Ząbki isn’t particularly known for its football. In fact, outside of Poland it is barely known at all. With a population of around 30,000, the Masovian town tacks onto the northeastern side of the Polish capital Warsaw, connected by a minor train line and a couple of buses. Until recently the local club Dolcan Ząbki languished in the lower leagues, but this season sees them fighting to join their local rivals Polonia and Legia in the Ekstraklasa for the very first time.
Formerly known as Ząbkovia Ząbki, the club took the name of Dolcan – a local construction company – whose owner ploughed his money into the club back in 1994, when they were stuck in the Polish third tier. But by the summer of 1996, Dolcan had already managed promotion to the second tier’s Grupa Wschodnia (Eastern Division) for the first time in their history. Though finishing seventeenth in their first season, a return back to the III Liga was quickly assured.
Promotion back to the second level in 2000 brightened up things in Ząbki, but again it was short lived; after being once more relegated at the first attempt, a second successive relegation saw Dolcan in the fourth tier by the 2002/03 season.
Between 2005 and 2007 a yoyo-ing period set in as the club went up, down and back up again between the third and fourth tiers, but on their return to the third tier for the 2007/08 campaign, Dolcan smashed forward and into the newly-rebranded Pierwsza Liga as Champions of Group 1 – back into the second tier after an eight-year absence.
Whilst their first season back resulted in a top-half finish, Dolcan were quick to establish a routine of lower-table finishes and relegation battles. Because of this they understandably were singled out as one of the clubs to be staring down the barrel of the Pierwsza Liga gun as the 2012/13 season came around, and with thirteen points from their opening thirteen games, yet another season battling the drop looked to be ahead.
On the 3rd November, a 1-0 home win over Okocimski Brzesko looked to be anything but special. Last season’s Druga Liga Wschodnia champions were stuck well in the relegation zone with just two wins from their fourteen outings – to beat them was nothing short of expected by the Ząbki faithful. However the run that was to follow came as much more of a surprise.
Wins away at Arka Gdynia and at home to GKS Katowice may have been dampened by a 3-2 loss at Miedź Legnica on the last day of Autumn, but with a little strengthening during the winter break, boss Robert Podoliński assembled a side ready to take the league by storm.
Podoliński picked up Legia youngster Mateusz Cichocki to help strengthen the back line; and whilst 25 year-old midfielder Robert Chwastek found his way to an Ekstraklasa relegation battle with Ruch Chorzów, Paweł Sasin and Bartosz Wiśniewski were brought in as replacements from ŁKS Łódź and Sandecja Nowy Sącz respectively. Reports in December also suggested that former Manchester City, Schalke and Belgian international striker Emile Mpenza was set to join the club, although the rumours were quickly rubbished by Dolcan’s president Jerzy Szczęsny.
And it seems that Mpenza wasn’t needed… Since the break, Dolcan have netted seventeen times in their seven games (also picking up an extra three goals in their walkover of ŁKS), whilst only conceding a brace against Kolejarz Stróże. After wins against Cracovia, Olimpia Grudziądz and Zawisza Bydgoszcz to name but a few, their seven-game winning streak has catapulted them from 12th position to they heady-heights of third – just a couple of points shy of the promotion places.
Top-scorer Mateusz Piątkowski has hit the back of the net on twelve occasions this term, putting him in second place in the Pierwsza Liga scoring charts, whilst his strike partners Dariusz Zjawiński and Maciej Tataj have chipped in with nine between them. A further nineteen goals have come from elsewhere on the pitch, with their total of 43 goals second only to Zawisza’s 45.
Changes at the club haven’t only come on the playing side in recent months either. This season the club’s colours and logo have been altered – switching from their red and blue and their mish-mashed logo to a luminous green shirt, and a more streamlined green and purple crest.
Dolcan’s 2-0 victory over GKS Katowice in November also saw the inauguration of the impressive new South Stand at the Stadion Dolcanu Ząbki. White and adorned with lime green stripes on the outside, the new construction has been a good luck charm for Dolcan, who have netted fourteen in front of it without conceding once.
Bearing slight similarities to the situation at Cardiff City, some fans may have been annoyed at the change in attire, and still sport the club’s traditional colours. However the changes have coincided with the club’s most successful spell ever – and many fans will be happy to see the residential developers strengthen their links to the football club.
But whilst Cardiff may already find themselves in the English top flight, there is still a long road ahead for the club from the outskirts of Warsaw if they harbour ambitions of reaching the Ekstraklasa – starting with their next two games.
This Sunday sees Robert Podoliński’s side travel south to Małopolska to face Pierwsza Liga leaders Termalica Bruk-Bet Nieciecza, whilst they host Autumn Champions Flota Świnoujście just one week later. In the coming weeks Dolcan also face tough trips to Upper Silesia to face GKS Tychy and GKS Katowice, whilst promotion chasers Miedź Legnica and a rejuvenated Arka Gdynia also still need to visit Ząbki. And even if they do manage to finish the season in the promotion spots, there will still likely need to be more modernisation carried out to the stadium in order to make it ready to host top-flight games.
But whilst many are fixated on the rise of Dolcan Ząbki – including many top flight clubs looking to poach their players in the summer, coach Podoliński will be telling his players to take it one game at a time. For Dolcan Ząbki are now the Pierwsza Liga’s “team to beat”, and there will be no easy games ahead.