whether anyone would sign the defender. Mr Hartley even went to the lengths of setting up a conversation with an agent, hoping that might be the best hope of finding a club.

“But nobody could really help because nobody here knows Yan,” Alina says. “We were told no good team wants to sign a player they don’t know. They say in England, there are so many players and it’s very hard to find a club if they don’t know you, and that’s why he started with semi-professional clubs.”

He headed for National League North side Kidderminster Harriers, however training with their under-23s squad didn’t feel right, so then started training at Redditch United in the Southern League Premier Division Central.

This is four tiers below League One, the level which Yan reckons is probably English football’s closest equivalent to the standard in the Ukrainian First League.

“He has played in some friendly games and he is having to get fit again because that was a very, very big gap without playing,” Alina says.

“Five months,” Yan says in English — and in that time, he had to content himself with a couple of improvised solo training sessions on a basketball court in Austria.

“We invited Yan in and you could see straight away that he was talented, but you could also tell that he hadn’t really kicked a ball for a long time,” Redditch manager Matt Clarke tells The Athletic. “He has been with us just over two weeks and he has played in three games. He has got better in every game and every training session.”

Like many clubs in pre-season, Yan wasn’t the only trialist to appear on the team-sheet as Redditch beat Rugby Town 2-0.

Last Tuesday night, Redditch announced that one particular trialist signed for them on a semi-professional basis, subject to gaining international clearance.

As a trialist, Yan played for the club for nothing and when The Athletic spoke a few weeks back, he was unsure if or when that would change. Redditch offered to register him on a short-term, semi-professional basis after his performance — “and we’re expecting him to take that,” Clarke says.

“We know where we are in the league pyramid and we know Yan was playing as a professional at a really good level in Ukraine. He wants to do well for us to catch the eye of one of the professional clubs further up the pyramid. If he can do that by playing well for us, I’ll be delighted.

“The difficulty Yan might have is that when clubs higher up the pyramid look at players from our level, they tend to be looking for younger players. It’s a question of whether clubs higher up will see an older player as a viable option.”

Under the UK government’s “Homes for Ukraine” scheme, refugees are allowed to stay in the country for three years.

Yan and Alina are left in the dark as to how things will play out going forward or if there will be a place to go back to in Ukraine again. While we don’t see scenes from the conflict five months on, the Russian invasion, fighting and airstrikes continue in eastern Ukraine.

“I wish they would leave us alone,” Alina says. “That would be perfect.”

“I understand that not every Russian person is a monster. It would not be reasonable to think that,” she says. “But Yan and I both know a lot of people who live in Russia and they don’t believe us when we tell them what’s going on in our country.

“They say, ‘Oh, really? On the TV, they say something very different, so I don’t know who to believe’ — and they don’t believe us. Even relatives who live in Russia. It’s like they are hypnotised.”

Alina tries to keep away from TV news these days as she finds it too upsetting and doesn’t want to be confronted with constant reminders. Yan however wants to keep updated. “I’m sensitive too,” he says, “but I have to know.”

He spoke on one particular moment he discovered that his old school in Kharkiv has been bombed. “And because when the war started, Yan was in Turkey, then in Hungary, then we were everywhere, I think it’s only more recently that he realised our old life doesn’t exist anymore,” Alina says. “He didn’t want to believe that.”

“In Ukraine, we don’t have a home now,” Yan says. “We have no place to return.”

For now though, they are thankful, pleased they are together, safe, and just taking it day by day under a roof in a protected location for however long it will be.

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