Located 160km from Warsaw and 40km from Łódź, the small town of Bełchatów isn’t the most fashionable town in Poland. With a history of coal-mining in the area, Bełchatów is now more well-known due to its massive Power Station – situated 10km south of the town – rather than its top-flight sports team. In fact, when the power station – the largest of its kind in Europe, and third biggest in the world – was built in 1982, GKS Bełchatów were merely a young club, only just making their way out of the regional leagues for the first time.
Even after the financial backing of the energy giants PGE (the power station’s owner) after the club were promoted to the Ekstraklasa in 2005, the Brunatni struggled to attract top players; many preferring to join clubs in the bigger cities.
As this season’s Ekstraklasa entered its long winter break, just two points separated Bełchatów from the relegation spots; and it was only one further point which they distanced themselves from bottom club Zagłębie Lubin – a club similar to GKS due to their large sponsors and small fan-base. But whilst both were suffering similar problems, their transfer policies are both very different. Over the recent years, Zagłębie have been known to try and bring in proven players (not always successfully) to strengthen; however, GKS generally try to bring youth into the squad and blend it together with a number of less-than fashionable or unknown players, to create a side capable of maintaining a place in the top flight.
By continuing to invest in this way, over the years the club has helped to propel Mateusz Cetnarski and Janusz Gol onto better things, whilst also plucking players such as Dawid Nowak and Tomasz Wróbel from relative obscurity and giving them a respectable Ekstraklasa career.
Despite going into the break hovering precariously over the drop zone, boss Kamil Kiereś vowed not to change the policy that has worked well for the club since their most recent promotion. Even though their winter spending was amongst the highest in the Ekstraklasa, Bełchatów have still refrained from splashing cash on expensive, proven top-flight players.
Instead, Kiereś looked at strengthening from the lower leagues; and the majority of his budget went towards beating both Wisła Kraków and Legia Warszawa to the signing of Ruch Radzionków’s highly rated 20-year-old twin brothers Mateusz and Michał Mak. Attacker Michał had impressed by netting 7 times during the autumn round, whilst midfielder Mateusz had also chipped in with four goals; 2 coming in his final game – Radzionków’s 2-1 local derby win at Polonia Bytom.
GKS again raided Radzionków just a few weeks later to sign their 22-year-old midfielder Paweł Giel, before turning their attention to II-Liga Kluczbork for defender Maciej Wilusz.
Although Wilusz and Giel have worked during the winter friendlies to force their way into Bełchatów’s starting line-up (Wilusz has played 180 minutes, whilst Giel played 90) they will both take time to adjust to life in the top-flight. The Mak brothers have still yet to spend any significant time on the pitch in their opening two games; but Kiereś didn’t bring them to the club to have them warm the bench, and rest assured they will also have a part to play this season.
GKS’s opening two games of 2012 have seen them pick up an encouraging four points (a win away at Lech Poznań, and a 1-1 draw with ten men at home to Górnik Zabrze) to edge themselves further away from the bottom-two. And although they will face tougher tests in the upcoming weeks when they face Polonia, Wisła, Legia and Śląsk; GKS still have fixtures against all of the teams around and below them, which they will see as more-than-winnable. Although they are likely to go through a difficult spell, their last four games see them face the bottom three sides; and if their difficult run can be cut short, they could even be pushing past mid-table come the end of the season.
Unfortunately, even if Kiereś can continue the work of Orest Lencyzk, Paweł Janas and Rafał Ulatowski before him in maintaining the Bełchatów model for top-flight football, it is unlikely that the club will reach the dizzying heights of second-place – like they did under Lenczyk in 2007 – in the near future. Their reputation for nurturing youth talent is forever growing, but their small fan-base and infrastructure means that it is unlikely they’ll become anything more than a great feeder club.