You don’t need a title to be a leader
It’s been quite easy this season to concentrate on the negatives, so let’s take a moment to focus on one of the few positives. There has been one player who has shown commitment, energy, aggression and continuity throughout all our games so far, that guy is our Polish goalkeeper Bartłomiej Drągowski.
As a Fiorentina fan living in Poland, it has been a real pleasure to see him perform so well, even when the rest of the team hasn’t been up to those same high standards. I often watch our matches on Polish television and of course the commentators take a special interest in their fellow countryman. It’s hardly a surprise to hear that they are very proud of his displays, in a season where in most games he has been our best player, our star performer.
There have been a lot of Polish goalkeepers down through the years who have made a name for themselves in world football. Back in the 1970’s Jan Tomaszewski denied England qualification for the ’74 World Cup, more recently Jerzy Dudek was a hero for Liverpool when they beat AC Milan on penalties to win the Champions League in 2005. Here in Italy we have seen the likes of Wojciech Szczęsny take over from Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus, Łukasz Skorupski is the number one at Bologna having made his name with Empoli. Fiorentina have of course had a Polish goalkeeper prior to Drągowski’s arrival, Artur Boruc joining in 2010. Now almost 41 years of age, Boruc is still playing at the top level, back in Poland with Legia Warszawa. Some people might also be surprised to know that even the legendary Danish and Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel could have played with the Polish national team. His father escaped from Poland, and Schmeichel’s middle name is a very Polish one- Bolesław.
Back to our own Polish hero, Bartek arrived at Fiorentina a couple of months before his 19th birthday. In Poland he had played two full seasons in the Polish top division with his hometown club, Jagiellonia Białystok, a club where his father Dariusz had been a midfield player. He made his first team debut when he was just 16, on the second last day of the 2013/14 season he was picked for the home game against Korona Kielce, where he conceded 4 goals in a 4-4 draw.
The following season, in game six the number one goalkeeper was sent-off just after the hour mark against Śląsk Wrocław, so Drągowski got his chance, but ended up conceding 3 goals, the first a penalty that he had to face as soon as he came on. He still managed to impress and would keep his place in the first eleven for the rest of the campaign, apart from missing three games in the middle of the season with a hand injury. He kept a clean sheet in each of his first three full games, and at the end of his first season he was named the Ekstraklasa’s Best Goalkeeper and also won the award for Discovery of the Season, as well as finishing third in the Best Overall Player category.
His club Jagiellonia Białystok finished third in the table that season having finished down in eleventh place the previous year. This gave Bartek the chance to also compete in the Europa League, and in the club’s four games in the competition he conceded only one goal. Despite going out of the tournament before the group stage, his performances combined with his already impressive record in Poland meant that European clubs were starting to take notice.
We have one life… so go and live it
Early in that 2015/16 season there were already rumours floating around about interest from clubs such as Chelsea and Juventus. At the end of another season as his clubs number one goalkeeper (despite already wearing his Number 69 jersey) and it was Fiorentina who won the signature of this bright prospect. To become the number one for the national team, Bartek knew he would need to make that move abroad, where those ahead of him in the pecking order were already experienced keepers. His manager had also advised that he choose a club that wouldn’t keep him waiting too long before he would break into the first team. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why he chose Fiorentina over one of the bigger European clubs who had been following his progress.
The Romanian international keeper, Ciprian Tătărușanu, was Paulo Sousa’s first choice at the time, and Bartek probably expected not to take his place straight away. He only made one first team appearance, on the last day of the season he played in the 2-2 draw with Pescara. He can’t have been too impressed to see not only Marco Sportiello making two appearances but also Luca Lezzerini who left the club on loan in January.
The following season, 2017/18, with a new man in charge, Stefano Pioli, and with Tătărușanu having moved on to Nantes, he may have thought that his chance had come to claim the number one spot. That place was taken however by Sportiello, with Bartek only making three Serie A appearances near the end of the season. Just like in Poland, his chance came after an early sending off for the Fiorentina goalkeeper, Sportiello sent off after just seven minutes at home to Lazio. Despite taking a two goal lead, Fiorentina would go on to lose 3-4 to a Lazio side that were also down to ten men. One of the goals Bartek conceded was from his current team-mate Martín Cáceres, whose close range header bounced off the Polish keeper’s chest and into the net.
With Sportiello suspended for the next game, he would start away to Sassuolo, a game the Viola lost 1-0. When Sportiello returned for the visit of Napoli, Drągowski wouldn’t even be on the bench due to injury problems. On the last day of the season, another chance would present itself, at the San Siro against Milan, Sportiello wasn’t able to appear for the second half. With Fiorentina already 2-1 down, the frustrated Bartek, after spending another season on the bench would go on to concede three goals. The first came after only four minutes, when he managed to save a header from Patrick Cutrone but his parry fell at the feet of Nikola Kalinić who tapped it home. Cutrone added another ten minutes later which went under the dive of Drągowski and his 45 minutes between the posts got even worse when Giacomo Bonaventura made it 5-1.
With the 2018/19 season coming up, Fiorentina decided not to stick with Sportiello, his loan spell from Atalanta finished here. If Drągowski hoped that this would finally be his turn, Fiorentina had other ideas, bringing in French keeper Alban Lafont. Again an injury to the number one keeper gave him a chance to impress, in only the second game of the season he replaced Lafont for the second-half against Udinese. He would keep a clean sheet this time out as Fiorentina went on to win 1-0 and would start the next two games, a 1-0 loss at Napoli and a 1-1 draw at Sampdoria.
Once Lafont returned though, it was back to sitting on the bench, and before the winter transfer window opened in January Drągowski made it clear to Stefano Pioli and the club that he wanted a loan move to give himself the chance of first team football.
Power is only given to those who are prepared to lower themselves to pick it up
A solution was found when Fiorentina took Pietro Terracciano on loan from Empoli and Bartek went in the opposite direction. With Empoli struggling, and a new manager at the club, Giuseppe Iachini, Drągowski knew he had a good chance of taking over from the unimpressive Ivan Provedel.
Having missed a couple of games through injury after he joined, on February 17th Iachini decided it was time to give the new man his chance when Sassuolo came to the Castellani stadium. After going eight games without a win, Empoli recorded an impressive 3-0 win, a great way to make his entrance at the club for Drągowski.
We fight. That is how we win, and that is how we die
While his performances wouldn’t be enough to keep Empoli from the drop, he certainly did more than enough to impress not only the Empoli fans but the rest of Serie A sat up and took notice of the Polish goalkeeper. He knew he just needed a chance to prove his worth, he actively went and looked for that opportunity and when it came he certainly showed just what he was capable of.
Of course that period will be remembered for his record breaking display in the scoreless draw away to Atalanta, but he impressed throughout his time at Empoli.
Atalanta vs Bartlomiej Dragowski— ENiYiTAHMiN (@eniyitahmincom) April 16, 2019
Dün akşam oynanan Atalanta - Empoli karşılaşması 0-0 sonuçlandı. Atalanta, 47 şutundan 18'i isabetli olmasına rağmen, kaleci Dragowski'yi geçemedi. #atalanta #empoli #SerieA pic.twitter.com/s50YGILnAD
Just like this season with Fiorentina, even in defeat he was often Empoli’s star player, like when they lot 1-0 at Juventus. In May he would come face to face with Fiorentina, by then managed by Vincenzo Montella, and now one of Empoli’s rivals in their relegation battle.
A Viking never gives up on his revenge. This is who we are
He was certainly out to prove a point to Fiorentina, after making a great save from Luis Muriel header first half, he denied him again in the second half and got back up to make sure Giovanni Simeone wouldn’t get a follow up chance. He then pulled off a super save from Federico Chiesa at close range with Chiesa shaking his head in disbelief. He wasn’t finished yet, making another diving save from a Dušan Vlahović header.
ZNAKOMITY MECZ DRĄGOWSKIEGO!— ELEVEN SPORTS PL (@ELEVENSPORTSPL) May 5, 2019
Empoli Calcio pokonało ACF Fiorentinę 1:0, a polski bramkarz imponował świetną formą! A interwencja z 81. minuty - KLASA ŚWIATOWA! #włoskarobota pic.twitter.com/l6JM0ekjYR
I was hoping that I could cheat the fates
Empoli did go down on the last day of the season, Fiorentina certainly not helping matters with their farcical scoreless draw which saved Genoa. But even then, in the eventual defeat to Inter at the San Siro, Drągowski pulled off a penalty save from Mauro Icardi. He was man of the match again that day, keeping Empoli in the game until the end with some fantastic saves including a first half miracle from a Stefan de Vrij header.
ZNAKOMITY BARTŁOMIEJ DRĄGOWSKI!!!— ELEVEN SPORTS PL (@ELEVENSPORTSPL) May 26, 2019
Polak wybronił rzut karny i zaliczył kilka świetnych interwencji w meczu Empoli FC z Interem Mediolan! A to jeszcze nie koniec spotkania! #włoskarobota pic.twitter.com/UuptvItbjx
Don’t waste your time looking back you are not going that way
Bartek’s time with Empoli was over, but he was already thinking about where he would go next as he had lost faith that he would ever be given a proper chance at Fiorentina, but as he explained in a recent interview with Matteo Dovellini in La Repubblica, there was now a new owner at the club, and after speaking to Rocco Commisso and his staff he decided to stay and renew his contract with the Viola, despite having plenty of offers, even from the Premiership after his impressive displays with Empoli.
When your time comes, you must lead with your head, not with your heart
In that same interview he also spoke of his difficulties in dealing with the fact he wasn’t the number one goalkeeper in his second season at Fiorentina. He admitted that back then he was also a bit of a hot head and needed the assistance of a Polish psychologist to help him cope better with his thoughts and emotions, something he still does to this day. He also mentioned that another person who has been a big help to him has been Alejandro Rosalen Lopez, the Fiorentina goalkeeping coach.
If any of you are wondering about his decision to grow his beard so long, he revealed in that interview that it was inspired by one of his favourite TV series, Vikings, and he wants to grow it further, as long as he had it during lockdown. He joked that his girlfriend, Polish model Agnieszka Abram, prefers him with his beard as it hides his face.
After the renewal of his contract, Drągowski was ready to take his rightful place between the posts on the Fiorentina first team. While Terracciano would remain at the club after they made his loan deal from Empoli permanent, this time it was Lafont who was let go on a loan deal, to Nantes, the same club that Tătărușanu had left for.
Bartek was the man that Montella chose to go with, and that certainly wasn’t going to change when his old boss at Empoli, Beppe Iachini, took over the reins. While he certainly impressed last season, this season is where he has really shown Fiorentina his true worth. He has been our one shining light in an otherwise mostly pretty dark depressing season so far. He has kept us in games, saved us time and time again from disaster. Even in a game where we lost 3-0 to Atalanta he was still our best player on the pitch.
He even gives us hope when we have a penalty awarded against us. Last season he saved two, from Felipe Caicedo of Lazio and Domenico Criscito of Genoa. Already this season he has saved another two, denying Franck Kessié of Milan and most recently João Pedro in the win over Cagliari. With the game scoreless at the time, this was such an important stop, as Fiorentina were in desperate need of a home win and those three points. I’ll admit, when Pedro stepped up to take it, I said that Drągowski would stop it, call that wishful thinking or blind optimism if you like, but for me it’s about the faith I have in our goalkeeper. He not only kept that penalty out but also managed to hold on to the ball, preventing any chance of a rebound attempt for Cagliari.
I would worry less about the gods and more about the fury of a patient man
Just as impressive for me was his attitude near the end. In these games without fans we can now hear who are the really vocal players, and Bartek has certainly found his voice. With Cagliari set to take a free-kick late in the match, he was literally screaming and roaring at every Fiorentina player to get further away from his goal.
A goalkeepers job can sometimes be a thankless one. We all know that just one mistake from a keeper can cost a team so much, nobody else has that sort of pressure. A striker misses a goal, there’ll be other chancers, a defender misses a tackle, hey that’s what out keeper is there for. It’s a lonely role, and one which requires full concentration 100% of the time. A goalkeeper can go a long time without being involved in the action, maybe without even touching the ball, but he knows that in a split second he can be called into action and he has got to be ready.
Force is only necessary against one’s enemies
One good example of that concentration needed came in the famous 3-0 win over Juventus. With the score still at 1-0 in the first half, Nikola Milenković made a rare error with a sloppy back pass, but Drągowski got out early to deny Cristiano Ronaldo, who knows how the game would have gone if he had managed to equalize there.
So while this season has been a tough one so far, where we needed a managerial change and yet still struggled to escape the relegation zone, while some players have not performed as we expected and others have taken a while to get going, Bartłomiej Drągowski has been the one consistent performer for the club. All hail our Polish goalkeeping miracle, thanks to him we live to fight another day.