With the Pierwsza Liga season over, Górnik Łęczna were promoted back to the Ekstraklasa after seven years away. Ryan Hubbard takes a look at their road back.
Seven years ago Polish football looked like a different place entirely. Zagłębie Lubin were crowned Polish champions ahead of GKS Bełchatow, having defeated third-placed Legia in Warsaw on the final day; Dyskobolia Grodzisk Wielkopolski lifted the Polish Cup, triumphing over Korona Kielce in Bełchatow; and we even had an Ekstraklasa Cup – Dyskobolia winning that one too, against the league runners-up. Only nine of the sixteen clubs which will take part in next season’s Ekstraklasa were playing at in the top flight that season. One of them was Górnik Łęczna.
However it was to be their last season there for a while. Although Wisła Płock and Pogoń Szczecin occupied the two relegation spots after the last game, Górnik – along with 12th-placed Arka Gdynia – were demoted due to their part in the corruption scandal which engulfed Polish football. While Arka dropped into the second tier, Łęczna’s involvement was deemed to be significantly worse; and as a result they were forced into the third level of the Polish pyramid and deducted six points.
Despite the points handicap, the green-and-blacks were ruthless during the 2007-08 season. Losing just four and drawing five of their 32 games, they topped the league seven points ahead of Hetman Zamość and were promoted to the second tier with three games to spare.
But even after strengthening, making the step back to the top flight was one too many for Górnik – at first, anyway. Missing out by a handful of points in 08-09, Łęczna struggled for consistency over the next four seasons; coming closer to dropping a division than climbing back up.
That wasn’t good enough for Górnik – rebranded so after spending the previous two-and-a-half years bearing the name of sponsors Bogdanka. Following the dismissal of Piotr Rzepka in the summer of 2013, the club appointed Polish-Ukrainian coach Yurij Shatalov; himself having only been dismissed from Zawisza Bydgoszcz just two months earlier.
Upon his arrival in Łęczna, Shatalov quickly set about clearing the deadwood, and began to mould the team into his desired shape. Grzegorz Bonin was brought in following the expiration of his contract in Zabrze, and he was joined in midfield by Korona Kielce’s Paweł Zawistowski and Paweł Sasin of Dolcan Ząbki. The defence was bolstered too with the addition of former Śląsk full-back Patrik Mraź and ex-Bełchatów and Arka centre-back Maciej Szmatiuk – all players with Ekstraklasa experience. Shatalov invested in younger players too, notably bringing Pogoń defender Julien Tadrowski and Arka striker Łukasz Zwoliński to the club.
While it took a Puchar Polski defeat to Ursus Warszawa, and back-to-back league losses to GKS Tychy and Wisła Płock to get acquainted with each other; when Shatalov’s team finally did gel, it was in some style. Just one loss in their next sixteen saw a rapid rise up the table – finishing for the winter break on top of the Pierwsza Liga, three points clear of Bełchatów in second.
Leaving nothing to chance, the squad was strengthened even further during the three-month winter break. Korona Kielce’s Bartosz Kwiecień and ex-Arka and Bełchatów man Miroslav Božok were brought in to add to the already-solid middle-of-the-park. Young striker Arkadiusz Woźniak was added from Zagłębie Lubin too, with the experienced Łukasz Mierzejewski signed as a back-up to the strong back-line.
Again Shatalov’s men impressed, extending their unbeaten run to fifteen games before finally succumbing 2-0 to their nearest challengers Bełchatów. While they lost the following two, away at Arka Gdynia and at home to Energetyk ROW Rybnik; thirteen points from a possible fifteen ensured a deserved return to the top-flight with two games to spare.
With their main objective undoubtedly to maintain their Ekstraklasa status, Łęczna do have history on their side – in the last ten seasons only two clubs have been relegated after just one season in the top flight.
However, now with a third attempt at the Ekstraklasa after a rough eighteen-month spell at cash-strapped Polonia Bytom, and 10 months as boss of struggling Cracovia; the Soviet-born coach is well aware that top-flight sides take no prisoners when the going gets tough.
With the league starting back up in mid-July, his Górnik side has only just one month to prepare to take that challenge. With more strengthening undoubtedly needed, the race is already on to get his team ready to take on the country’s elite.