The story of a village team challenging for the Polish title
Nieciecza, with a population of just 700 people, are currently fourth in the top flight
The Stadion Termalica Bruk-Bet Nieciecza has a capacity of just under 5,000 but could still accommodate the population of the village seven times over.
The village of Nieciecza in southern Poland is not a place you would expect to find a top-flight football team, surrounded as it is by rural cornfields, the pretty river Dunajec and a huge factory that manufactures paving slabs and building materials at its northern end. But up at the north-eastern corner is the home of Bruk-Bet Termalica Nieciecza, a club that are defying all expectations by occupying fourth place in the Ekstraklasa, where they sit just six points behind the leaders, Jagiellonia Bialystok, before the league resumes on 10 February.
Their recently renovated stadium is an incongruous sight, with its modern shiny facade and newly built car park set against a village that consists of no more than a handful of streets and just over 700 people. But it is also a source of great pride for a group of people who can now safely say they hail from the smallest place in Europe to host a major nation top-tier football team.
There are echoes of Hoffenheim in the Polish club’s rapid rise but while Dietmar Hopp used money he made in the software business to fund the German club’s ascent, the owner of Nieciecza, Krzysztof Witkowski – who grew up in the village – has backed the club with cash he has generated from Bruk-Bet, the building materials company he founded around 30 years ago that still stands there today. He began with a mixer and his own bare hands and built it up into one of Poland’s most successful businesses. Now he appears to be doing the same again with his local team, who little over a decade ago were amateurs kicking around in the sixth tier of Polish football.
Having raced through the pyramid between 2004 and 2010 they reached the second division, where many thought they would do well to cling on to their status. But with additional sponsorship from the insulation company Termalica and some shrewd signings the club surpassed all expectations. In 2015, they finished second and gained entry to the Ekstraklasa thanks to promotion specialist Piotr Mandrysz’s expert management and the firepower of the striker Emil Drozdowicz.
For a team backed by construction companies, it is apt that their success appears to have been founded on having the right tools for the task at hand. Most clubs would have stuck with a man who had achieved such a stunning feat but after Mandrysz guided Nieciecza to a respectable 13th-place finish in their debut top-flight season in 2015-16, he was let go. In his place they appointed Czeslaw Michniewicz, nicknamed the Polish Mourinho due to his tactical nous and preference for focusing on a well-drilled defensive system (Bolton-era Sam Allardyce would perhaps be a better fit). Given that he has taken the club to within sight of European football thanks to his unlovely but hugely effective style the move appears to have been a well thought through upgrade. Pragmatism is something the club does very well. When there was a problem with Pogon Szczecin fans attempting to start trouble outside the ground some years ago, the police gave chase and lost them in the overgrown corn fields that surrounded it. Witkowski now ensures nearby land is well kept so there is, quite literally, nowhere for hooligans to hide.
But it is not Krzysztof who is the chief decision-maker on footballing matters at Nieciecza. His wife, Danuta, is the club president and it is she who pulls the strings and handles transfers, contract negotiations and discussions with the manager and staff about what is needed for the team to succeed. It is not the norm for a woman to hold such a lofty position at a Polish club – and let’s be honest, it’s not the norm at most football clubs wherever they are – but she has earned great respect for her no-nonsense approach to business and, in a league in which corruption and golden handshakes have been rumoured to take place, her above-board approach has been welcomed. The club, based where it is far from the cultural attractions of a major city (Tarnow is 20km away and is home to just over 100,000 people) is not an attractive option for players but agents are increasingly recommending Nieciecza to clients due to Danuta’s blunt reliability when it comes to discussing wages and paying players on time (something that is not always guaranteed in Poland).
The appointment of a smart young analyst in Kamil Potrykus (who spent time over Christmas studying Aitor Karanka’s methods at Middlesbrough and is the former managing director of the International Professional Scouting Organisation) has helped in matters of reporting back in detail on opponents and has given Michniewicz the ammunition to target weaknesses among the league’s established clubs. It is an approach that is the norm at big clubs but Nieciecza have had to catch on quickly – and they have. They have also embraced technology in a huge way, investing in drones to record positional patterns in training sessions so they can give players videos to analyse at home.
In an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Michniewicz was repeatedly asked questions about his modern methods and he admitted that if results go badly he risks ridicule by conservative commentators who see his approach as being a bit gimmicky. But he believes the small details have made a big difference. “We train as much using our heads as our feet,” he said. “This is, as the Americans say, total immersion, total immersion. Footballers should devote themselves to their work. Without having the biggest budget or the widest staff and the best coach, we are in fourth place … drones can’t score goals, but they can help us win a few matches. I recently bought a programme for analysis, LongoMatch, specially prepared for us in Spain. Now we are the forerunners with it but in five years everyone will use this. However, I hope that then we’ll have something else.”
Michniewicz believes that with the family-orientated approach of the Witkowskis and the close ties between players and staff – many of them live on the same estate – the positive atmosphere at Nieciecza is a chief strength. “At bigger clubs relationships with owners are difficult but here they are available at any time. At least once a week the team meets with the president [Danuta]. Thanks to this she knows about all our problems and she is easier to work with. She asks about the wellbeing of all the players with the care of a mother.”
The club’s arrival in the elite league was at first met with bemusement and they were derisively called the “peasants” by rival fans who snorted at the low gates of around 2,000 for home games (they are still averaging this number) and lack of atmosphere. But since then there has been a growing admiration for the team’s acclimatisation. Far from being an enlivening experience, a visit to the countryside has been a stifling ordeal for big city guests. Nieciecza do not score many but when they do they make them count.
In August and September they beat Lechia Gdansk 2-1 and Legia Warsaw by the same score (they’re unbeaten in three matches against Poland’s most successful club) and they’ve held two other major clubs, Jagiellonia Bialystok, and fifth-placed Lech Poznan – who they face on Friday when the season resumes – to 0-0 draws. Thorough match-by-match preparation appears to be working. They have successfully scouted the Slovakian market with Samuel Stefanik and Patrik Misak among seven Slovaks on the club’s books who have impressed this season and in their top-scoring Latvian striker Vladislavs Gutkovskis they have a talented 21-year-old who will only improve and has been likened to Romelu Lukaku by Michniewicz. They even have a Brazilian, the full-back Guilherme, who helps add just a smidgen of flair on the left flank and the centre-back Artem Putivcev got a surprise call-up by Ukraine early in the season and is one of the main reasons Nieciecza do not concede many goals.
On top of this, Krzysztof has rebuilt the stadium to meet the league’s licensing requirements in less than six months. If a challenge is put in front of the Witkowskis, they rise to it. When the village school closed due to a lack of money they built a new one and Danuta has since been awarded the Medal of the National Education Commission for the philanthropic gesture. The stadium is also home to a state-of-the-art 5D cinema for public use and the couple regularly make charitable donations to a range of causes.
The symbol on the village crest – inherited by the football team – is that of an elephant. Nobody knows why but it dates back to around 1870 and is apt for a village that has never let its size prevent it from being culturally on a par with much bigger towns and cities. In the early 20th century the villagers stood apart for their interest in the arts and amateur dramatics in particular, with Krzysztof’s family being keen enthusiasts – his father took a course in set design. Now it is the football team that is flying the flag for this small community.
If Nieciecza do surpass all expectations and qualify for Europe this season, don’t expect the Witkowskis to rest on their laurels and view it as an achievement that they can sit back and admire. The couple who made their money in the concrete business, will want to mix it with the big boys and continue building.