Sunday 9 February 2020

Bringing Joy to Difficult Times: When Widzew Łódź Were Beating the Likes of Liverpool to Ease the Pain in Their Troubled Homeland

"You are great. See you in Athens." - Those were the words of Zbigniew Boniek. A former Widzew player himself, the Juventus star was as delighted as anyone by the success of the Polish side and with the semi-finals looming for both Widzew and his Juve team he was desperate for the draw to keep them apart and the pair to meet in the final in Greece.

With the club having been defeated in the first round of the previous season's European Cup, Zbigniew Boniek had left Widzew for Italian giants Juventus and probably did not expect his former side to get very far in 1982-83 edition. So, to see them defeat Liverpool, a club who had won three of last six finals, must have left him wondering if he'd actually needed to leave his former club in search of European glory after all?

As the 1970s drew to a close and a new decade began to dawn it was a difficult time for the people of Poland. In December 1981 martial law was put into effect to try and crush political opposition, thousands were arrested and an estimated 90+ people killed. The formation of the Solidarity trade union in the shipyards of Gdansk in the summer of 1980 brought with it an anti-soviet movement and demand for change which in turn produced civil unrest. Ultimately this saw Solidarity, which had rapidly amassed as many ten million members, banned and its leader Lech Wałęsa arrested. What followed was the imposition of direct military control on the nation and this lasted until mid 1983. In these darks times, football no doubt brought some light relief for many and one area in which the Polish people did have something to cheer about was the success of their football clubs on the continental front or at least one team in particular. As times got tough, tensions began to rise and so did the fortunes of Widzew Łódź on the European stage as they defeated some of the continents biggest names.

Based in Poland's third city and overshadowed by their more successful crosstown rivals ŁKS Łódź, RTS Widzew Łódź, originally formed in 1910, did not make their top flight Ekstraklasa debut until 1948 and lasted only for one lone season. But promoted back to Poland's top flight in 1975, Widzew in second place finished just three points behind champions Śląsk Wrocław in 1976-77. Two seasons later another second placed finish saw Ruch Chorzów pip them to the title on goal difference and after coming so close in that 1978-79 campaign Widzew, again in second, finished three points behind title winners Szombierki Bytom the following season. Now an established top flight club, it was probably about time the bridesmaid became the bride, and yes league success would follow but it really was in European competition where they were having the biggest of impacts.

In the first round of the 1977-78 UEFA Cup Widzew beat English side Manchester City, this at a time when English clubs dominated on the European stage, whilst three years later city rivals Manchester United were the next English side to lose to Widzew with Juventus being knocked out in the following round. But that was just the beginning, then there was a trailblazing European Cup run in 1982-83 and that momentous tie with Liverpool. Polish club football had never seen such heady days. 

Man City were defeated on away goals after draws of 2-2 and 0-0 before Widzew lost to eventual champions PSV in the next round whilst Widzew's next European win came against the other Manchester Club. Man Utd had finished second in the English First Division in the previous season and were obvious favourites when paired against Widzew in the first round of the 1980-81 UEFA Cup. With Widzew away from home in the first leg, Man Utd took an early lead through Sammy McIlroy but Widzew quickly drew level thanks to a Krzysztof Surlit free-kick. With no further goals, the match ended 1-1 before a goalless second leg in front of almost 40000 spectators saw the Poles win via the away goals rule. 

The Man Utd second leg had been played at the larger home of city rivals ŁKS Łódź and another crowd of roughly 40000 were in attendance at Stadion ŁKS for the next round when Italian giants Juventus came to town. Defender Andrzej Grębosz slotted home to put the hosts in front after half an hour but Juve equalised before half-time. It was Widzew, however, who would win the match with second-half goals from midfielder Marek Pięta and forward Włodzimierz Smolarek securing a 3-1 victory to take to Italy. Pięta's goal was a header after the ball was fired across the box whilst a brilliant counter attack had seen Smolarek finish the scoring. The scenes were jubilant, Widzew had defeated one the continents top sides. What a result! 

The Italians thought at home they could turn things around to comfortably progress past their on paper inferior opponents and at one point it looked as if they might. Things did not start well for Widzew when upon arrival they had to wait over an hour and a half for their team bus to turn up whilst on the pitch the players seemingly took a while to turn up too. When another excellent counter attack ended with Pięta scoring for the visitors on 59 minutes his side had already gone 2-0 down after a rather disappointing first-half and a poor opening to the second. Pięta's goal seemed massive but a minute after he'd pulled one back Irishman Liam Brady scored a third for Juventus to level the tie once more. The score stayed that way and with the tie also level on away goals it would have to go to extra-time, and when those two extra periods didn't settle things it went to penalties. It was a nightmare start for Juve as they missed their first two penalties whilst Widzew scored both of theirs and ended up winning the shoot-out by scoring four out of four with Zbigniew Boniek scoring the final penalty, a name Juventus would soon become accustomed to. It was goalkeeper Józef Młynarczyk who had helped the most, however, saving both of Juve's missed penalties.

Unfortunately, the dream ended for Widzew in the next round. Disaster struck away at Bobby Robson's Ipswich Town when Widzew, despite creating several chances early on, lost 5-0. The 1-0 win at home the followed in the second leg wasn't anywhere near enough, Widzew were out. Ipswich would go on to win the whole thing.

Whilst earning themselves a few major scalps in Europe, at home in 1980-81 Widzew were aiming for league glory. Widzew conceded only 25 goals during their 30 game league campaign and won the title finishing two points ahead of nearest challengers Wisła Kraków. The following season Widzew won the title again and this time it was Śląsk Wrocław who were their nearest challengers. Śląsk took them all way only losing the title to Widzew on goal difference, but nonetheless Widzew were champions for a second season running. With coach Władysław Jan Żmuda now in charge for 1981-82 after previous manager Jacek Machciński had resigned due to conflict with the club, Widzew's first crack at the European Cup had not ended well as the club lost 6-2 on aggregate to Belgian side Anderlecht in the first round. The following season's European Cup campaign, however, would be much more enjoyable.

Widzew started the 1982-83 season with several of their key players having moved abroad. Pięta had joined Hannover 96 in Germany and defender Władysław Żmuda (not to be confused with the manager) left for Hellas Verona in Italy but the biggest move was that of Boniek. After seven years, 172 appearances, and 50 goals, the attacking midfielder had agreed to join Juventus of Italy for roughly just over £1,000,000 - the same Juventus he had helped Widzew famously defeat almost two years earlier. Boniek was an international star for Poland and had featured at the 1982 World Cup scoring a hat-trick in one match against Belgium. Although he never scored for Widzew on the more famous of those big European nights, he had still played an important role and had a hand in Widzew's second goal in the first leg against Juventus in 1980. Those departures aside, the squad was mostly unchanged with defender Roman Wójcicki who had joined from Śląsk Wrocław and Tadeusz Świątek a midfielder arriving from Wisla Plock the only significant arrivals.

Widzew clearly still had a strong team and finished only one point behind Lech Poznań in the league championship that 1982-83 season. Their European Cup campaign got underway with a 7-2 aggregate victory over Maltese champions Hibernians before a trip to Austria in round two. Widzew faced Austrian champions Rapid Wien and found themselves defeated 2-1 away from home in the first leg whilst when the Austrians visited Łódź those in attendance witnessed an 8 goal thriller. Two goals from midfielder Pawel Woźniak and one from Zdzisław Rozborski saw the home side 3-0 up only for the visitors to pull it back to 3-2 with goals either side of half-time. Surlit and recent signing from the second tier Wiesław Wraga restored Widzew's three goal advantage before the Austrian's pulled another back late on to make it 5-3 but it didn't matter as Widzew were through to the next round.

The next round was the quarter finals where Widzew had a gargantuan task ahead of them. Liverpool, English First Division champions and European Cup winners two years previous, had been drawn to face Widzew. Very few people, if any, would have given the Poles even the slightest chance of winning. They'd defeated English sides before, but surely not the might of Liverpool? 

When European football returned in the second-half of the season all Polish eyes looked towards Widzew v Liverpool and on March 3, 1983, more than 45000 spectators were in attendance when the Merseysiders visited Łódź for the first leg of their quarter-final tie. Managed by legendary manager Bob Paisley, the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Alan Kennedy, Ian Rush, and Graeme Souness were in town, some of the biggest names in the game, but if they thought they'd have it all their own way they were sadly mistaken.

On a bracing cold evening with snow having been cleared from the pitch, the match got underway with at times Widzew seemingly running rings round their illustrious opponents. The hosts were much the better side in the first-half but failed to find the net, that would change in the second period, however. Widzew made good use of the wings and a cross from Surlit into the box on 49 minutes saw Liverpool 'keeper Bruce Grobbelaar come out to punch the ball clear only to miss and see it fall to Miroslaw Tłokiński who slotted the ball home from close range. 1-0 became 2-0 on 80 minutes when Wraga, on as a substitute, found the net from a Grębosz cross. Wraga had headed home from the edge of the box leaving Grobbelaar helpless and the Poles had a commanding 2-0 lead to take to Liverpool's Anfield home for the second leg. The result also kept alive an impressive unbeaten streak at home which was now up to 24 games, a run which was last for further 20 matches to reach 44 before they finally lost on home soil.

Maybe Liverpool were a bit phased by the political situation in the country and found concentration on the match a little difficult? Unlike in Prague some 15 years earlier, the Soviet tanks had yet to arrive in Poland, well at least not since World War II, but what the future held was somewhat uncertain and to outsiders, the situation probably looked rather volatile. After all, in Łódź itself less than two years earlier a massive hunger demonstration involving local mothers and their children had taken place. Tensions were high. But whatever the reasons for Liverpool's defeat surely they could overturn the deficit at home in the second leg?
There were 50,000 spectators at Anfield, the Kop was in full voice as the game got underway, and the first-half was a tale of two penalties. When Phil Neal fired a free-kick into the box Marek Filipczak jumped for the ball only for it to go over his head where Kennedy next to him headed down and it hit his hands - Penalty to Liverpool. It was Neal who took the penalty and he hit it straight down the middle whilst Mlynarczyk in goal for Widzew dived to his left. It was 1-0 Liverpool after 16 minutes then but there would be a penalty at the other end six minutes before half-time. Liverpool had had a few long range efforts but had failed to find a second and when goalkeeper Grobbelaar brought down Smolarek Widzew had the chance to draw level from the spot. Grobbelaar dived the right way but Mirosław Tłokiński hit the ball between his arms and it was 1-1.

Eight minutes into the second-half Filipczak helped make amends for conceding that penalty when he broke forward and found Smolarek who slotted home to silence Anfield. One of the greatest sides in world football were well and truly staring into the abyss. Liverpool dominated most of the second-half but Widzew were holding on and kept their hosts at bay until the 80th minute when poor defensive play helped Rush find the net. With Widzew still two goals ahead on aggregate and also having two vital away goals, it meant Liverpool still needed three more so when David Hodgson put Liverpool ahead in the final minute it was all but irrelevant. Liverpool had won on the night but lost the tie, Widzew had conquered one of Europe's elite in what was one of the European Cup's biggest upsets. The Poles had reached the semi-finals having now scored in each of their last eight European Cup matches. The visitors were applauded off the pitch by the home support and back in Poland cheering fans waited at the airport for the team's arrival home - they could not believe what had happened.

The semi-final draw, unfortunately, meant that Juventus star and ex Widzew player Boniek would not get the final he had hoped for. Juventus were paired against Widzew and fresh from beating current European Cup holders Aston Villa 5-2 on aggregate they would face the Poles at home in the first leg of the pairs final four encounter. As far as many were concerned it would be another mammoth task for Widzew against another giant of European football, but had they forgotten what happened when the two sides met two years earlier? Could it happen again? Also, how would Boniek fare against his former club? Would he have conflicted emotions? Many were asking these questions particularly back in Poland. Boniek emphasised that he was a professional, however, and stated all had done was change 'company' and now worked for Juventus, no big deal. 

There were over 66000 spectators in attendance at the Stadio Comunale for the semi-final first leg and a Grębosz own goal put the home side in front after just eight minutes and Roberto Bettega doubled Juve's lead in the second-half after an excellent counter attack from hosts. This gave the Italians a vital two goal lead going into the second leg. Widzew started the second leg with vigorous attacks but Juventus kept them at bay and then with an attack of their own took the lead through Paolo Rossi on 32 minutes. 3-0 down on aggregate, Widzew now had a mountain to climb. Two goals from Surlit, the second a free-kick, gave Widzew hope, albeit away goals and time remaining meant by this point they had only 9 minutes left and needed to score two more. Their task was made pretty much impossible when a minute after their second Juventus grabbed a third. Old friend Boniek was involved, being brought down by Młynarczyk to earn his side a penalty which Michel Platini duly scored. The game ended 2-2 and Widzew were out. One other disappointing note was that there had been a bottle thrown from the stands which hit one of the linesmen and halted the match for 20 minutes, something that earned Widzew the punishment of having to play their next two home European games at a neutral venue.

The following season, with martial law having come to an end, saw Widzew knocked out in the second round of the UEFA Cup whilst a season later they progressed a round further in the same competition defeating German giants Borussia Mönchengladbach on away goals along the way. In the league, 1982-83s second placed finish was followed by the same the following year before two third placed finishes and a Polish Cup trophy. But there saw an end to the glory years. As is often the case, one's success can help bring about one's downfall and this was arguably what happened with Widzew. Many of the club's stars moved on to better things elsewhere, adequate replacements were hard to come by and the club began to struggle. With communism coming towards an end at the conclusion of the decade, things were starting to look brighter for the Polish nation and as a new decade dawned free and democratic elections were very much on the horizon. Amongst this bright future, however, there was very much doom and gloom at Widzew with the club relegated in 1990 after finishing second bottom with only four wins to their name. 

The air of despondency at Widzew did not last long, however. The club returned to the top flight at the first attempt whilst in a post-communist Poland success did briefly follow in the mid '90s with back to back league titles in 1995-96 and 1996-97. In the second of those two campaigns, they also reached the group stages of the UEFA Champions League finishing third in a group that included Atlético de Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, and Steaua București. The days of reaching the semi-finals of such competitions, however, were long gone!

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