It’s been a hectic month for Polish football. First there was the administrative error which led Legia to be excluded from the Champions League, then there was the failure of Lech Poznań to beat Icelandic part-timers Stjarnan FC in the Europa League qualifying rounds. Both of these events have filled countless column inches, with Legia attempting (and failing) to get the punishment rescinded and Lech deciding to fire their underwhelming manager Mariusz Rumak. In the background however there’s been a quietly burning story which may soon break its way into the mainstream, – the feats of Upper Silesian club Ruch Chorzów.
Ruch were one of the successes of last season’s edition of the Ekstraklasa. Here was a club which would have been relegated in 2012-3 if it wasn’t for the bankruptcy of Polonia Warsaw, a club that started the 2013-4 season disastrously and due to financial problems were restricted to paying new signings the meagre monthly wage of 5,000 PLN (£1,000). Things started to turn around in September 2013 when Ruch appointed the Slovakian former national team manager Jan Kocian. Kocian, an affable, pleasant man who enjoys listening to Eminem, immediately began to get results and Ruch relatively easily finished in 3rd place in the Ekstraklasa, finishing above other clubs with much higher budgets.
Kocian believes in the benefits of hard work, something which can be seen in the way Ruch perform on the field. Normally playing a 4-5-1 formation, Ruch’s style is based on attacking full-backs such as the dynamic 22 year old Daniel Dziwniel, a fairly intense pressing game, the intelligent play of evergreen 37 year old defensive midfielder Łukasz Surma and their, by Polish standards, virtuoso number ten Filip Starzyński. Ruch operate best on the counter-attack, theirs is not a style based on dominating possession. When it works though their counter-attacks can be devastating, as can be seen here.
This season started badly in the league for Ruch with three consecutive defeats. Although their form has picked up recently in the Ekstraklasa it is in Europa League qualifying where the results of Kocian’s labours are in evidence. Starting off against Lichtenstein’s FC Vaduz, Ruch somewhat nervously won their home leg 3-2, however in Lichtenstein they succeeded in picking up a draw to knock Vaduz out. In the third qualifying round they faced the Danish club Esbjerg FB. Ruch drew their home game 0-0 and in Denmark the combination of a Starzyński penalty and a 95th minute Surma equaliser took them through to the final Europa League qualifying round.
Even after their heroics vs Esbjerg and Ruch being drawn to play Ukraine’s Metalist Kharkiv, the Polish press have hardly talked about the Upper Silesian side, spending all their time on the Legia fiasco and Lech’s incompetence in Europe. Metalist, Ruch’s opponents in the playoff round, are a side of considerable financial clout with numerous highly paid South American and African players – their squad has a collective worth of 80 million Euros, approximately 10 times that of their Polish opponents. All is however not rosy with Metalist as the club have been severely affected by the war in Ukraine’s East. The clearest sign of this is the non-return of several of their high-profile players after the summer break.
Despite Metalist’s problems Ruch were still distinct underdogs in last night’s game, with many commentators giving them little chance of success. Thankfully Ruch’s performance on the night was far from the grim prognosis suggested by many. They came roaring out of the block, backed by superb vocal support from their fans. Ruch, as their name suggests*, were in constant motion (*Ruch means movement in Polish) putting their illustrious opponents on the back foot. They rarely gave Metalist time to settle on the ball, especially in the first half, executing an intense pressing game. Indeed they had a number of opportunities to take the lead.
In the second half Metalist had more of the ball, as Ruch tired but the Ukrainian side were not able to break them down. Ruch were able to hold on for a 0-0 draw which gives them a decent chance of progressing in next week’s second leg in Kyiv.
If Ruch were to make the Europa League proper it would be a very impressive achievement for a side lacking squad depth, and possessing a budget of approximately 14 million PLN (just under £3 million). If they don’t go through their fans will not have reason for complaint as the side have already overachieved in the qualifying rounds. Next week all the attention will be on Legia as they attempt to finish the job of qualifying for the Europa League vs FK Aktobe. Hopefully the Polish press will spend a little more time talking about Ruch as the second leg approaches. Jan Kocian’s boys deserve it.