Big Trouble in Little Lubin

After a number of recent poor performances, two-time Polish champions Zagłębie Lubin are now starting to see problems off the field as well as on it. Heading into the winter break with just a handful of victories to show from their opening 21 games, both form and morale have hit rock bottom.

Though based in the relatively small Lower Silesian town of Lubin (a population of just over 70,000 makes it the smallest city in Poland to currently support a top-flight club), Zagłębie are backed by one of the world’s largest silver and copper mining corporations, KGHM; and are therefore able to compete against the greater supported sides from Warsaw, Kraków and Poznań. Their sponsorship has also ensured that they have staved off the financial problems which have hit a number of other clubs, including their biggest rivals Śląsk Wrocław.

Even with their relative wealth, Zagłębie are the Ekstraklasa’s perennial underperformers – especially during the first half of the season – and this year is no different. Key players including Maciej Małkowski and Szymon Pawłowski left for pastures new, and were replaced by midfielders who had shown strong performances the previous season. Górnik Zabrze’s Aleksander Kwiek, and both Łukasz Piątek and Miłosz Przybecki from Polonia Warszawa were expected to bolster the Miedziowi’s attack; however a failure to gel quickly enough began to cause problems early on.

It took only two games before the Zagłębie board finally lost faith with Czech boss Pavel Hapal, bringing his two-year spell at the club to an end. His replacement Adam Buczek lasted just two months before retaking his position as assistant coach. Former Sląsk coach Orest Lenczyk took the reins in late September, but as-of-yet has been unable to guide his new club beyond the heady heights of 13th position.

Issues in Attack

With left-winger Małkowski and his opposite Pawłowski on the right providing for Czech striker Michal Papadopulos, Zagłębie’s attack was key in them finishing the 2012/13 season as Poland’s strongest team. But after getting off to a difficult start, a three-point penalty for corruption ultimately prevented a top-half finish. With their wingers’ replacements feeling more at home in the centre of the pitch, the service to Papadopulos from areas which were previously prosperous has been lacking; just one goal in sixteen appearances a stark contrast to his eleven strikes last season.

But whilst Papadopulos can partly blame a lack of service for his ‘Second Season Syndrome’, off-the-field issues also look to prevent him from matching his previous season’s tally.

The day after a 2-0 defeat to league leaders Legia in Warsaw, Papadopulos, along with defender Pavel Vidanov and striker Deniss Rakels, went for dinner in Prague with former team-mate Costa Nhamoinesu. Whilst they were on a day-off, and impeccably behaved, a photograph of the group posted on Facebook enraged both Zagłębie fans, and the club’s management.

Whatever the decision, it is up to the President” said club spokesman Zygmunt Kogut, in reference to any punishment for the three. “However I must say that this is not the time to brag with such public photos. Not with these results”.

Coach Lenczyk also took a dim view on the players’ actions. In additions to fines, the strict disciplinarian also dropped the three from the first team squad – forcing them to play for the second string in a fourth-tier game versus Ilanka Rzepin. Whilst Papadopulos returned to make two, albeit brief substitute appearances, both Vidanov and Rakels have since found themselves unable to even make the bench. Zagłębie have since been heavily reliant on former Ruch striker Arkadiusz Piech, who has scored six times since his return from an ill-fated spell in Turkey, equating to just over a third of the club’s Ekstraklasa goals.

Off-the-pitch Attacks

Since his arrival in Lubin, Robert Jeż hasn’t been in the best of form. Partly aided by the fact that he started the season playing out of position, the former Zilina midfielder has been unable to recreate his performances for Górnik Zabrze; and Zagłębie fans have picked Jeż out as one of the team’s worst performers this season.

Another player singled out by Miedziowi supporters, probably with more justification, is goalkeeper Michał Gliwa. A number of high-profile errors by the former Polonia Warszawa stopper have cost Zagłębie points, and also ensured his position in numerous “Worst Team of the Week” lists.

Latvian youth international Rakels is yet another who has also not lived up to hype – earned last season whilst on a loan spell at second-tier GKS Katowice. In addition to the trip to Prague and his disappoiting showings, the former Brighton trialist was kicked out of the Latvian under 21 squad after celebrating a victory against Liechtenstein with a night out drinking.

However their performances, or their off-the-pitch behaviours, do not condone the actions of a small number of thugs, who waited for the three players to return from a training session before violently attacking them.

Gliwa – the luckier of the three – saw his BMW pelted with bricks and stones, causing thousands of złotys worth of damage. Jeż and Rakels were not afforded the same fortunes, as they were savagely beaten.

In front of my house, two men approached and started to beat me” said the Slovakian international, sporting visible wounds from the cowardly attack. “Something was said, but I did not understand what. I tried first of all to protect my head. Everything happened very quickly. I have several bumps – the worst looks like a bruise under the eye. As soon as my wife saw me, she started to cry.”

The club understandably condemned the assaults; issuing a statement the next day:

…the Board of Zagłębie Lubin SA wishes to express regret over what happened. We condemn all forms of aggression, and we believe that law enforcement authorities will soon identify the perpetrators, and they alone will not escape punishment for crimes which they have committed. club cooperates with the police in order to clarify both issues.”

The club’s fan groups also showed their disapproval; distancing themselves from the attackers:

We would like to emphasize that we do not accept any forms of violence, and we condemn them. We understand the bitterness of the fans, and each of them has the right to present their displeasure. But these situations should not exceed certain, acceptable behaviour”.

Whilst Gliwa has since returned to action, both Jeż and Rakels have not pulled on an orange shirt since – and look unlikely to again. That however is the least of the club’s problems at the moment, as despite both club and fans being quick in their condemnation, the most important say in the matter fell to the club’s backers KGHM, who issued a stark warning:

When doing something consistently for many years, it’s hard to give it up later at the spur of the moment. Therefore, we have not yet made any sudden movements, and have just asked for an explanation. We do not want to do anything emotionally, even though I will not hide the fact that we follow these events with concern, and look forward to their development. If all this is somehow not taken care of, and there is not a plan to repair the general situation at the club, we will take some steps to change the state of affairs. We will give the club’s authorities a few days, and then we’ll see”.

A Zagłębie Lubin not backed by the mining giants would be something not seen since well into the days of communism; and would certainly spell disaster for the small-town club. But whilst the threat of pulling out has been hinted at, it looks unlikely that things would escalate so far. The real, and most imminent threat to Zagłębie lies in their poor form and low morale.

The club is no stranger to turning around their fortunes in spring, having done it successfully on more than one occasion in recent seasons. However with only nine games of the regular season remaining after the long winter break, they will need a miracle to drag themselves out of the bottom eight; and when the points tallies are halved, just a couple of losses could see any of the relegation group dragged into a survival scrap.

Whether Lenczyk has the ability to not only turn results around, but to also improve the atmosphere in a squad which has been steadily declining, will be a big factor in deciding Zagłębie’s fate come the end of the season. With the coach already declaring that no player’s future at the club is certain, it seems that massive changes lie ahead for the club from Lower Silesia; but with just nine points from his twelve games in charge, you have to wonder how safe his job is too.

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