Gryf Who?

What do you know about Gryf Wejherowo? Nothing? Well that is about as much as EKSTRAKLASAreview.co.uk knew before their surprise run to the Puchar Polski Quarter Finals…

A 92nd minute goal from teen sensation Michał Żyro broke their hearts. A three-goal home defeat in the first leg had already cost the tiny club a chance to progress to the Semi Finals, and the chance to play at the 31,000 capacity Pepsi Arena – home to current Ekstraklasa leaders Legia Warszawa – was something that many of the Gryf players had previously never experienced, and are likely never to again. But despite their late disappointment, the small club from the Pomeranian district of Poland have a huge amount to be proud about following their exit from the competition.

Established way back in 1921, the club’s highlights were it’s two spells in the III Liga (now II Liga) during the nineties and early-noughties; and before last season, their only previous major (and “major” may be slightly generous) silverware was the 2004 Pomorski Regional Cup. With a small fan-base – many of the town’s 47,000 inhabitants backing the larger local sides in Gdynia and Gdańsk – Gryf could only dream of competing with clubs in the top flight; but their 91st year was to lead them on a path to a relative Dreamland.

Starting their journey in the last-16 of the Pomorski ZPN Puchar back on May 11th 2011 (all III-Liga clubs joining in after the 2nd round), away wins against Wietcisa Skarszewy, Pogoń Lębork and Bytovia Bytów led Gryf to the two-legged regional final against Gryf 2009 Tczew. But despite their cup run, the club could only manage an eighth-placed finish in the linguistically-challenging III Liga: Grupa Pomorsko-Zachodniopomorska.

Their opponents, recently promoted from the IV Liga, hosted the first tie, where a goal from midfielder Piotr Kołc gave the side from Wejherowo a 1-0 advantage going into the second leg. Tczew took just 18 minutes to even things up in Wejherowo as defender Bartomiej Oleszczuk put through his own net, but a second-half rally saw the home side net four times in 17 minutes putting the tie beyond any doubt. A late consolation salvaged some pride for the visitors, but Gryf Wejherowo lifted the trophy, subsequently gaining entry into the 2011/12 Puchar Polski.

Just three-and-a-half weeks after the culmination of their season, the Stadion WKS Gryf Wejherowo was opening its doors again – this time for the Puchar Polski 1st Qualifying round. Olimpia Grudziądz were riding the crest of a wave after promotion to the I Liga – the highest level in the club’s history. But their 150km trip north to Pomerania proved to be anything other than a formality. A second-half strike from Łukasz Krzemiński in front of 1000 home supporters put the Żółto-Czarni within one round of the competition proper.

Gryf were again paired with another recently promoted side, this time Zawisza Bydgoszcz standing in the way of a historic progression to the 1st round. Despite taking the lead twice, Gryf were pegged back twice by the visitors before the full-time whistle. And when Rafał Piętka put Zawisza in front with eight minutes left on the clock, the Wejherowo dream looked to be over…

But with just seconds left on the referee’s watch, a Gryf free-kick was dropped by the Zawisza keeper, allowing Jarosław Felisiak to smash home and keep the hopes of the 1500 supporters alive. And when the resultant penalty shootout swung in the home side’s favour, the roar of the fans echoed around their corrugated iron stand. They had progressed to the Puchar Polski, but little did they know that their journey was only just beginning.

With little time to rest following a league loss at Gryf Słupsk, Wejherowo were again ready to host Puchar Polski action; the visitors this time, Sandecja Nowy Sącz of the I Liga. Despite a fourth-placed finish in the previous season, Sandecja had struggled to get off to a good start. Picking up only four points from their first four league games, they had undertaken the 750km trip through the heart of Poland in form that was sketchy at best. And when Grzegorz Gicewicz turned in the only goal of the game, despite it being another scalp for the Pomeranians, it wasn’t as much of a surprise.

What the win did for Gryf though, was guarantee them a home tie in the second round against a side from the Ekstraklasa – the first in the club’s long history. When the late-September tie with then-Ekstraklasa leaders Korona Kielce was confirmed, Football Fever hit the small northern town.

After picking up 16 points from a possible 18 in the league following their win against Sandecja, confidence was increasing inside the club ahead of hosting Leszek Ojrzyński’s men; and even though the top-flight side fielded a strong team, Krzystof Wicki’s 24th minute goal was enough to claim the club’s most famous victory ever. It could have even been a more comprehensive victory for Grzegorz Niciński’s men had a second-half free-kick not rebounded off of the crossbar.

With their league form continuing to impress, the Yellow-Blacks were paired with 6-time Puchar winners Górnik Zabrze. The Silesians hadn’t picked up a league victory for almost two-months ahead of the game, and their only victory of any sorts had came in the previous round – against I Liga Dolcan Ząbki. But even with their poor form and slightly-weakened side, Górnik were expected to be the team to finally dispatch of the III Liga club.

The scrappy tie was settled just after the break, when 20-year-old striker Mateusz Toporkiewicz cut inside to fire past veteran keeper Boris Peskovic. With the Ekstraklasa side looking for an equaliser, coach Adam Nawałka strengthened the attack, but it was eventually to no avail. As the final whistle blew, the Gryf players celebrated in the centre circle – as they did after the Korona game – like they had already won the trophy.

Whilst their fantastic run to the Quarter Finals had led many in Poland had become temporary Gryf Wejherowo fans, they also knew that their dream would have to come to an end at some point. Drawing Poland’s form-team Legia Warszawa in the last-eight was likely to be the toughest test that Gryf’s part-time players had ever faced; and with the quarter-final being played over two legs, Gryf were going to have to play away from home – something they hadn’t done in the competition so far.

Before Gryf could make the trip to Warsaw, a strong Legia side made it’s way to Wejherowo; and despite the home side keeping Legia scoreless for 37 minutes, the visitors’ victory never looked in doubt. After lots of early pressure, Legia were rewarded when Tomasz Kiełbowicz’s cross was volleyed home from close range by young striker Michał Żyro.

Just two minutes later, Argentinian striker Ismael Blanco was allowed time to turn in the Gryf area and fire past Wiesaw Ferra to double Legia’s lead; and when Żyro’s run beat the home defence and his shot slipped past the helpless keeper just a minute before the break, everyone knew that the return leg in the capital was likely to be Gryf Wejherowo’s tournament swansong.

Knowing that the trip to the Army Stadium was their chance to exit the tournament with a bang, Gryf’s players more than matched their opponents during the first half. The minnows were finally rewarded after 66 minutes when a rebounded shot fell into the path of midfielder Tomasz Kotwica, whose shot could only be parried into the far corner by Legia keeper Wojciech Skaba.

The vistors clearly had rattled Legia, as the home coach Maciej Skorża was forced to replace striker Nacho Novo with centre-back Jakub Wawrzyniak; and though they couldn’t close the aggregate gap any further, it looked as if Gryf were about to return to Wejherowo with a famous victory over the country’s biggest side in their own back yard.

But before the three minutes of added time could be completed, the travelling fans and players were left deflated as Żyro’s low cross was deflected off of a Yellow-shirted defender and over the head of Ferra for a late Legia equaliser. For all of Gryf’s spirit and determination it wasn’t particularly a deserved equaliser, especially as the Żólte-Czarni had arguably had the better of the game.

When Gryf Wejherowo return to league action on Saturday, Pogoń Barlinek’s Municipal Stadium will be a million-miles away from the scene of their quarter-final heroics. And despite the cup exit disappointment, their concentration must now switch to making up the four points which separate themselves from Kotwica Kołobrzeg at the top of the III Liga. With an extra few złotys in their back pocket and the club’s growing reputation, a return to the II Liga is the ultimate priority.

But maybe when they enter the latter stages of the Pomorski ZPN Puchar on April 11th- less than three weeks away, the small club that no-one had ever heard of can start to plan another assault on the country’s top sides. And should they make it back to the Puchar Polski, it can be assured that no side will take a trip to Wejherowo lightly…

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