In a new guest post on Rightbankwarsaw, Lucas Wilk looks at the reign of Franciszek Smuda at Wisła Kraków, arguing that although Smuda had his flaws, he achieved more than many people would have expected.
Barely 20 months into his three-year deal Franciszek (Franz) Smuda has been dismissed from head coach duties at Wisła Kraków for the third time in his career having previously managed the club in the late 1990s and early 2000s. No doubt many observers will regard Smuda’s sudden departure as an unexpected turn of events, but given the club’s dismal start to the spring campaign that culminated in the particularly awful display at home to Ekstraklasa bottom side Zawisza Bydgoszcz this past weekend, the club’s newly installed president felt that drastic action was required to put things back on course prior to upcoming matches against Legia Warsaw and their biggest rival Cracovia Kraków. Having parted ways with Smuda the club quickly announced the appointment of club legend Kazimierz Moskal as coach with a contract set to expire in June 2016. Ironically enough, Moskal has previously led Wisła on two occasions, although his previous appointments unlike this time around were always seen as nothing more than temporary stop-gap measures.
Despite his dismissal Smuda’s third spell at Wisła should not be viewed as a failure, quite the contrary. When he inherited the post in the summer of 2013 large parts of Wisła’s fanbase were extremely sceptical of the appointment. After Smuda’s disastrous and outright embarrassing reign in charge of the Polish national team at Euro 2012 he was largely written off as a has-been. Many fans believed he was long past his expiry date and even an unmitigated liability during what should have been one of the greatest tournaments in Poland’s football history. Having long since been regarded as one of the most amusing, borderline clownish figures in Polish football due to his incomparable abuse of Polish syntax and eccentric views (he once famously quipped that he can perfectly assess a footballer’s abilities purely by just looking at the way the player climbs… stairs) he nevertheless has always been held in high regard by the equally odd Wisła Kraków owner Bogusław Cupial.
For all the coach’s flaws, Cupial has always had a soft spot for Smuda, and given the tremendously difficult 16 months the club had experienced after Robert Maaskant’s departure at the end of 2011, the owner concluded that Smuda was the best candidate to yet again lead the club out of its doldrums. Prior to Smuda’s arrival in June of 2013 Wisła stagnated both on and off the field in a spectacular fashion. Having won the Polish title in 2011 barely a year later the club was mired in massive financial difficulties (ones that continue to this day), a challenge that was further magnified by the tumultuous and brief stay at the club of Michal Probierz and Tomasz Kulawik who filled in after Probierz departed. For all his accomplishments as a footballer, Kulawik was clearly way in over his head and the club’s continued poor form set the stage for Smuda’s entrance at the end of the 2012/13 season.
Prior to the kickoff of the 2013/14 Ekstraklasa campaign more than a few media experts predicted that the club’s struggles would not only continue in the upcoming season but would actually get worse. Some voices went as far as to suggest that with Smuda at the helm, the club’s deteriorating finances, thin squad with no bench, and a new Ekstraklasa format, the club could even be a relegation candidate. Yet, miraculously the exact opposite took place. Wisła played attractive football and it took a full three months before the team lost a match and conceded a goal at home, beating both Lech Poznań and Legia Warsaw in Kraków in the process. Instead of talking about relegation these very same pundits asked themselves if perhaps Wisła were on their way to (yet) another championship. Alas, as it usually is with Smuda’s teams, the spring campaign wasn’t anywhere near as successful as the autumn one and Wisła’s momentum quickly slowed eventually ending the season in fifth. Prior to the season this would have been seen as a huge success but given how the first 2⁄3 of the season unfolded the finish was somewhat of a disappointment.
The 2014/2015 campaign began exactly the same way as the previous one had. Solid performances during the first two months of the season, including an impressive win at Lech Poznań, catapulted Wisła to the top of the table but starting in late September the team’s form dropped considerably with a string of inconsistent performances. The arrival of a new club president, Robert Gaszyński, in January was probably ominous for Smuda from the outset even if this wasn’t immediately apparent. An ex-Wisła player and a highly accomplished executive in the Polish consumer goods sector, Gaszyński has been tasked with fixing the club from the ground up after the disastrous era of his predecessor Jacek Bednarz and the financial excesses of Janusz Basalaj that left the club in a precarious position.
Gaszyński’s highly professional conduct clearly did not gel with Smuda’s idiosyncratic and often stubborn, unsophisticated approach. After two losses and one draw in the spring campaign Gaszyński was not secretive about the fact that these types of results, and particularly the style of play, were not acceptable at this juncture. His view was that for all the squad’s shortcomings the calibre of players at Smuda’s disposal should be delivering better results. After all this is still a team that boasts some of the best players in the league including Paweł Brozek, Semir Stilić, and Arek Głowacki.
Smuda responded to Gaszyński’s concerns via the media alleging that Legia spend millions on players yet he is forced to work with players that cost the proverbial ‘five złotys’ (approximately £1). Smuda’s tactless outburst not only did not do him any favours with the new management but also insulted the current crop of players under his watch, particularly the newly arrived Jean Barrientos and Boban Jović. As such the home game against last-placed Zawisza Bydgoszcz was critical with anything less than three points seen as a disaster – and what a disaster it turned out to be. Wisła’s flaccid performance resulted in a 1-0 loss more or less sealing Smuda’s fate at Reymonta 22.
In retrospect given what he delivered it cannot be argued that Smuda’s appointment was a mistake. He really did turn things around in the autumn of 2013 in ways that no one had predicted. The only mistake was the length of the contract that he was given – something that was obvious to many Wisła fans at the time of his appointment. Given Smuda’s track record and the club’s precarious finances it seemed imprudent to award him with a job for three seasons, but Wisła owner Cupial is not exactly known for making sensible business decisions when it comes to his beloved club.
Will we see Smuda in the Ekstraklasa again? Being sixty-six he is at an age where most people contemplate retirement; however Smuda is not like most people and it would not be surprising to see him resurface at some other club. Given the endless fickleness and emphasis on short term results at most clubs in the Ekstraklasa there are bound to be vacancies tempting Franz to keep working. For all his shortcomings he still remains a very colourful figure that sticks out in the managerial blandness that seems to pervade Polish football. Smuda may no longer be the right fit for the biggest clubs in the league but there’s a good chance he still has a role to play given his over 30 years’ coaching experience. This may not be the end for Franz yet.
Thanks to Lucas for this post, you can follow him on Twitter here