The inevitable has happened, then, and Wojciech Stawowy’s contract with Cracovia has been terminated. It was an open secret that a change would come in summer, but it’s still a surprise to see him go with four games left of the season, however crucial they are turning out to be.
A true Cracovia man who played for three clubs in Kraków, managed friends Arka Gdynia and who spent two separate periods as coach of Pasy themselves, Stawowy oversaw the dramatic final-day promotion from the 1. liga of 2012/13. But a mixed season, along with fairly characteristic disputes with the board, left his position untenable. What is galling, though, is how the end has played out.
However bad the results have been this season (making a mediocre Lech side look like world-beaters in a 6-1 loss, losing near the end of the regular season to doomed Widzew, and the final, fatal, 5-1 loss to relegation rivals Piast stick out in the memory), there have been some exhilarating moments too, but without doubt the last few months have been an exercise in shabby treatment of a dedicated and fondly-regarded man. It is worth bearing in mind that as recently as 4th April, against Górnik Zabrze, the team left the field to chants of ‘Wojciech Stawowy!’ with many fans sporting fake moustaches in tribute. Among the more considered opinions within the fan-base, there remained a large amount of sympathy for the coach, particularly in the wake of chairman Janusz Filipiak’s utterly unprofessional interview with Przegląd Sportowy where the owner sought to undermine his club, his coach and the entire structure of Polish football.
It is fair to say that Stawowy has a history of disagreements with club management, and indeed his last tenure as Cracovia coach, which saw the club rise from regional leagues to 5th place in the Ekstraklasa, ended in 2006 after an argument with Filipiak. In short, this is a tale of two big personalities, unable to agree on where the other’s territory ends and theirs begins. It’s also worth noting that this is the first time the owner has kept a coach in place for longer than a season since Stefan Majewski’s time ended in 2008, with this impatience reaching its nadir when four separate managers took charge for brief periods of 2010. Perhaps Filipiak feels under-appreciated for the financial security provided by his sponsorship through IT firm Comarch, but if this is the case, the greatest appreciation would surely come through success on the field, which is not going to be made any easier with such managerial insecurity.
The reasons behind this disagreement were laid out quite plainly in the aforementioned interview, back in March. As well as some comments which suggested the chairman had not been paying attention to his team (claiming Pasy had taken only 3 points in a period which had, in fact, yielded 13), Filipiak explained that Stawowy had full control over transfers, yet complained that the board’s own suggestions had been rejected by the coach. He also rejected the commonly-held opinion that Cracovia play the most attractive football in the league, our so-called ‘Krakowska tiki-taka’ style of short-passing and pressing clearly leaving him unimpressed. While this interview cannot by itself be blamed for our on-field fortunes, this sort of attempt to publicly embarrass your coach is unacceptable and it is worth noting that we have won only once since it was published. It also led to apparent acts of principled disobedience from the manager, such as the lack of playing time for Tomislav Mikulić, a centre-back signed in winter to replace the excellent Miloš Kosanović but overlooked in favour of players used out of position.
If the chairman is right, and this season’s signings were forced by the board on Stawowy (and it’s hard to imagine what he would have to gain from lying about that), then we can clearly understand why this principle was an easy one to take. Rakeļs, an overweight, permanently offside striker with no apparent redeeming features beyond looking a bit mean; the solid if mediocre Mikulić who is a completely different style of defender to Kosanović and therefore couldn’t hope to contribute in all areas of the field as effectively as his predecessor; and the admittedly impressive, dogged defensive midfielder Papadopoulos, who Stawowy has managed to find use for – as a false nine. Not one of them was a comfortable fit, though, each struggling with the rapid passing necessary to the Cracovia style, and in Rakeļs’ case they are obstructing the development of youth players who could surely do no worse.
Perhaps Stawowy wanted to keep Kosanović, perhaps he wanted the resulting transfer funds, but beyond that it’s hard not to think that the team would have performed dramatically better had striker Dawid Nowak and playmaker Marcin Budziński not received long-term injuries at the end of the winter round, though clearly it’s hard to know who to blame for this sparsity of the squad. If anything though, Stawowy’s response to this, employing Boljevic or Papadopoulos in a false nine position rather than going with a inadequately-skilled traditional striker (and our options in that role would struggle even in the I Liga), showed ingenuity and a desire to try unconventional solutions. As it was it didn’t work, but personally I’d rather this approach than seeing an ill-prepared youngster thrown in and scarred for life by the experience.
This approach is also why Cracovia gained a reputation as a neutral’s favourite – sometimes slick and dominant, sometimes catastrophically poor, but always intriguing and exciting. I can remember only two truly dull games this season – how many can say that of their team? It’s perhaps atypical of football fans to desire excitement over success, but the romantic in me would argue that those heading south of Błonia Park at the weekend have never expected success. We like to think of ourselves as the romantic’s choice, the club of intellectuals and figures such as Karol Wojtyła; a place for the ordinary people dissuaded from our neighbours by their association with the police and communist authorities. Filipiak is no Ireneusz Król, who so successfully did for our friends Polonia Warszawa, but this ruthless demand for instant success seems at odds with that history.
As it stands, Cracovia are one place and four points above the relegation zone, with alarmingly poor form at the worst possible time. It was unrealistic to expect too much from this first season back in the Ekstraklasa, but some seem to have been given false expectations by our successful autumn round – personally, I have maintained since promotion that survival is the minimum target this year. The arguments for a change of manager have perhaps been made on the pitch for those with a brutal, results-minded approach to the game. The rest of us might ask whether the new man (strongly rumoured to be former national coach Waldemar Fornalik) will receive the time, control and support he needs to establish the club back at Poland’s top level.