With the international break upon us, but still much to look forward to this season, one of Fiorentina’s biggest games in recent years will come when we take on Lech Poznań. Our Europa Conference League quarter-final tie with the Polish champions gives us a chance to take a look at the history of this famous club.
The Railwaymen have come a long way in their 101-year history. From struggling to reach the top tier before the Second World War, numerous name changes, and a long wait for success. Their first Polish league title didn’t come until over 60 years after their formation, but they have since entered the Top Five list of most successful clubs in Poland.
The club was founded in 1922, at a time when there were already a number of teams in operation in the city of Poznań, most notably Warta. Lech’s original name had no mention of Lech, the founder of Poland, not a word about railways, in fact, it didn’t even have the name of the city.
A group of young men from the local Catholic Youth Society had decided to set up a football club, and it’s treasurer was a member of a choir called Lutnia (the lute musical instrument). Most of the club’s members were from an area of the city called Dębiec, where they would also have their original ground, and so the first name became Klub Sportowy Lutnia Dębiec.
This didn’t last long, and after a few months they had already become Towarzystwo Sportowe Liga Dębiec (Sport Association Dębiec League). In 1925, Dębiec officially became part of Poznań, and so the club were now called Towarzystwo Sportowe Liga Poznań. That same year, Stanisław Dereziński took over the running of the club, a change of chairman which would have a major impact on its fortunes.
Dereziński’s high position at the railway company brought about an important link with the club, and they were now on the right track to a brighter future. In 1930 the club came under the wing of the Railway Army Training Organisation, the KPW, and another name change saw them take on the catchy title of Klub Sportowy Kolejowego Przysposobienia Wojskowego Poznań Dworzec (Railway Military Training Sport Club Poznań Railway Station). They later dropped the Railway Station part of the name.
Originally the team wore red jerseys, but this would later change to the blue and white which we see today.
From the time the club entered official competition in 1924 until the outbreak of the Second World War, they had managed to climb from the fourth tier up to the second. The 1930’s saw them battle it out in the regional league in order to win a shot at promotion to the top league. At this point their biggest rivals were Legia Poznań and HCP Poznań, while Warta were already a successful club which had become Polish champions in 1929.
The Railway club were unable to win promotion, and just when their fans hoped they finally had a good chance, war broke out, and official football in Poland was suspended for six long years.
After the war, KKS Poznań were a club on the rise, and while Warta Poznań had initial success, the two clubs would soon find themselves on very different paths. In 1947 the league was run over three different groups, with the winners of each going into a final group. Warta topped their group and went on to become Polish champions for the second time. Little did they know it would also be their last.
KKS had finished fourth in a different group, which should have seen them miss out on a place in the following season’s top tier. The Polish football authorities had planned for 12 teams to take part as the league returned to its single group format. After protests and appeals, it was decided to extend the league to 14 clubs, and KKS Poznań took their place alongside neighbours Warta.
At this stage the club had become Klub Sportowy Związku Zawodowego Kolejarzy Poznań (Sports Club of the Poznań Railwaymen Trade Union), known as ZZK Poznań. Now, in 1948, they had finally reached the big time, and the locals were at last treated to a local derby in the top tier of Polish football.
When the two sides met on June 3rd, it was the Railwaymen who came out on top. A 2-0 win was a sign of things to come. When Warta hosted their neighbours later that season, they did manage a 2-2 draw, but the reigning Polish champions ended the season down in ninth place with the newcomers surprising everyone by not only surviving but finishing ahead of Warta in sixth spot.
There were only two points between the sides, but it was even closer at the top. Another two neighbouring clubs, Wisła Kraków and Cracovia finished level on points and needed a play-off to decide who would win the title. Cracovia won out, but just like Warta the season before, this would also be Cracovia’s last league success.
As would happen in Kraków, where Wisła would now take over as the top club, the same thing was taking place in Poznań. In both instances, it was also helped by the fact that both Lech and Wisła would gain more support from the Russian backed communist Polish government than their neighbours Warta and Cracovia.
The difference between Poznań and Kraków, however, was that while Wisła and Cracovia would become sworn enemies leading to a fierce rivalry and violent local derby games, Lech and Warta have never had that kind of relationship.
It may have helped that their meetings over the years have been few and far between. After the war, the Kolejarz club took over another old club in the city, Pogoń Poznań, but they were still known only as Kolejarz Poznań. Warta were not so fortunate, first their name changed to Związkowiec Poznań, and after a forced merger with the HCP club, they became Stal Poznań.
While Kolejarz (Lech) finished third in the table in both 1949 and 1950, Warta suffered their first ever relegation in that 1950 season. They would not return to the top flight for over 40 years.
The Railwaymen, Kolejarz, built this early success on three players who were known as ‘A-B-C’. Teodor Anioła was a right-winger who scored the club’s first ever goal in the top flight, and was the league’s top scorer in 1949, 1950, and 1951. Edmund Białas had made his debut for the club back in 1935, and also scored in the club’s first ever game in the top tier.
He was forced into retirement from injury in 1950, but would later have five different spells as manager at the club. Henryk Czapczyk began his career as a youth player with HCP, and after serving in the Second World War, returned home to join Warta. He joined Lech in 1949 and retired in 1953.
All three players were from Poznań, and their massive contribution to Lech’s history is remembered at the club’s stadium. Three of the four stands bear the names, Trybuna Anioły, Trybuna Białasa, and Trybuna Czapczyka (the fourth, home to the team’s most passionate fans, is called Kocioł, the Cauldron).
Back in the days when the A-B-C were still playing, the matches took place at the club’s Stadion na Dębcu. When the club started, back in 1922, up until 1934, they played at Grzybowa Street. Here they rented some land from the Wicherkiewicz family, and it could hardly be called a stadium, more of a field.
In 1927 a fence was placed around the pitch allowing the club to charge an admission fee for the matches. The team’s dressing room was in a nearby restaurant run by Stanisław Grzesiak and Jerzy Tritt.
The lease, which had been for 12 years, wasn’t renewed, and the team moved to the new ground which had been built to host the Railwaymen’s Sports Games. Later on, the running track would be removed in order to accommodate more fans.
It was around the time of the stadium redevelopment that Kolejarz started their slide. The end of the A-B-C combination and numerous changes of managers meant they were unable to repeat those high place finishes in the table.
For a couple of seasons they managed to avoid relegation, but the inevitable came in 1957 when Lech finished bottom of the table. I say Lech, because this was also the year in which another name change happened. Actually, two name changes, but they were both closer to how we know the club these days.
On January 16th, 1957, at a meeting of the Kolejarz Poznań Sports Association, one of the topics up for discussion was the possibility of changing the club’s name. After the Second World War, many clubs were forced into name changes to reflect which state department sponsorship they fell under.
There were those linked to the powerful military, such as Legia Warszawa who became CWKS Warszawa (Centralna Wojskowi Klub Sportowy-Central Military Sport Club). They were able to choose the best players called up for military service.
Others who came under the militia, took the name Gwardia, most notably Wisła Kraków becoming Gwardia Kraków. Their neighbours were less fortunate, Cracovia falling under urban services were now called Ogniwo Kraków.
While Lech had always had links to the railway, Polonia Warszawa were now forced to also take the name Kolejorz Warszawa but saw most of the sponsor’s funds go to the Poznań club.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, there was a slight easing of control, and clubs changed back to their original names. Now Kolejarz Poznań decided it was time they too made a change. They wanted a name which could be more identified with the city, and even more so, with the region, Wielkopolska. While ‘Piast’ and ‘Pogoń’ were other options, the members voted in favour of Lech. Lech, the founder of Poland, had after all settled in the Wielkopolska region (at Gniezno).
The club was now called Klub Sportowy Lech Poznań, but it was hard to leave behind its railway past. When 1957 brought relegation, the club decided to make a return to its roots, bringing back the railways while also keeping Lech in the name. By the end of the year they were now known as Kolejowy Klub Sportowy Lech Poznań, KKS Lech Poznań. This name would stand the test of time, well, at least for over 30 years.
This is where we end Part One, with the Railwaymen, (Kolejorz as they will always be known to the locals) now with a name we are more familiar with, Lech. They are also relegated to the second tier, II Liga, where they will once again meet with their neighbours Warta.
Unlike Warta, Lech will make a much quicker return to the top flight, before the Sixties see them drop again as far as the third division. Success, however, will arrive with league titles and cup wins, along with European football. We’ll also see more name changes, another new stadium, along with a young Robert Lewandowski.
Waiting at the end of the line will be a meeting with Fiorentina!