Football: Wojcik key to Poland revival

Coach is strict disciplinarian and his teams are rarely pretty but players respect him.
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The Independent Online
THEY LOOK supremely fit, they are certainly hungry and in coach Janusz Wojcik they have a motivator every bit as enthusiastic as Kevin Keegan. Polish football may be suffering from an internal political crisis back home but all that would be forgotten if their unheralded players ruin the eagerly awaited start of the temporary Keegan era at Wembley this afternoon.

Trawl through the Polish squad and you won't find a single name with which most of us could identify. There is, for instance, no Polish prodigy like Michael Owen, no midfield equivalent to David Beckham and no out- an-out goalscorer like, at his best, Alan Shearer.

Even Poland's most dangerous forward, Sylwester Czereszewski, who scored twice in the 3-0 win in Bulgaria that opened the Poles' qualifying campaign, injured his knee last weekend and is out after already undergoing surgery, while Marek Citko, for whom Blackburn Rovers offered a king's ransom not so long ago, has been out for 18 months with an achilles tendon injury.

But don't be fooled. The Poles may be lacking in star names but they play as a unit and looked extremely accomplished technically when they trained in the drizzle at Boreham Wood a couple of hours after their arrival on Thursday. Significantly, too, they are unbeaten in nine matches this season, including their opening two Euro 2000 qualifiers.

Next week's home game with Sweden, the second part of a double-header, may be more crucial to the Poles than this afternoon's little spat but they are eager to put themselves in the Wembley shop window.

"Everyone in Poland has been counting down the days until Wembley," said Dundee's Dariusz Adamczuk, who is expected to be on the bench when Wojcik names his team this morning. "There has been nothing else in the papers and on television. Everyone knows about our poor record at Wembley and what the game means, especially to England."

Such is the renewed interest in Polish football that, 48 hours before they left Warsaw bound for Luton, over 10,000 fans, including the prime minister, turned out for the farewell training session. Such enthusiasm was in stark contrast to the dark days of Polish football that followed the end of communism and state sponsorship. "Every transition needs time," said Roman Manuszewski, the Polish liaison officer. "All teams go through patchy times. We have no stars. But some of them could be stars of the future."

Another key factor in the renaissance of Polish football is that most of the squad now play overseas, including Miroslaw Trzeciak, last season's Polish player of the year. If he starts today, and he should, the Osasuna forward will need to be watched: he has scored eight goals in only 12 internationals.

The main inspiration behind Poland's recent revival, however, is undoubtedly Wojcik, who discarded a number of the old guard when he took over and retained only four of the squad that lost 2-1 on Poland's last visit to Wembley two and half years ago. Instead, Wojcik drafted in the bulk of the squad he led to the silver medal at the 1992 Olympic Games, including Adamczuk. His teams are rarely pretty but certainly effective, a recipe that only a week ago brought success for Tottenham Hotspur on the same Wembley turf in the Worthington Cup final.

"All the players respect him enormously," said Manusz-ewski. "He can be very strict but he's also a father figure to the players. He's one of the new breed, part of the young generation of managers. Just like Keegan." Unlike the England coach, however, Wojcik doesn't have a "second" job.

"We are all a bit surprised about the situation in England," said Manuszewski. "International football concentrates the mind. To commit yourself for only four games, I'm not sure that's too good for the players. I don't think we would ever appoint a part-time coach in Poland. Keegan was a great player and would make a fantastic coach long term."

Whether Keegan's brief reign starts with a bang could well depend on the attitude of Poland. Twice World Cup third- place finishers, they have never qualified for the European Championship finals. "They want it, and they want it badly," said Manuszewski.

On the horizon, however, lies the very real danger of the Poles being stopped in their tracks. Fifa, the sport's world governing body, recently repeated their request to the Polish football authorities to hold fresh elections following months of alleged mis-management. So far, the federation's autocratic president, Marian Dziurowicz, has steadfastly refused either to bring elections forward from next year or to step down himself.

"It is serious but we are trying to forget it and just concentrate on the game against England," said Adamczuk. "I can't comment on whether we will be allowed to continue in the competition. We'll just have to see what happens."