WHEN others had a school trip to the museum, or on a good day the Roman Wall, the Durham Johnston School class of 1990 went on an exchange visit to Russia.

How could they ever forget? “It was before the internet really kicked in,” recalls Andy Potts, then 14. “I spent all nine days wondering how Sunderland had got on. When we got back, they’d lost to Huddersfield in the League Cup.”

The trip, organised by an imaginative French teacher who’d started a Russian group, made a huge impression, nonetheless. “It was a real culture shock. I’d not been to many places outside northern England, never mind Russia.”

In 2006 Andy moved to Moscow, spent almost a decade there, returned with a Russian wife and – timed perfectly for the World Cup, which kicks off today – enough material for a book on his travels through Russian football.

The perception, he writes, was that watching football in the former Soviet Union was not for civilised people. “For casual observers, Russian footballers looked like a collection of overpaid show ponies – now including second-rate foreigners – hired by corrupt teams to play in semi-derelict stadiums in front of crowds of violent hooligans.

“Like all preconceptions about Russia, it contained an element of truth while simultaneously being wide of the mark.”

Eye-opening and highly entertaining, the e-book’s called Snow on the Seats and is available from Amazon.

RUSSIA'S first captain in a representative match – they beat Norway 3-0 in 1913 – was Billy Charnock, who seven years earlier had played for Bishop Auckland in the FA Amateur Cup final.

Born in Russia into a Lancastrian mill owning family with extensive interests in the east, Charnock spent two seasons with the Bishops while studying electrical and mechanical engineering at Durham University.

Forced to flee Russia during the 1917 revolution, he also played cricket for Lancashire II and was reckoned an outstanding ice skater and tennis player.

Played at Stockton, the 1906 final against Oxford City, 3-0 winners, was held up for ten minutes because of a blizzard. They had snow on the seats in Stockton, too, and that was March 24.

THOUGH Andy Potts returned to Russia in 1991 and 1992 – “my parents thought the experience improving” – his degree is in music. “It rendered me seemingly unemployable,” he says. “Journalism was the only thing left.”

He edited Spennymoor United’s programme, worked for a press agency in Bishop Auckland, earned his first by-line on reports of Tow Law’s indelible FA Vase final in 1998.

“I was doing running reports for the Sunderland Echo but no one had thought to organise a phone. I kept on dashing out the back to a call box. Guess where I was when the only goal went in?”

He got a job on the Basildon Evening Echo, left in 2006 to teach English in Moscow – “I told my mother it was six hours from Durham to Southend and only seven from Newcastle to Moscow” – became website editor of the Moscow News and wrote chiefly about ice hockey.

“Most English speaking journalists in Moscow wrote about oil or politics,” he says. “The prospect of writing about politics and getting a knock on the door in the middle of the night concerned me.”

It’s a strand more sedulously pursued in last week’s Spectator. “Putin’s ruthless crackdown on opposition voices in Russia’s once-vigorous media and parliament have created a silence that sounds to many like stability.”

Andy stayed until 2015, formed a particular affection for Moscow Dynamo – their training ground was dominated by a large picture of legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin in action during a 1966 World Cup match at Roker Park.

He returned with wife Laura – “her English a lot better than my Russian” – chiefly because they didn’t fancy raising a family in an eighth floor apartment.

“I’d only gone for the first academic year,” he says. “I stayed, quite simply, because I was enjoying myself.”

HE became accustomed to match journeys across several time zones, though nothing like the fans of Baltika Kaliningrad, on Russia’s western fringes. In March this year they faced a 13,000-mile round trip to Luch Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan. The match ended goalless.

Andy had a similar experience, and the same score, flying through two time zones to Amkar Perm. “And to think,” he says, “that Newcastle United fans complain about having to go to Swansea.”

Laura has a job at Durham Cathedral, Andy still essays occasional journalism – this year’s Olympics and world ice hockey championships – but insists that he’s mainly a househusband.

Alicia’s 20 months, raised bilingually, joins her dad for a Wetherspoons breakfast in Durham. Porridge on toast is presumably a Russian thing.

The pub, more predictably – “dive in, studs up” – is offering a range of World Cup beers. The Russian one looks like it’s called Bollika, but the light’s a bit dim up on the balcony.

That Spectator piece had also highlighted the country’s economic problems, supposing that the World Cup offered opportunity to showcase a new and vibrant Russia – not least the 11 stadiums built or completely refurbished to house almost 600,000 foreign visitors.

The Times in turn reports that Russia’s “top crime boss” has been warned to keep his muggers and pickpockets off the streets for the duration. “President Putin wants to use the World Cup to promote his image of Russia as a powerful and successful country,” it adds,

Andy agrees. “You could argue that Putin is a sort of motif for the World Cup, like World Cup Willie – I might be far enough away to say that. They brought the torch to Russia via a space station and the deepest trench in the ocean. That was brilliant.”

So what can go wrong? “It’s not greatly challenging but Russia could still go out at the group stage and drunken supporters could wreck the fan zone as they did in 2002.”

What of Russian football’s reputation for violence and racism? “I think there’ll be a lot of self-policing. I’d be very surprised if there’s a repeat of what happened in Marseilles two years ago.

“Russia has a very large cohort of men in uniform who can be sent out to stand on every street corner and who look even more intimidating than Russian football fans.

“It’s about legacy, as FIFA keep on reminding us. I believe that it can be a really positive experience.”

SNOW on the Seats has little mention of the weather, almost none of music – though one anthem’s compared to a Bonnie Tyler B-side – but returns irresistibly to Sunderland.

Eduard Streitsov, a Russian legend, is supposed to have been more Shackleton than Pele, a querulous crowd to have been grumpier than Clock Stand ingrates.

It was one of those goalless draws, however, which prompted thoughts of the first Sunderland manager he remembers. “Alan Durban famously dismissed critics of his dour playing style by suggesting that if they wanted entertainment they should go to the circus. The same could be said of Amkar Perm.”

The book supposes that the tide of recent events – Salisbury, Crimea, the Malaysian plane crash – has been so overwhelming that “the usual pre-championship horror stories have been relatively mute.”

Can Putin pull it off? “”There are signs that hosting the World Cup is beginning to change attitudes,” Andy writes.

“Mother Russia, the Tsarina of the grand spectacle, will surely deliver a summer show.”