When I was a little kid, the information that I could access about the world of football was pretty restricted. There was of course no internet, which meant the main form of gleaning knowledge about football was from Match magazine, Teletext and Clubcall. Indeed, Clubcall once got me into big trouble with my dad, as I secretly spent hours and hours listening to tidbits about my team Reading football club. Of course it wasn’t really secret – and I was thoroughly scalded when my dad got the phone bill. The point is, I found any way I could back then to immerse myself in football, and it wasn’t that easy.
One method of getting up close and personal with the football world was to play the various computer games that were on the market at the time. My first true love was the football managerial game Tracksuit Manager. My brother and I had managed to bully our dad into getting us a ZX Spectrum +3, after all everyone at school had a console, so why shouldn’t we get one too? I don’t think my father realised the Pandora’s box that he was opening with the purchase. The game turned out to be so addictive that my brother and I spent every (non-homework) waking moment playing it. The length of time we spent playing the game was also due to the slowness of the console, Tracksuit Manager took about an hour to load, and the time between matches was almost infinite (at least to a small child) – and if it crashed – which it frequently did – then you had to go through the whole process all over again. Yes, it took patience to play.
The premise of the game was however simple: Pick a country, input your players (yes you had to input the players) and initially attempt to qualify for the 1988 European Championships and then for the 1990 World Cup. The game was incredibly addictive and really drew you into the managerial experience and, if you made it to the final tournament, very nerve-wracking. I don’t think we ever won a tournament, but we had a good time trying.
Fast forward 25 years and, writing about Polish football, I bought and started to read the biography of the former Polish football star Dariusz ‘Jackie’ Dziekanowski. As I was reading a memory struck me full in the face, didn’t I, way back in the day, once play as Poland and Dziekanowski in an old football game? In fact, didn’t I have a song about him that I used to joyfully sing as he scored goal after goal? Intrigued by these memories I got in touch with my brother and asked him what the game was. After a bit of a discussion we worked out it was Tracksuit manager – and the song I had sung about Dziekanowski was to the tune of ‘La Cucaracha’ – obviously as a 9 year old English kid I completely massacred the pronunciation, but that was beside the point.
Dziekanowski while playing for Legia in the mid-1980s
So, oddball that I am, and with a lot of time on my hands, I decided to find the game online, play as Poland, and see how well I could do. Here goes.
It was relatively easy to find and download the game – I quickly discovered there’s a whole raft of old console emulators out there, and games that take up a very small amount of space on computers and hand-held devices. So I got started.
The first thing you notice when playing the game is the outlandish colour scheme – staring at the screen with these colours glaring out at you for too long has the potential to lead to migraines. That didn’t deter me though. I decided to make the game as realistic as I could by calling myself the coach of Poland’s Euro ’88 qualifiers squad, Wojciech Łazarek, and entering players from that side via wikipedia – the wonderful resource that certainly wasn’t available back in 1990. Entering the players was a pretty time-consuming process, but after half an hour or so I finally could properly play the game.
Wojciech Łazarek (on the left) while managing Lech Poznań in the early 1980s
Before going any further, a bit of background is required. The Polish national side in 1986 was certainly not in a good state. Although Poland qualified for four straight world cups between 1974 and 1986, many commentators felt that the team was in decline. Sure they had made the second round of the Mexico World Cup, but a generation of younger players – such as Dziekanowski, Dariusz Wdowczyk and Jan Urban (all born in 1962) were, for whatever reason, not up to the same class as the stars of 1974-1986 including Kazimierz Deyna, Grzegorz Lato, Zbigniew Boniek and Włodzimierz Smolarek. While it’s true that the latter two were still with the national team in 1986, they were approaching the end of their careers.
In addition to the weakened player pool, Polish football was organisationally and financially falling behind the rest of Europe. The late Smolarek in his autobiography ‘Smolar’ regularly bemoans the administrative chaos prevalent in Polish football in the mid-1980s – with medical science being particularly atrocious – meaning players’ fitness levels were way below what they should have been. The Polish state at the time was of course in the midst of a financial and political crisis, it being the aftermath of Solidarity and Martial law – and the resources available for Polish football were poor.
The Euro ’88 qualifiers turned out to be a disaster for Poland. Łazarek wasn’t able to maintain discipline in the squad and found it difficult to integrate ageing stars like Zbigniew Boniek with young bucks such as Dziekanowski and Urban. Although Poland started off with a creditable 0-0 draw with the Netherlands in Amsterdam, the campaign quickly got worse. Two matches would go down in history as examples the national team was not what it was: First Poland drew 0-0 at home with minnows Cyprus in Gdańsk, and then, in a wild game, lost 5-3 to Hungary in Budapest. This was how Smolarek remembered the latter game:
‘Łazarek wasn’t able to make the players believe they could achieve good results. The Hungary game was like when you play park football and suddenly someone shouts ‘Everyone attack!. We had no idea what we were doing. It was a little like the charge of the Polish cavalry in the second world war – swords against tanks. We took part in something which couldn’t succeed, and we kept trying again and again because maybe at the end of the day it would all work out.’
Hungary 5 Poland 3
Poland eventually came second bottom in the group (only finishing above Cyprus) and would not qualify for another major tournament until the 2002 World Cup. Thus, no easy task lay ahead of me.
My job instantly became more difficult right from the start as Poland were drawn in a group containing Spain, England and Romania (or Rumania as it was spelt back then). England are always difficult opponents for Poland (Poland’s only win against the three lions was in 1973) and had made the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup – beating Poland 3-0 in the process – and in real life would qualify for Euro ’88. Spain made the quarter-finals of Mexico ’86, would also qualify in real life for Euro ’88 and possessed great players such as Emilio Butragueño and Michel. The only side Poland potentially had the edge over was Romania – who missed out on Mexico. What made it all the more difficult was the fact that only ONE side from each group qualified for the Euros – at the time only 8 sides played in the finals. It didn’t look positive for Poland’s chances.
I got down to work – I set up three early friendlies in preparation for the first qualifier, which was to be played at home to Romania on October 12th 1986. The first two games were at home against weak opposition, Albania and Finland, I figured it was a good opportunity to score a lot of goals and get the side in a positive frame of mind. How wrong I was! Both games Poland drew 0-0, and although we had three disallowed goals – the team had few goalscoring opportunities and the matches were not great spectacles.
Poland vs Albania, the excitement of it all
Just a quick note in terms of the way the game plays, its flaws and its strong points. Several things were quite problematic, there was of course a lot less options compared to modern managerial games – but still you could fiddle around with the team and player tactics, and scout other sides to find out what formation they preferred. Other issues included the fact that the game crashed quite a lot, which meant a lot of strategic saving had to be carried out. One other issue with the game is the amount of bad passes that occur when you watch the match interface – something that leads to very few goals being scored. Despite this, for a 27 year old computer game, it plays remarkably well – the squads of national teams are up to date, and it all works pretty smoothly. Watching the matches is also quite exciting – in other words you can get engrossed in the game.
After the two dull draws vs weak sides I played away against the side that would go on to win the actual Euro ’88 – Holland. Here, playing a 4-3-3 formation and a quick counter-attacking style, we performed rather well – achieving a creditable 0-0 away draw. So three matches in I had some ideas – but Poland were certainly not pulling up any trees. To try to somehow get some goals I organised a home friendly against the weakest European side in 1988 – Luxembourg – and Poland were able to come away with a 2-0 win, with Smolarek and Ryszard Tarasiewicz getting the goals.
The excitement level went up a notch during the first qualifying game at home to Romania. Romania should have been the weakest team in the group so there was a lot of pressure to beat them. Poland dominated the match, with a number of shots saved, and hit the woodwork via one effort from Legia Warsaw’s Jarosław Araszkiewicz. Unfortunately we couldn’t come away with a win – and ended up drawing the game 0-0. The task of qualifying had become more difficult.
In order to prepare for the next qualifying game vs Spain in Warsaw I organised four friendlies – two against weak opposition (South Korea and Canada) to test out attacking formations and two against stronger sides (France and Portugal) – the latter in order to test Poland’s arm against a side who play a similar way to Spain. Although we came away with victories in the first two friendlies, and drew well in France, Poland slipped to a poor 1-0 defeat at home to Portugal. The signs were rather mixed in the build-up to the Spain game. I decided to go (see the screenshot below) with the following starting eleven vs Spain – by now I had realised that Dziekanowski was not as good in the game as I had remembered – so my preferred strike-force was Smolarek and GKS Katowice’s mustachioed attacker Jan Furtok.
Once more, despite having the best of the game, the final result was disappointing. In the 79th minute Butragueño scored after a break-away and Poland went down to a 1-0 home defeat.
With a loss and a draw and no goals scored, our situation in qualifying was pretty bleak. I decided – like Łazarek in Budapest in 1987 – to really go for it in the away game with England. I started with a 4-4-2 formation but was prepared to change to three and even four up front if things went awry. Unfortunately things went against Poland straight from the start, first Gary Stevens scored after only 2 minutes, then Tony Adams made it two in the 27th minute. In the second half I moved to 4-2-4 and it only got worse, Gary Stevens got another and Gary Lineker finished the rout with the fourth near the end. This result basically meant that Poland were not going to qualify for the Euros.
I used to love Peter Beardsley (not for his looks of course).
Getting pummeled at Wembley
In the run-up to the last chance saloon, away to Romania in September 1987, like before I set up several friendlies intended to get the Polish team some goals and much-needed confidence and a friendly vs someone (Hungary) who would play a similar way to our most important opponents Romania. The aim to get goals backfired – Poland lost 1-0 at home to Malta in a June Friendly! I’m pretty sure in real life Łazarek would have been sacked at this point. We did however beat Hungary in the build-up to the Romania game. Once more, it was all a bit of a mixed-bag.
Better news was around the corner though. In Bucharest, my derided Poland side came away with a great 2-0 win, via goals from Smolarek and Furtok. As a result of the victory, Poland had an outside chance of qualifying for the Euros, but would need a win away in Spain and at home to the dastardly English. In the crucial Madrid match in March, I started with a 4-4-2 formation and we initially played well, making it to half-time 0-0. In the second half I switched to 4-3-3, bringing on Dziekanowski as a third striker – and…in the 53rd minute Waldemar Matysik (then of Górnik Zabrze) put Poland 1-0 up! Unfortunately several minutes later Spain came back to equalise and held out for a draw. Poland were officially not going to the Euros – I held back a tear.
The real-life Matysik (on the left) playing against Argentina in October 1981
The last game of the qualifiers was against England at home, a side that had an outside chance of qualifying from the group – if they won and Spain lost. I decided to play 4-3-3 to see if Poland could end the qualifiers with a win. Sadly it wasn’t to be and England won 1-0 via a Beardsley goal mid-way through the second half. Despite this Spain drew with Romania and qualified for the finals.
The final group table
So Poland had failed to make it to the Euros – indeed in a similar way to what had occurred in the actual qualifiers. I enjoyed playing the game in general, it’s just a shame that I couldn’t get Poland to the finals. If there’s one problem with the game it would be the lack of goals – in twenty games Poland only scored 11 goals – and only let in 11. Smolarek ended up being my top scorer (with a meagre four goals) – something that makes sense seeing as in 1986-7 he was arguably Poland’s stand-out player.
Smolarek’s incredible top-goal scoring feats (not).
All in all it was an enjoyable trip back to the past. I got a chance to tip my hat at my ten year old self and enter a world where Gary Lineker, Butragueño and Emil Kostadinov were still around and scoring goals. I think it was worth it.