A rising force in Polish football
A rising force in Polish football
Lechia Gdansk – A rising force in Polish football
By Alex Burridge
Ahead of the European Championships we took a look at a club given a major boost by the last staging of the continent’s biggest tournament.
The Northern Polish city of Gdansk is probably most famous as the birthplace of the country’s Solidarity movement which led to the rise to power of local hero Lech Walesa and the end of communism in the country.
Situated on the Baltic coast and formerly known as Danzig, the city has a rich and varied history dating back to the 10th century and since the Middle Ages it has been a major shipbuilding area. Nowadays, Gdansk whilst retaining its position as a major shipping port has also evolved into a popular tourist destination alongside neighbours Gdynia and the spa town of Sopot.
After Poland and Ukraine were jointly awarded the 2012 European Championships, work began on construction of the Baltic Arena, an excellent stadium with a capacity of over 43,000. The stadium is owned by the city of Gdansk and after opening in 2011, staged four games at the Euros. It is regularly used for international matches most recently in a 2-1 loss to The Netherlands prior to the Euros’. It has also staged concerts by the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Bon Jovi and Justin Timberlake.
Now called the Stadion Energa Gdansk, Lechia have been tenants at the new stadium since their debut there, a 1-1 draw with Cracovia, at the start of the 2011-2012 season.
Lechia Gdansk, formed by people expelled from Lwow who were supporters of the country’s oldest football team Lechia Lwow (founded in 1904) started life as BOP Baltia Gdansk in 1945. Within three years they had changed their name to Lechia and been promoted to the ‘Ekstraklasa’ (Polish First Division). In the intervening years there have been numerous name changes and two trips to the depths of Division Three. High points included a third-place finish in 1956 and, in 1983, victory in the Polish Cup followed by a Super Cup win the following season. The Cup success saw their thus far only venture into Europe. But it was a short-lived foray with a 10-2 aggregate hammering by eventual winners Juventus in the first round.
Since then the club’s fortunes have been chequered to say the least with various unsuccessful mergers and more bouncing between divisions. The latest rise to the top flight occurred in 2008 and they have since, under the control of a Swiss/German investment group which also has links to German clubs Viktoria Koln and Lokomotive Leipzig, established themselves as a greater force in the top flight.
The current season started with Thomas von Heesen at the helm, the German having taken over from former Polish international Jerzy Brzeczek as the campaign got underway. However, despite a talented line-up, the team struggled in the early stages and von Heesen was relieved of his duties in December. First team coach Dawid Banaczek took over for six weeks until former Polish national team captain Piotr Nowak took the helm with the club in some danger of yet another relegation.
Lechia’s form following the winter break was a revelation. Working with the same squad of players, Nowak produced an excellent turnaround as the club surged up the table. Having looked sure to finish in the relegation section when the league split into two for the final stages, the upturn in form enabled them to make the top half of the table and compete in the ‘Championship’ section.
With half of the points from the first part of the season, the White-Greens were still languishing at the foot of the top section as the season headed toward the closing stages. But Nowak’s tactical expertise and the confidence gained from avoiding the relegation scrap spurred the team on and their form improved so much that they faced the final two matches with a slim chance of ending the season with a Europa League place as reward for their improved form.
The penultimate game of the season, and the final game of the campaign at the Stadion Energa, saw Lechia go head-to-head with champions-elect Legia Warsaw. Legia still needed points to secure the title but they were comprehensively outplayed by Nowak’s men who ran out 2-0 winners in front of a season-high crowd of 22,415.
This meant that a final-day win at Cracovia would bring the return of European football to Gdansk, but sadly that game proved a result too far and they slipped to a disappointing 2-0 defeat.
However, that second half of the season will have brought renewed hope that Gdansk can finally have a team to be reckoned with, and one that can bring the regular European football their marvellous stadium deserves.
The Coach. A double gamble
By Vince Cooper
After the mystifyingly disappointing start under von Heesen, the powers-that-be at the club decided that a change was needed. The German, twice a Bundesliga champion and a European Cup winner as a player with Hamburg, had forged a decent career as a coach in Germany, Austria and Cyprus and it is impossible to pinpoint the reasons why the team performed so poorly in his brief reign.
As his replacement the club took something of a gamble, appointing Piotr Nowak who had never coached in Europe before and had not worked in his homeland for 26 years.
Nowak, captain of the Polish national team in the early 90s, had played in Turkey, Switzerland, Germany and the US, earning himself a fine reputation as a playmaker before switching to management in Major League Soccer and having excellent success with DC United and the US Olympic team, whilst also working as Bob Bradley’s with the US National team.
Nowak returned to club management with expansion team Philadelphia Union but after a promising start, the club ran into financial difficulties and after a number of disputes with the club’s hierarchy he was relieved of his duties.
In early 2014 Nowak was appointed as technical advisor to the President of the Caribbean Football Union and later that year he took over as Head coach of Antigua and Barbuda, taking the tiny islands into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings for the first time in their football history.
Just as the move to appoint Nowak might have been seen as something of a gamble, the 51-year-old admits that it he took time to think things over before agreeing to move back.
“I admit, I had some doubts about coming back after 26 years away”, said Nowak. “But I came over, saw the infrastructure, the facilities, the stadium and I just felt that there was so much potential here”.
So, Nowak signed, a one-year rolling contract. And results quickly improved. Why? “I looked at the players, watched them in training and in some matches and I could see that the talent was there in the squad.
“What was lacking was confidence and self-belief.
“I didn’t come in asking for new players, I was happy to work with this squad and to find a way to get the best from them”.
To do that, Nowak felt he needed to change the system, something the players didn’t automatically buy into. “some of them had doubts”, he says about the switch to 3-5-2. “They weren’t convinced that it could work in Poland, but I managed to win them over and get them to change their approach, both to the new system and in their attitude on and off the pitch”.
That change started the day he took control: ‘I told them from day one that we have a new start. That we have hopes that our way will work. And that if we stick to the path we choose we can make something special, for everyone”.
One of many subtle changes Nowak instigated was to ensure that the players interacted with each other, “There were groups within the group, so I tried to ensure that all mixed with all”, he recalls. “I wanted to create a culture of trust; trust in me, in each other, and in the system”.
When the season resumed after the winter break it was clear that the changes were having a positive effect. Results improved and confidence was rebuilt. Changes in the system were also accompanied by role changes for certain players. The hugely talented Milos Krasic, once of Juventus, had been a peripheral figure in many games. Employed out wide as he had been throughout his career, the 31-year-old Serb was effective only sporadically and Nowak felt there was a chance to get more. “I suggested he moved inside where he could affect the game more”, says the coach. “He said ‘coach, I can’t play inside’. We tried it for half a game against St Pauli and he said ‘I love it’ and he is like a new player”.
There were bumps in the road, but even there Nowak adopted a different approach. “We won our first game after the break 5-0 but then lost 4-2 at Korona”, he recalls. “I went into the dressing room after the game and everybody was down. I didn’t shout, didn’t criticise. I just said that everyone, even the best, has bumps in the road. We have to accept that we made mistakes and get over it. One of the players – Flávio Paxaio – said they were expecting a hammering, but I know that we need to create a culture of belief, in our system and in each other, if we want to succeed.
“Now they believe, and feel they are going to win every game, and even when they don’t they know that as long as they maintain that belief they have more chance of success”.
Of course, there is still room for improvement, a point Nowak takes on board. “We have to raise the bar even higher, expect more from ourselves”, he says. “Our mentality in away games needs to be better and we have to continue to build on the culture of success we have started.
“But I have never seen a team that in three months went from no confidence to believing they are going to win every game so I am sure these guys can go to another level”.
Tactically, whilst believing that the 3-5-2 system he has installed is the foundation for Lechia’s continued success, Nowak appreciates that flexibility is a key factor in the team’s ability to continue progressing. “We have a system and it works, but we need to keep our flexibility”, says the coach. “I remember hearing Arrigo Sacchi once say ‘We might start with 4-4-2 but we have to be able to finish a match 6-4-0 if that is what it needs’ and the players need to have the adaptability to plan for one system but be prepared to change on the fly”.
The big question now is; can Lechia sustain the momentum built last season and challenge at the pinnacle of Polish football, and perhaps even more? “I believe in these players”, says Nowak. “And I know they believe in me and in each other. We will make some small additions in the summer but the important thing is to keep the group together and see how far we can go. I am excited about the future”.
These are exciting times in Gdansk; a vibrant city, a fantastic stadium and now, a team that might well do both justice. The future is bright, it might well be Green and White!
As the club looks to grow and transform into one that regularly makes European competition we give the low-down on the main players hoping to make that happen.
Serbian under-19 international Vanja Milinković-Savić is the clubs current number 1 after earning that title off Marko Marić. The Serb is perhaps best known for his brief time spent at Manchester United who he signed for in 2014. It was a frustrating time for the youngster which mostly involved waiting for a work permit which he eventually failed to attain. He was released by the club in November of last year and signed a 4 and a half year deal with Lechia. He cemented his place as the number 1 at the turn of the year. Despite his age, the 19 year old stands tall at 6ft 8 and possesses all the attributes to develop into a top keeper. Marko Marić who is on loan from Hoffenheim is also an u19 international for his nation Croatia. The 20 year old found first team opportunities hard to come by at the German club and was loaned out at the start of the season. Originally the clubs number 1 he lost that spot after the arrival of Milinković-Savić.
Mario Maloca has been described by coach Piotr Nowak as his ‘rock’ and is the heart of a 3 man defence. The Croatian who has been capped at all levels by his country signed last summer after falling out of the starting 11 at his former club Hadjuk Split. Tall, strong and comfortable in possession, the Croatian is one of the key members of the squad and makes up part of the strong spine of the side.
Operating on the left side of the back 3 is the veteran defender Jakub Wawrzyniak. The Polish international who has been capped 43 times signed in January of last year after a brief spell with Russian club Amkar Prem. Known as a character on and off the field, he has been a regular starter since joining and adds experience to the side.
Another seasoned pro find himself on the other side of the back 3 in the form of Grzegorz Wojtkowiak. Capped 23 times for Poland, Wojtkowiak also joined in the same window as Wawrzyniak from German club 1860 Munich. He is best known for his time spent at Lech Poznan with who he reached a Polish Cup final in 2009, he also captained the side in his final season.
Another regular face in the defence is that of Rafal Janicki. The 23 year old joined the club at the age of 18 and has made an impressive 148 appearances in the Ekstraklasa in a 6 year period. Operating in the centre of the back 3, he has recently lost his starting place to Maloca but remains a vital member of the squad.
Brazillian Gerson Guimares is a versatile member of the squad as he can operate in both the central defensive and defensive midfielder roles. A physical powerhouse and a threat from set pieces, he has made 29 league appearances since joining the club last year.
Another player making up the young group of the squad is Pawel Stolarski, the 20 year old has been capped for Poland at u19 level. After joining the club from Wisla Krakow he has been sporadically used but looks a promising young defender for the future.
Piotr Nowak is known to use a 3-5-2 formation and operating in the pivotal defensive midfield role is Aleksandar Kovačević. The Serbian joined from Red Star Belgrade last year and is known for his tireless work ethic in the centre of midfield.
Used on the right side of midfield for the majority this season, Michal Chrapek is a former Polish u21 international. After a disappointing season long spell at Italian club Catania, Chrapek is looking to get his career back on track and was another one of the large number of players to join the club last summer.
The well-travelled Slawomir Peszko operates on the left side of midfield and like many who play wide in today’s football, favours cutting inside on his favoured foot. Peszko is one of the more experienced members of the side, at 32 he has had spells in both Germany and England with Koln and Wolves. He has also been capped 33 for the national team since debuting in 2008 and, along with defender Wawrzyniak, was included in the country’s Euro 2016 squad. Peszko provided one of the moments of the season for Lechia as his sensational 25 yard volley nestled in the top corner in a 2-0 win over eventual champions Legia.
Perhaps the most experienced member of the squad is the well-respected Sebastian Mila. A pivotal figure in the National side since his debut in 2003, he is best known for his goal which sealed a 2-0 victory over the current World Champions Germany, which was also Poland’s first ever victory over their rivals. Although now 33 and not blessed with great physical attributes, Mila is very good technically and one of the best passers at Lechia’s disposal. Used mostly as an attacking midfielder, Mila has been an ever present member of the side since signing in January 2015.
Without a doubt the most easily recognisable of all the players is Milos Krasic. The star man was once compared to the great Pavel Nedved during his time with Juventus, with who he won the Serie A title. There is no doubt his career has took a downturn since those days but the former Serbian international still possess wonderful technical ability and is capable of producing moments of brilliance. Previously in his career he was mainly used as a winger/wide midfielder but Piotr Nowak has recognised he isn’t as quick as he used to be and has deployed him in the number 10 role in which he has thrived. The club will hope to hold on to his services as he is certain to be a very important player for them in years to come.
Winger Flávio Paixão was signed from fellow Polish side Śląsk Wrocław in January after an impressive couple of years. Mainly deployed wide on the right, the Portuguese can also play through the middle or as a second striker. He has enjoyed a good start to his career in Gdansk, netting 6 times so far. His twin brother Marco also joined in January but has found it difficult to maintain a first team place, with only 3 appearances.
Another promising youngster in the squad is 19 year old Adam Buksa. He has found a starting role difficult to cement at club level however, he has been capped 3 times for the u19 national team, scoring 2 goals.
Grzegorz Kuświk is the man charged with leading the line for the side. The Pole has spent his whole career in his native country and moved to Lechia last summer after a spell at Ruch Chorzów. Kuświk provides a strong physical presence up top and has benefitted from the service of both Krasic and Paixao, bagging 11 Ekstraklasa goals since joining.
Gdansk: The City
Situated at the northern tip of the country, on the Baltic coast is Poland’s main shipping port, Gdansk. Yet to simply regard it as a shipping port is disrespectful, it is a city that has played a pivotal part in its Nations history.
Formally known as Danzig between the two world Wars, the city of Gdansk is perhaps best known worldwide as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement. It is rather symbolic that the movement started in the shipyards of the city, for what it was most previously well known for. In 1980, whilst at the time still under Soviet Rule, an electrician named Lech Wałęsa became a trade union activist and started Solidarity, the Eastern Bloc’s first independent trade union. Arrested numerous times, the former electrician continued to campaign against the soviet rule and made history with a number of agreements and deals alike all in the pursuit of his peoples essential freedom.
Wałęsa would go on to become an inspirational figure worldwide for his efforts, winning the 1983 Noble Peace Prize and becoming President of Poland after the fall of the communism. He overlooked Poland’s transition into a post-communist state and was in office until late 1995. As of today Wałęsa remains a key figure in Poland’s history and still continues to provide lectures on politics and other subjects at home and abroad.
Gdansk makes up one third of the Tricity, the other two cities being Gdyina and the spa town of Sopot. With an overall population of over 1 million people, the Tricity is a fast growing metropolis and an ever increasing popular tourist spot. With an average temperature of 21 degrees in the late summer months coupled with some beautiful beaches in the Sopot region, it’s easy to see why many Brits are making the short 2 hour journey to the area.
Gdansk makes up the main part of the Tricity and the main town area possesses some wonderful sights and an atmosphere that seems different from the rest of the Country. The cobbled streets are home to some distinctively un-Polish architecture influenced by the presence of wealthy merchants over the course of the city’s rich history.
Some of the main sights to behold include Neptune’s Fountain, located in the centre of the long market, the city most famous street. Although renovated over the years, the fountain was originally completed in 1633 and has stood in the same spot for almost 400 years. St. Mary’s Church which is one of the largest brick churches in the World, also finds its home there. A true symbol of the city ever since its erection, it continues to be one of the main attractions of Gdansk.
Like its Football team, Gdansk is on the rise. Economically boosted by the EURO’s in 2012 the city hasn’t looked back since and continues to grow into one of Eastern Europe’s main tourist destinations. A city with a rich history and culture situated in a beautiful part of the world, the future looks bright for Gdansk and Lechia alike.