BY CIAN MANNING
The League of Ireland had been dominated by Dublin clubs; from its establishment in 1921 to the 1940s. Dundalk became the first team from outside the capital to win the league in 1933. The 1940s saw a side from the south – Cork United – win five titles in six seasons before folding in 1948. The subsequent two decades witnessed a return to the status quo with the Metropolitan clubs of Dublin (Drumcondra, St. Patrick’s Athletic, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne) achieving league title success on 15 occasions from 1946/47 to 1964/65. Provincial clubs such as Cork, Dundalk and Waterford in the south-east of Ireland had to be resourceful and find different ways to recruit players to compete, let alone capture silverware.
Sligo Rovers in the west of Ireland had impressive fundraising campaigns over the years, holding dances and raffles to generate money to support the club. Whereas Waterford directly recruited players from England to contend with the Dublin teams. This led to the club winning the League of Ireland title in 1966, three in-a-row from 1968 to 1970, and again in 1972. Yet the old adage of ‘if you stay still in football you fall behind’ clearly was on the mind of those who governed the club. Waterford looked for other ways to stay ahead of its competitors in trying to maintain the success during what was clearly their golden era. They looked east: to Europe and specifically Poland.
The first player they recruited was a central midfielder by the name of Suski, a former Polish international. However, the Blues had their sights on striker Włodek Lubański of Górnik Zabrze. He had polled seventh in the 1972 Ballon d’Or award claimed by Franz Beckenbauer and was a player of international calibre; renowned and in his prime. The Irish domestic game had never seen his like before.
The then Director of Waterford FC, Frank Davis (based in Dublin), stated in the signing of Piotr Suski from Łódź and the pursuit of Włodzimierz Lubański that ‘the fact that we have had to go to Poland for players is an indication that all is not well with the state of football here [the Republic of Ireland].’ Davis noted that the 14 team League of Ireland was too large for a population the size of the Republic of Ireland, with not enough players to go around for each club. Previously, provincial clubs such as Waterford had sought players from England to compete and hoped by casting their net further afield could yield dividends on the pitch. Davis noted ‘The Dublin clubs just have not tried in this respect and that is why in recent seasons they have won nothing.’ Another advantage to a Pole signing for a League of Ireland club was that the competition took place during the Polish off-season.
Lubanski, then in his early 30’s, had spent his entire senior career to that point at Górnik Zabrze winning six Polish Championships and six Polish Cups. He was the league’s top scorer for four seasons in-a-row from 1966 to 1969. In European competition, Lubański led the line as the club reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1968 and were runners-up to Manchester City in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970. The latter of which is still the best performance by a Polish club in European competition. As the top scorer with seven goals in Górnik’s journey to the final, Lubański came to the attention of Real Madrid who were willing to pay US$1,000,000 for his services but this apparent deal was rejected by the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party.
Waterford’s pursuit of Lubański in what would have been ‘the biggest soccer coup in Irish football history’ in December 1972 was rumoured by the media to be hampered by a restriction placed on Polish players under 30 years of age leaving the country (no such ban was in place which Davis acknowledged) by the Polish FA. The Dutch giants Ajax and Feyenoord were also keen on the Polish international striker. The stumbling block for the Dutch sides appeared to be in failing to agree that Lubański remain an amateur and be allowed to return to his homeland to play for the national team; an arrangement that the League of Ireland club were willing to fulfil. Feyenoord manager Gus Brox stated that there was ‘no possibility’ of the Polish star playing in Holland in the near future’ to the press. However, they had enquired about the availability of the striker and were rumoured to have offered £58,000 for his services. Ajax were believed to have offered £60,000 for Lubański (with 25% going to the player himself). Yet the League of Ireland club hoped to get the attacker on loan for a couple of months with the Irish Press recording that they ‘have been in touch with the player by phone.’
The signing of Piotr Suski was completed midway through the ‘72/73 season. Though he was in hospital in Poland at the time which Seamus Martin of the Sunday Independent asserted that ‘Blues fans need have no worries at all, because most of the Polish soccer playing fraternity are in hospital as well.’ At the end of the Polish domestic season, players were obligated to go to ‘special sanatoria for a rest and a programme to build up the energy expended over the season’.
Suski was to play for the club as an amateur. Born in Łódź in 1942, he joined the academy of LKS Łódź making his first team debut in 1959 aged seventeen. In his first season he won the Polish National Championship beating Legia Warsaw to the title on the final day of the campaign. Between 1961 and 1967 he received 19 caps for the Polish national team, the most notable of which came against Brazil at the Maracanã in 1966. Suski’s club gradually declined and were relegated in 1969 to the second division but were promoted back to the top tier in 1971.
Suski eventually arrived in Ireland that February (1973) and local Waterford paper the Munster Express noted that ‘he has hardly a word of English’ but suggested that ‘he must have been appalled at the size of the pitch and the uncompromising tackling. In Poland, pitches are state-owned, subsidies and facilities are far superior to anything to be found in the League of Ireland.’ He played an important role in the club winning its sixth league title, forming a great understanding with Tommy McConville in midfield. Local journalist Matt Keane notes of Suski: ‘He had a lovely sense of balance and was capable of spraying the ball around the park with ease, and his work ethic was superb, although he made things look very easy, which of course is a sign of a very good player.’ Jimmy McGeough provided the steel to complement Suski’s ball playing skills. He was not joined by his compatriot Lubański for the 1972/73 campaign.
The summer of 1973 would see the League of Ireland champions embarking on a tour of the United States. Suski was going to return to Poland instead of travelling to America but was certain to return to Kilcohan for the following season. Sadly, the success of Suski was to last just that one year: he never did return to the south-east of Ireland. Instead, he took up a coaching position with his local team in Poland. His lone League of Ireland winners medal is also the last time that the club won the premier competition of Irish domestic soccer.
Lubański never did join the Blues in the League of Ireland. After 234 games and 155 goals for Górnik he joined Lokeren in Belgium playing seven seasons before spending a campaign with Valenciennes in France, two seasons at Stade Quimper and turning out once for Belgian side Mechelen in 1985. He remains the Poland national team’s second all-time top goal scorer with 48 goals in 75 matches. The Robert Lewandoski of his era did play against the Republic of Ireland national team, scoring on visits to Dalymount Park in 1964 and 1968. His record against the Boys in Green was just as impressive in his native land scoring three times in two games which took place in 1968 and 1973.
Yet Waterford’s pursuit of Polish players didn’t end with Suski or Lubanski. The Evening Herald reported in October 1976 that ‘Waterford director Frank Davis, [note now] the FAI president, is at present in Warsaw negotiating for the possible transfer to the Munster club of one of the biggest names in Polish football…Deyna.’ Kazimierz Deyna played for Legia Warsaw and was a member of the Polish team that won the bronze medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. It appeared that the Blues were pleased with the Suski experiment and hoped to go one better than their endeavours for the services of Lubanski with Deyna.
Davis was unable to obtain the signature of the Legia player who played 304 games for the club scoring 94 goals. His international record was just as impressive receiving 102 caps and reaching a figure of 45 goals. At the Munich Olympics in 1972 he would help his nation claim the Gold Medal finishing as the competition’s top scorer with 9 goals. However, the Communist authorities would not permit him to play for a foreign team during the height of his powers. He did eventually join Manchester City in 1978 before moving to the States to play for the San Diego Sockers. Kazimierz Deyna even had a brush with Hollywood with a role in John Huston’s 1981 film Escape to Victory which starred Sylvester Stallone, Pele and Bobby Moore. Tragically, the former City player died in a car crash aged 41 in 1989.
As often is the case in soccer the thoughts of what could have been tend to fade with the passing years. The hype and anticipation of capturing the signings of Lubański and Deyna for Waterford are like reels of film that fail to make the final director’s cut of a movie. Suski’s spell by the banks of the River Suir formed a part of the tale of a club that have gone through thin and thinner, with years in the second tier of Irish soccer and on the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Investment in 2016 from Lee Power, also chairman of Swindon Town, has propelled the club back to the Premier League by recruiting players from Estonia, Latvia and Belgium. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Perhaps the glory days are just around the corner for the south-east club and maybe they will finally land that international quality striker. There’s no harm in dreaming.