Franz Smuda: The manager who kept going back to Widzew Lodz

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 29, 2018
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Franz Smuda first took over as Widzew Lodz manager in 1995. Last season, he took them to the top of the Polish fourth tie. But this isn’t a tale of longevity, a manager who makes Arsene Wenger look like Leroy Rosenior at Torquay. Smuda left Widzew for the first time in 1998, but just kept coming back. He returned for his latest spell last year. It was his fifth.

Those of an age, or with a keen interest in European football history, may remember Widzew from the early eighties. In 1981 they pulled Manchester United’s pants down in the UEFA Cup, while in 1983 they reached the European Cup semi-final, only beaten by the Juventus side of Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi and Dino Zoff.

In that era they won two of their four Polish league titles. The other two were won by Smuda.

When he arrived in Lodz towards the end of the 1994/95 season, nobody really knew much about him. He spent most of his playing days in America and started his managerial career in Germany. Little was expected of him, but in his first full season not only did Widzew win the Ekstraklasa, but did so unbeaten: 27 wins, seven draws. The next season represented a massive drop-off, losing three times. They still won the title, mind.

That season they also reached the Champions League group stages, drawn in what can only be described as an absolute stinker of a group, with Atletico Madrid and eventual winners Borussia Dortmund. Still, they finished third, above Steaua Bucharest, and got a draw in Germany. The following season they were knocked out by the great Parma team of the mid-90s, managed by Carlo Ancelotti, featuring your Crespos, your Buffons, your Thurams and your Dinos Baggios.

“Widzew is club that I fell in love at first sight,” says Smuda, romantically. “We became successful, won two championships and played in Champions League. The community – I mean fans and people working in Widzew – was always special.”

But in 1998 he left, seeking titles elsewhere, which he got at Wisla Krakow. Another game against Parma came in Europe, but this one was rather spicier: Wisla ended up being banned from European competition after a fan threw a knife at Baggio, hitting him in the head.

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A few years later, the siren call of Widzew came again. The Champions League money having run out, the club were in financial troubles, and after a second spell at Wisla hadn’t worked out, Smuda returned to save his first love from relegation. Which he did, but was lured away to Piotrcovia Piotrków Trybunalski, at the time a second division club owned by millionaire Antoi Ptak who had imported young Brazilian players wholesale. Smuda lasted one game.

The following year, Widzew were in relegation trouble once more, and of course they called Smuda. And of course he got them out of it, with relative comfort, before leaving again. You’ll know the script by now: the following year they were once again in bother, so they once again called the man they always call, but this time the situation was too dire, and Widzew slipped into the second tier.

“I will never say no to Widzew,” says Smuda. “Remember, at the beginning of 21st century I came back, though there were young players in squad and financial problems. I never got my money back. The most important thing is to help the club in times of need.”

In the following years Smuda travelled round various clubs in Poland, including Lech Poznan, plus a spell at Omonia Nicosia in Cyprus. Then in 2009 he slightly surprisingly landed the Polish national team job, replacing Leo Beenhakker after a calamitous 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign. Alas, he didn’t fare much better, finishing bottom of the group at Euro 2012, which Poland co-hosted.

His peripatetic nature is down to a few things, but a through-line in his career is a stubborn nature. If you want to tell Smuda he’s wrong, all the best, godspeed to you. “If someone says something he doesn’t like in the dressing room, they will know – he’ll be on the Smuda black list,” says Arek Stolarek, a local journalist in Lodz. “He’s not an easy guy. There are some periods where he laughs, but there are periods where he’s more like a dictator.”

Meanwhile, there was tumult at Widzew. In 2008 they were implicated in a wide-ranging corruption scandal in Polish football, and were not allowed to be promoted from the second tier despite winning it. They briefly made it back to the Ekstraklasa, but by 2014 their financial woes were so bad they went bankrupt. A new club was formed, but had to start from the bottom, in the fifth tier.

In 2017, having made it to the fourth tier, they called Smuda again, for his fifth spell in charge. “This is the only club in 4th tier that I could work for. Money is not the most important thing,” he said, although the backing of local businessman Michal Sapota probably helped in that regard.

“We have to be aware of the fact that club can’t be reborn in a second. It was easy to demolish Widzew. And now we have a lot to do to bring it back to Ekstraklasa. It’s a process and it needs some time. We have to build a team thinking two steps ahead, because we want to get promotion season after season.”

And promotion was gained last season. However, if you’ve been paying attention to the story you’ll probably know what’s coming. Towards the back end of the campaign results started to dip, promotion looked in jeopardy and pressure began to grow. When Widzew drew the penultimate game of the season, the owners summoned Smuda for an explanation. He didn’t show up, so they fired him. Under Radosław Mroczkowski, Widzew won their final game and secured promotion on goal difference.

But despite everything, you’re still left with the nagging feeling that he’ll be back. “Every manager has to know when he should give up,” Smuda said, speaking before he left Widzew. “But if one is healthy, in good shape, he should share his experience and knowledge as long as he can. Alex Ferguson, Luis Aragones, Jupp Heynckes – even after their 70th birthday still managed teams. I am still in good shape and don’t want to make an exit.”

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