2013: A Bad Year to be an Ekstraklasa Manager

2013: A bad year to be an Ekstraklasa Manager

“The dismissal of Jan [Urban] is a step forward. For him, too. Even though we parted ways, I still believe he is the best coach in Poland”.

While Bogusław Leśnodorski, president of reigning Ekstraklasa champions Legia Warszawa, may have kind words for his side’s former coach; Jan Urban’s dismissal was on the cards for a number of weeks before the axe was finally swung at the end of Poland’s Autumn round. Replaced by former Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers defender Henning Berg, the sacking of the former Polonia Bytom and Zagłębie Lubin coach has continued a worrying trend of Ekstraklasa clubs changing their managers with the slightest whiff of failure.

Of the sixteen clubs currently plying their trade in Poland’s top flight, twelve of them finished 2013 with a different man at the helm than they started the year with. Of the four coaches which remain, only Wojciech Stawowy – boss of recently-promoted Cracovia – seems safe in his position: Mariusz Rumak (Lech Poznań), Marcin Brosz (Piast Gliwice), and Stanislav Levy (Śląsk Wrocław) all disappointing both fans and board with their respective clubs’ performances this season.

2013 was barely three days old before Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała dismissed Marcin Sasal, after only nine weeks in charge. Over the next twelve months, a further fifteen managerial changes would contribute to the shaping of the Ekstraklasa table heading into 2014.

As expected, the clubs who change their manager repeatedly over a short period have fared the worst over the last calendar year. Since Sasal’s exit at Podbeskidzie, a further three managers have taken charge of the club. Dariusz Kubicki lasted just over two months before moving to Russia; and after maintaining their Ekstraklasa status on the final day, Czesław Michniewicz found himself out of work by October. Now led by Leszek Ojrzyński, the Górale again find themselves languishing in the bottom two once.

Blighted by off-the-field issues, big-spending Zagłębie Lubin now find themselves on not only their third coach of the year, but of the season too. Pavel Hapal’s inability to unite the dressing room cost him his job after just two games of the current campaign. Assistant Adam Buczek took charge for just 59 days before 70 year-old Orest Lenczyk was brought in to lift them up the table. More poor performances, rock-bottom morale, and even violent attacks on players have followed; and the two-time champions now sit perilously close to the drop-zone.

Widzew Łódź, Korona Kielce, Lechia Gdańsk; all have also changed their manager since the end of last season (the former now twice, with Artur Skowronek replacing Rafał Pawlak early in the new year), and now sit bottom, 12th and 10th respectively – below their finishing positions last term. Jagiellonia Białystok also made a change in the summer; but even though they are one rung further up the ladder, their points total remains the same as after 21 games last season.

But while the Ekstraklasa has had its share of unsuccessful managerial appointments in 2013, there have also been a handful of changes which have both surprised and impressed.

Zawisza Bydgoszcz switched Yuriy Shatalov for Ryszard Tarasiewicz in April, and were quick to see an improvement; a last-gasp promotion to the top flight has been followed by a steadily improving showing in the Ekstraklasa. Pogoń Szczecin‘s appointment of former Celtic and Reading defender Dariusz Wdowczyk was criticised a month earlier due to his previous conviction for match-fixing. The Portowcy have since completed a fascinating transformation from relegation strugglers to top-half battlers.

2011 Mistrz Polski Wisła Krakow are another side who have suffered in recent times. After Robert Maaskant’s overspending won them the title, financial problems befell the White Star; and when two successive seasons of mediocrity under three different coaches followed, they were mocked for returning to Franciszek Smuda – now in his third spell at the club, fourteen years after guiding them to the league title. But despite some early setbacks, including trialling a Romanian student who had fraudulently claimed to be a professional player; Smuda has turned his side into serious title contenders on a limited budget.

However the biggest Ekstraklasa turnaround in 2013 came in Upper Silesia, where fourteen-time Polish champions Ruch Chorzów had previously managed to scrape to safety thanks to a combination of a better head-to-head record than GKS Bełchatów and the financial meltdown of Polonia Warszawa.

The club retained the services of Jacek Zieliński for start of the 2013/14 season, but with just six points from seven games he lasted no longer than September, when Jan Kocian took over at ul. Cicha. The former Czech international went on to pick up seven wins and 5 draws from his fourteen games – only leaders Legia managing to pick up more points during that time. They now sit in fifth, five points from the European spots.

With chopping-and-changing seemingly a prerequisite for Ekstraklasa clubs, Górnik Zabrze coach Adam Nawałka led the way in 2013 showing that stability can lead to success. With an extremely limited budget, the 56 year-old has repeatedly been forced to rebuild his side in the close-season thanks to other, richer clubs poaching their key players; finishing with three successive top-half finishes.

It was those impressive performances from Nawałka which led PZPN President Zbigniew Boniek to look towards his former international team-mate for the recently-vacated Poland job in October. Now in the hands of former coach Ryszard Wieczorek, Nawałka’s foundations leave Górnik flying high in the table; going into Winter in second position, and having knocked reigning cup-holders Legia out of the competition at the last-sixteen stage.

As the Legia Warszawa team bus made the long journey back to Warsaw after that 3-1 defeat in Zabrze, the Polish press was already reporting of Jan Urban’s sacking. Despite leading Legia to their first title in seven years, lifting their third successive Polish Cup, and guiding them into the nine-week winter break in first position; it was ultimately a resounding failure in European competition which ended the 51 year-old’s second spell in charge of the Wojskowi. Described by one newspaper as the “worst result in Polish history”, five losses from their six games saw them eliminated before they had even scored their first goal.

New man at the Łazienkowska helm, Henning Berg, now has the pressure piled on. Brought in with the aim of helping Legia progress in Europe, he will first have to ensure that they maintain their position at the top of the league before he can even think about continental competition. With Górnik still not to be written-off despite a number of players heading away, a resurgent Wisła, and a Lech side which always seem to be there-or-thereabouts no matter how they play; that isn’t necessarily a given.

2013 has already shown that a managerial change of direction isn’t necessarily the way forward – especially in a league where almost every other team is going through exactly the same thing. Adam Nawałka and Górnik have shown in recent years how; given a little stability and faith – something rarely seen in Polish football nowadays – progression can be made. If a few other clubs could show the same, then maybe one will have a chance to eventually move forward in Europe.

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