The first time Grzegorz Rasiak experienced the City of Manchester Stadium, he was playing for Groclin Dyskobolia, a club from the village of Grodzisk in Wielkopolska, western Poland. Three-and-a-half years later, as he goes there again with Southampton, he will, curiously, be representing a team from a town with a larger Polish population.
That says much for the chaotic state of Polish football, in which the traditional elite are in such a mess that they can be challenged by tiny but well-run provincial clubs (Grodzisk has a population of 19,000, most of whom are linked in some way to Groclin, a company who make car seats and fund the club), but it also says a lot about modern European migration patterns.
There has been a Polish community in Southampton since forced labour from Austria was settled there after the Second World War, but since Poland became a member of the European Union in 2004, immigration has boomed. Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is estimated that there could be as many as 30,000 Poles living in the town, which equates to about one in seven of the population.
"People come here because you can live a better life," Rasiak said. "You can find a job, earn more money and everybody is very friendly." Rasiak himself lives about 20 miles outside Southampton, well away from what has become known locally as Warsaw-on-Water. He seems to have made a point of trying to integrate, and there is an obvious pride when he speaks of the fact that his seven-year-old son, Jakob, speaks better English than he does.
None the less he admits that he enjoys the Polish influence. "After games there are always Polish people waiting to congratulate me," he said. "I have a lot of English friends, but it's nice to have Polish friends as well; and of course in Southampton it's easy to get Polish food, the things you miss. And Southampton are becoming a popular club in Poland. The Premiership is the favourite league on Polish television, but these days it is also possible to watch the Championship."
This afternoon's game will attract particular attention because of the opposition. "Everybody in Poland knows about Manchester City, because one of our all-time legends, Kazimierz Deyna, played for them. It's a famous club. I've played at their stadium twice, so I know what the atmosphere is like. Both times have been happy for me." A Uefa Cup victory - on away goals - with Groclin was followed by a 2-0 Premiership victory with Tottenham.
Having made a good impression with Derby, Rasiak's career rather faltered with Spurs, his season there bringing just four starts and no goals. George Burley had rescued him once, and he stepped in to rescue him again. Rasiak left Groclin in 2004 for Siena, but a change of management at the Serie A club left him surplus to requirements, and Derby picked him up on a free transfer. As Rasiak struggled to make an impression at White Hart Lane, Burley had few doubts about taking him on again, first on a three-month loan, then permanently in a £2 million deal.
"He's sharp around the box," the Southampton manager said. "We've played him alongside Kenwynne Jones and Bradley Wright-Phillips and he can play with either. He's good in the air, an intelligent player."
There is, in fact, something strangely British about his style. Lawrie McMenemy, the former Southampton manager and now a director, says he calls to mind Bob Paisley's comment about Ian Rush: "He's not quick, but he is sharp." That sharpness has brought 19 goals in all competitions this season, 17 of which have come in the League, putting him level with Norwich's Rob Earnshaw as the top scorer in the Championship.
"I feel I have adjusted to the English game," he said. "Those first weeks at Derby were difficult, but having my family here with me helped. Now I speak the language better, I know more what to expect, and I have got used to the pace of the game here. You really have to play without the ball as well as with it."
Burley spoke of Rasiak's enthusiasm to learn, and the difference in attitude of the two men to today's game is telling. Where the manager stresses that FA Cup games are one-off affairs, revealing little about a side's capacity to cope at a higher level over the course of a season, the forward, perhaps motivated by his underachievement at Tottenham, perhaps by the thought of his relatives watching back home in Poznan, sees it as an opportunity to prove himself.
"It's a test for us," he said. "A chance to see what we're like against a Premiership side. I've enjoyed my two appearances at that stadium, but I haven't scored there yet." Southampton and most of Poland will be hoping it is third time lucky.Reuse content