This article is part of the overall Ekstraklasa preview I’m doing at Polish Football Scout. Of the several pieces prepared for the readers who wish to gain an insight on what the forthcoming season of football in Poland could bring, the main theme will be numbers. You can find more about planned blog posts here, as well as links to the ones that have already been published.
Last season was a complete success for Lodzki Klub Sportowy and Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biala, gaining not only promotion but also a sense that the problems that have plagued both clubs are now over. LKS have made huge progress since 2009, when the club was denied an Estrakalasa license and were essentially relegated as a result. They embarked upon last season’s campaign under new ownership, with well-known NBA player Marcin Gortat among the investors, and the aim of making their stay in the Polish second division no longer than two seasons. Despite entering the season in apparent disarray, with the squad put together only days before that campaign had started, LKS’ year was one of great success. Promising manager Andrzej Pyrdoł recorded only three losses over the whole campaign by adopting a transfer policy targeted at players with both experience and the desire for new challenges.
Podbeskidzie, meanwhile, are a fairly young club. The 2011-12 season will be only the 17th for Bielsko-Biala’s number one club, and last year can be considered the best in their short history. Promotion to the Polish top flight was always Podbeskidzie’s ambition but they have struggled over the years since securing a place in the second division, despite seemingly possessing the ingredients for success – a promising, young manager backed up with cash.
But they finished the 2009/10 season only four points safe from relegation - changes were needed and, six months into the job, the new manager, Robert Kasperczyk, embarked upon the required transformation. Kasperczyk performed miracles over the summer in the transfer market; and most significantly, he taught the squad to play with an efficiency and style that led them to the semi finals of the Polish Cup where only a stunning, late comeback from the league champions, Lech Poznan, prevented progression to the final and, with it, European qualification.
But even though last season ended in all smiles for both clubs, such happy faces concealed certain problems behind them; problems that had to be sorted out imminently to avoid their Ekstraklasa adventure ending before it could even begin. For newcomers, the Estrakalasa license process has been a tough bone to break for years, often used to frighten clubs into making progress off and on the pitch. In the first instance the same fate befell LKS and Podbeskidzie, as their initial applications failed.
Due to years of neglect, Stadion ŁKS had been allowed to decay into a state of disrepair, until it was eventually announced that the necessary work would be done. But no one at the Polish FA dared grant a license on the basis of verbal promises only, as they had done so with Aleja Unii Lubelskiej, where nothing has since changed. The solution that was quickly found has many doubting the club’s wisdom - LKS’ home games over the period of renovation will be played at the ground of GKS Belchatow. A drop in attendances is unavoidable, which could prove critical for the club’s budget in the first months of the season; before the summer had begun, LKS had almost an entire squad coming to the end of their contract, including all the key performers of the last campaign. Ultimately they lost six of them, with the same number brought in to cover such losses - most notably, Marek Saganowski making his comeback to the club. Whether these deals will be enough to keep them in Ekstraklasa is the big question, but not as big as whether Pyrdoł will have enough time to develop a cohesive side after so many changes.
In Bielsko-Biala, as in Lodz, the problem of the stadium is well known. Podbeskidzie’s ground is small, old-fashioned and clearly not befitting the standards set by other Polish cities that have developed their stadiums in recent years. There exists both the plans and the funds to build a new stadium, but until the construction’s completion, the side may have to play elsewhere. This was the reasoning behind the inclusion of a second stadium in their license application – the MOSiR Stadium in Wodzislaw Slaski, where third division Odra currently play. Additionally, the initial license was refused due to their status as an association, not a fully registered joint-stock company – necessary criteria for every Estrakalasa club. Following the rejection, Podbeskidzie’s necessary papers were eventually filed as quickly as possible and their license eventually granted, but questions will be asked as to why the club required such pressure from the license committee to remind themselves of such a key condition.
But at least the squad shouldn’t be a problem for Podbeskidzie. Their great adventure in the Polish Cup showed that there is enough class in there to ensure at least a mid-table finish, with Robert Kasperczyk tipped to succeed as their promising leader. LKS meanwhile, as Andrzej Pyrdoł continues to repeat, have players that are there to prove a point, with their quality cast in doubt at other clubs. It will certainly be interesting to note how both squads will cope with the new challenge of Ekstraklasa, and particularly how the early problems of pre-season will or won’t have any impact upon performances. No more so than for LKS, who will start their new season at someone else’s empty ground, 50km from home.