It is June 2011. Orest Lenczyk, the manager of Śląsk Wrocław, has managed to guide the side from Lower Silesia to 2nd place in the Ekstraklasa table, their highest finish in 29 years. To reward his efforts Lenczyk is about to receive the manager of the season award at the Ekstraklasa end of season event. Lenczyk, dressed in an ill-fitting grey suit, somewhat nervously comes onto the stage to receive his prize to the sound of generous applause. Before he receives the award he fumbles in his pockets and listens to words of praise from the presenter of the prize, a gentle smile playing on his face. Lenczyk politely fields a couple of questions – lightly joking about his age and looks (he is 68 at the time). Finally he tells the audience he would like to dedicate the prize to two people. ‘One person who’s still with us….my beloved wife Alicja….’ Lenczyk explains and here the old man pauses for a few seconds. The audience waits as Lenczyk summons the strength to continue. These seconds seem to last an eternity, finally a visibly moved Lenczyk says ‘and the other person is looking down on us from above, Doctor Wielkoszyński. Thanks very much.’ The new manager of the year exits stage left.
After a year long hiatus Orest Lenczyk has recently come back to the Polish game, taking the manager’s position at struggling Lower Silesian side Zagłębie Lubin. Lenczyk is by far the oldest manager in the Polish top flight at almost 71 years of age (the only manager to come close is former Polish national team coach Franciszek Smuda at 65) but who is Lenczyk and what is the secret of his success and longevity?
Lenczyk came into the world in the small South-Eastern Polish town of Sanok as Nazi and Soviet forces tore each other apart at Stalingrad. His family originally hails from the now Ukrainian city of L’viv, a city which was dominated by Polish speaking culture until the end of World War Two. His father studied mathematics at Lviv’s renowned Jan Casimir university before moving to Sanok to take up a position at a secondary school in the town. This minor intelligentsia background is just one of many things which sets Lenczyk apart from most people involved in the Polish game. Lenczyk is in many ways an outsider in Polish football, always was and always will be.
After finishing secondary school Lenczyk decided to study at the Academy of Physical Education in Wrocław, a famous institution to which the legendary Polish national team coach Kazimierz Górski once attended. Lenczyk’s family had always expected the young Orest to become a doctor like his older siblings. They were thus somewhat disappointed with his eventual decision to go into the world of sport.
At university in the early 1960s Lenczyk immersed himself in his studies and met his future wife Alicja. As well as studying he played at a number of local sides at left-back, but never at a very high level until he was forced to retire due to injury at the age of 28. This and the death of his father meant Lenczyk decided to move back to his home-town of Sanok. A devoted family man Lenczyk felt it was best to return home to look after his mother.
It was here in 1970 that he got his first job in football, as assistant manager of nearby side Karpaty Krosno. While at Krosno Lenczyk received an exciting opportunity – in late 1971 he was offered the chance to be assistant manager of top flight side Stal Rzeszów. There the, still under 30, Lenczyk came face to face with a footballing legend. The manager of Stal at the time was Nándor Hidegkuti, the Hungarian striker who had scored a hat-trick in the national team’s famous 6-3 win at Wembley in 1953. For Lenczyk, working with Hidegkuti was an enlightening experience as the Hungarian manager taught his assistant the importance of tactics and technique.
After leaving Stal in 1972 Lenczyk got his first opportunity to be a manager in his own right at 3rd tier Siarka Tarnobrzeg. Orest was able to drive Siarka to an unexpected promotion in his first season in charge and he began to receive rave reviews as a coach. However arguments with the club’s hierarchy, something which has reoccurred throughout Lenczyk’s career, meant the young manager left to become assistant coach at top flight side Stal Mielec in the summer of 1974. Stal at the time were at the height of their powers having won their first Polish title in 1973. They also possessed the Poland star Grzegorz Lato who had just top scored at the 1974 World Cup finals. Lenczyk however only stayed at Stal for a season before becoming Wisła Krakow’s assistant manager.
It was at Wisła that Lenczyk had his first high-level successes in the game. He became the Kraków club’s manager in 1976, taking over a side that had just came 3rd in the league. This was Lenczyk’s first real test at the top level and he passed it with flying colours. In 1978 he led Wisła to their first title in 28 years, despite having to deal with a difficult dressing room. In the mid-1970s footballers in Poland liked to drink heavily and managers had problems disciplining players who felt they could do what they wanted. For Lenczyk this world always seemed alien as he is, quite atypically for Poland, teetotal. Thus when his players went off to drink into the early hours on winning the title, Lenczyk decided to discuss football with the revered journalist Roman Hurkowski. In the 1978-9 season Lenczyk’s Wisła managed to reach the quarter-finals of the European cup. After narrowly defeating Malmo in the first leg, Wisła held a lead towards the end of the second leg in Sweden. Unfortunately for Lenczyk’s team, Malmo came storming back to win 4-1.
Malmo beat Wisła Kraków 4-1 to go through to the semi-finals of the European Cup in March 1979
After this game the writing was on the wall for Lenczyk. Wisła’s league form was stuttering, there was friction between the manager and his players and at the end of the season Lenczyk lost his job.
Lenczyk resurfaced at Śląsk Wrocław, a club then run by the Polish military. Lenczyk was remarkably successful in his first season but his independent character did not sit easily with club authorities. In a catastrophic UEFA cup game in autumn 1980 his side lost 7-2 to Dundee United. In the aftermath there were even allegations that his players were purposely not performing for him. Somewhat unsurprisingly Lenczyk was sacked soon after the defeat in Scotland. Shocked by his treatment at Wisła and Sląsk, Lenczyk decided to take two years out of the game. During this time he travelled to America – working on a building site to save up for an operation for his sick child. After an injury suffered at work he was forced to return to Poland in 1982. It was here Lenczyk met someone who would change his life and the way he looked at his work forever.
Wielkoszyński and Lenczyk, Lenczyk and Wielkoszyński
On returning to Poland the 40 year old Lenczyk took up the managerial post at Silesian giants Ruch Chorzów. The Ruch board wanted him to work alongside a 50 year old sports doctor, Jerzy Wielkoszyński, someone who had been employed by the Polish national team in the run-up to the 1982 World Cup. Lenczyk was initially lukewarm about Wielkoszyński. He was especially suspicious of Wielkoszyński’s insistence that the Ruch side were out of shape physically. As they sat in his office Lenczyk asked Wielkoszyński if he would: ‘stop coming round here.’ After this statement no-one spoke for several minutes. Finally Lenczyk said: ‘OK, I’m sorry. Let’s get down to work.’
That’s exactly what they did. In an interview just before his death Wielkoszyński had this to say about his work with Lenczyk:
‘There were certain things we needed to change in our preparations to make things work.We lost a match with Wisła, but then we went on to have a wonderful autumn and Ruch started to win. After that he stopped criticising me, there were only deep discussions. From that moment on there was no looking back. Every couple of years I change my methods a bit and Lenczyk modifies his approach too. We understand each other well. And he always wants me to be by his side.’
Wielkoszyński’s methods were ahead of their time in Poland. His expertise was in developing athletes’ speed and getting the absolute most physically out of sportsmen. In this way Wielkoszyński predicted the changes that would eventually happen in modern football. Wielkoszyński cared about players athletic capabilities rather than their abilities with the ball. He would draw up lists of players for Lenczyk to have a look at, and often his picks did remarkably well. One of these players was Radosław Matusiak which the pair took from relative obscurity to the national team and a move to Serie A in 2007. Using Wielkoszyński’s somewhat unorthodox training methods Lenczyk took Ruch to 2nd place in the league in 1983. However, despite his successes at Ruch, Lenczyk’s independent and non-conciliatory temperament meant he parted ways with the club in 1984.
After his achievements at Ruch and despite his work with Wielkoszyński Lenczyk went through a long period without much success. In the space of 16 years he managed a total of 10 different clubs including two spells at the helm of GKS Katowice, Wisła Kraków and Widzew Łódź. It was during this period that Lenczyk got the reputation as a manager responsible for putting out fires. Often he would come in, get a team playing for each other and then, as soon as a club’s form stagnated, lose his job. Of course sometimes his methods were not successful. Lenczyk is for example known for destroying the great Widzew side which had achieved so much in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is difficult to blame Lenczyk for that though as Widzew in the mid-1980s had lost many of its best players to top European clubs. Still it was a stain on Lenczyk’s reputation.
In autumn 2000 Lenczyk for a 4th time took on the managerial position at Wisła Kraków. His methods brought some terrific initial results. After a 4-1 away loss against Real Zaragoza in the UEFA cup, Wisła stormed back to win 4-1 in the return leg and dump the Spanish side out of Europe. It remains the only time a Polish side has knocked a team from Spain out of a European competition.
Wisła Kraków beat Real Zaragoza 4-1 and go through on penalties in September 2000
Lenczyk was however once more on the receiving end of harsh treatment from club owners. In the spring of 2001, with Wisła in first place in the league, their owners decided to sack the man from Sanok, appointing Adam Nawałka in his stead. Wisła went on to win the league but most journalists said that it was Lenczyk who had really deserved the title.
Lenczyk achieved considerable success in his sixties. In the mid noughties he almost took GKS Bełchatów, a tiny side close to Łódź, to the Polish title – in the end having to settle for 2nd place. Finally in 2010 Lenczyk returned to Śląsk Wrocław, taking charge of a side who were struggling at the bottom of the table and in disarray. Under Lenczyk the club began a charge up the league which eventually took them to 2nd place and their first European qualification in 23 years. The next season, despite a weak spring and conflict between Lenczyk and his players, Śląsk were able to go one better and win Lenczyk his first Polish title in 34 years and Śląsk’s first since 1977. However after poor results in Europe and the league, Lenczyk was sacked once more at the end of August 2012.
Rok Elsner scores the goal to win the title for Śląsk Wrocław
But Lenczyk has never been out of work for long, and when Zagłębie Lubin had a bad start to the 2013-4 season they called on the old man to put out another fire.
Lenczyk, Lenczyk, Lenczyk
So how has Lenczyk continued to have success in the game over such a long period of time? Firstly he is an incredibly ambitious man who has kept up to date with developments in medical science. His professional approach, aided by his partnership with Wielkoszyński, has really come into its own in modern football, where players are, to all intents and purposes, athletes. He is able to maximise players’ natural abilities via his training techniques. His teams have never played pretty football, but what he does is effective and gets results.
Secondly Lenczyk, compared to most Polish managers, is blessed with considerable intelligence and wit. He is quite sure of his approach, even in the face of stinging criticism. Perhaps this intelligence and pride has kept him buoyant, despite a host of disappointments over his career. Certainly his wit means press conferences with him are never a dull affair. Lenczyk is known for telling off journalists who ask questions in an inappropriate manner. Indeed it seems that Lenczyk thrives off conflictual situations, something which has on many occasions got him into hot water with players and club owners alike.
Unfortunately this conflictual nature has meant he has never received the job that he has always wanted – that of the Polish national team manager. He has never been someone on the inside, he has never drank and perhaps he is too intelligent and independent to have the honour of taking over the national side. Ironically enough one of his disciples, Waldemar Fornalik, sits in that very job now. The yes man his mentor has never been, Fornalik has a massive task on his hands to get Poland to Brazil 2014. Part of me wishes it was Lenczyk in that Polish dressing room instead.
This piece draws on W cieniu Śląska by Michał Wyrwa and articles from Przegląd Sportowy, Rzeczpospolita and Magazyn futbol. Marek Wawrzynowski assisted in finding articles and providing advice.