Poland: Foreign Players in the Football League
Poland was one of the strongest European football nations of the 1970s. Olympic Champions in 1972, they knocked England out in qualifying for the 1974 World Cup, where they finished third. Olympic silver followed in 1976, ahead of a strong showing at the 1978 World Cup and another third-place finish in Spain 1982. These squads were almost entirely home-based, with players not allowed to leave the country by the Communist authorities until the age of 30.
There had been a handful of Polish players in England immediately after the Second World War, including Eryk Kubicki and Eduoard Wojtcazk (soldiers of the Polish Army) who appeared for York City in 1946. When the Football League finally officially opened its doors to imports in the summer of 1978, it was arguably Poland’s finest player of that generation, Kazimierz Deyna, who was the first to move to England.
Deyna had been coveted by Europe’s biggest clubs in his prime, but was not allowed to leave Poland. In November 1978, Manchester City paid a fee of £100,000 for him, plus Adidas equipment and friendly matches with his club Legia Warsaw. At 31 years old and hampered by injuries, City didn’t see the best of a player who made 97 national team appearances and had just captained his country in the Argentina World Cup. According to manager Malcolm Allison, “The side just wasn’t good enough for Deyna… his talent was an embarrassment.” Allison’s successor John Bond was less impressed with Deyna, and moved him on to NASL club San Diego Sockers – he tragically died in a 1989 car crash in California, aged only 41.
Two lesser-known Poles followed Deyna to Lancashire in the late 1970s – Tad Nowak at Bolton and Ryszard Kowenicki at Oldham. Nowak arrived for £50,000 and, reportedly, several tractors. The winger carried high expectations, captured by coverage of his debut against Ipswich in March 1979 (a game best remembered for Frank Worthington’s spectacular goal). However he struggled to acclimatise and made little impression in England. Nowak’s friend Kowenicki was signed by Oldham after lengthy negotiations by manager Jimmy Frizzell for £12,000 in December 1979. He is well remembered at Boundary Park, not least for a spectacular throw-in technique. A fourth Pole, Adam Musiał, was an unlikely signing for Fourth Division Hereford United in 1980 – club chairman Peter Hill later recalled that the “player was bought for the cost of a plough.” Another member of the 1974 World Cup team, Musiał played out the final years of his career in the Football League’s basement.
The next Polish international star, Zbigniew Boniek, moved to Juventus after starring at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Boniek stated that he would have loved to play for Manchester United, but it’s uncertain whether there was ever any real prospect of a deal. Many proposed transfers were held up by ‘red tape’ when dealing with the bureaucracy of the Polish authorities. It was widely reported that portions of these earlier transfer fees were paid in electronics (photocopiers and printers), agricultural equipment (tractors) and sporting goods (footballs, tracksuits) rather than hard currency. As late as 1989, Legia Warsaw received Umbro kit as part of the deals which took Dariusz Dziekanowski and Dariusz Wdowcyzk to Celtic.
After Musiał’s retirement in 1983, there was a significant gap until the next Polish players moved to England at the end of the decade. This batch was led by Robert Warzycha at Everton and completed by Dariusz Dziekanowski (Bristol City) and Dariusz Kubicki (Aston Villa), who both played for Poland at the 1986 World Cup. The latter pair arrived in the Football League in 1991-92, the last season before the Premier League kicked off. Midfielder Zbigniew ‘Detsi’ Kruszyński was born in Poland but defected to West Germany, where he played for ten years before joining Wimbledon in 1988 – he later had a short spell in the Premier League with Coventry. As a German citizen he no longer qualified for the Polish national team. Defender Piotr Soczyński had trials with Coventry and Arsenal in early 1991, but hadn’t made enough international appearances to earn a work permit.
Warzycha was an established international when he arrived at Everton for £500,000 in March 1991, and like Deyna before him had captained the national team. He was one of the thirteen overseas players to appear in the opening round of Premier League fixtures, and became the competition’s first foreign goalscorer in August 1992. Known as ‘Jacki’, Dziekanowski had signed for Celtic in the summer of 1989, a wayward talent best remembered for scoring four times in a Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Partizan Belgrade not long after signing for the club. His spell at Bristol City is also remembered as one of unfulfilled potential for a player of his ability.
Dziekanowski was joined at Celtic in November 1989 by countryman Dariusz Wdowczyk, who later spent four seasons at Reading. Kubicki moved to Sunderland in 1994 and spent the rest of his career in the Football League at a number of clubs. Dziekanowski, Kubicki and Wdowczyk had all played for Legia Warsaw (like Deyna and Nowak before them), traditionally the team of the Polish Army. Though with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was no longer an official age restriction for leaving Poland, all these players were in their late 20s when joining British clubs.
Strangely, no more Poland-qualified players arrived in England during the 1990s. Jerzy Dudek’s arrival at Liverpool in the summer of 2001 set a pattern of successful Polish goalkeepers in the Premier League – followed by Wojciech Szczęsny, Łukasz Fabiański and Artur Boruc. Not until January 2015 was there another Polish goalscorer in the Premier League, Marcin Wasilewski finally equalling Warzycha’s feat more than 22 years earlier.
The arrival of foreign (including Polish) players to the Football League from the end of the 1970s is one of the topics discussed in my book Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League’s Last Decades.
Polish Players in the Football League 1978-92 – Appendix
Born: 23.10.1947 Starogard Gdański (d. 01.09.1989)
Signed from: Legia Warsaw, November 1978 [£100,000 plus extras]
Football League Career: Manchester City 1978-81 – 38 appearances, 12 goals
Football League Debut: Man City v Ipswich, First Division 25 November 1978 (1-2)
Left: San Diego Sockers (USA), January 1981
International Career: Poland 1968-78; 97 caps, 41 goals
Played at the 1974 & 1978 World Cups
Signed from: Widzew Łódź, December 1979 [£12,000]
Football League Career: Oldham Athletic 1979-81 – 42 appearances, 5 goals
Football League Debut: Oldham v Chelsea, Second Division 8 December 1979 (1-0)
Left: Viborg (Denmark), June 1981
International Career: No caps
Born: 18.12.1948 Wieliczka (d. 18.11.2020)
Signed from: Arka Gdynia, June 1980
Football League Career: Hereford United 1980-83 – 55 appearances
Football League Debut: Hereford v Tranmere, Fourth Division 16 August 1980 (1-1)
International Career: Poland 1968-74; 34 caps
Played at the 1974 World Cup
Tadeusz ‘Tad’ Nowak
Born: 28.11.1948 Trzcińsko
Signed from: Legia Warsaw, April 1979 [£50,000, plus extras]
Football League Career: Bolton Wanderers 1979-80 – 24 appearances, 1 goal
Football League Debut: (sub) Bolton v Ipswich, First Division 21 April 1979 (2-3)
Left: Retired 1980
International Career: Poland 1972-77; 2 caps
Dariusz ‘Jacki’ Dziekanowski
Born: 30.09.1962 Warsaw
Signed from: Celtic, January 1992 [£225,000]
Football League Career: Bristol City 1992-93 – 43 appearances, 7 goals
Football League Debut: Bristol City v Southend, Second Division 18 January 1992 (2-2 – 1 goal)
Left: Legia Warsaw, July 1993
International Career: Poland 1981-1990; 62 caps, 20 goals
Played at the 1986 World Cup
Born: 06.06.1963 Kożuchów
Signed from: Legia Warsaw, August 1991 [£200,000]
Football League Career: Aston Villa; Sunderland; Wolves; Tranmere (loan); Carlisle; Darlington 1991-99 – 196 appearances
Football League Debut: Southampton v Villa, First Division 31 August 1991 (1-1)
Left: Retired 1999
International Career: Poland 1982-1991; 46 caps, 1 goal
Played at the 1986 World Cup
Born: 20.08.1963 Siemkowice
Signed from: Górnik Zabrze, March 1991 [£500,000]
Football League Career: Everton 1991-94 – 72 appearances, 6 goals
Football League Debut: Everton v N. Forest, First Division 23 March 1991 (0-0)
Left: Pécsi Mecsek (Hungary), May 1994
International Career: Poland 1987-93; 47 caps, 7 goals