Welcome to the Ekstraklasa TS Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała, it only took you 104 years...
The Beskidy Mountains begin in the south of modern-day Czech Republic, and head for around 700 kilometres eastwards, almost creating an natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Sitting just 35 miles north of this border, the small city of Bielsko-Biała lies at the foot of the Beskid Śląski and Beskid Mały mountains. Spanning a slightly smaller area than Bristol - but with only around a fifth of the number people - it is the 22nd most populated city in Poland. This also makes Bielsko-Biała the biggest city in Poland to have never been represented by a top-flight football club. But on Monday August 1st 2011, this unfortunate honour will transfer to the Upper Silesian metropolitan town of Ruda Śląska as after 104 years of rising through the ranks, TS Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biała will finally make their debut in Poland's Ekstraklasa.
The beginnings of the club can be dated back to 1907, when Bielitzer Fussball Klub were formed in German-speaking Austrian Silesia; and soon after the newly-formed team were playing friendly games against the likes of Admira Vienna, Wisła Kraków, Cracovia and Katowice Germania. Then, in 1909, the club made it's first of many name changes, when it became Bielitz-Bialaer Fussball Club to accommodate the Bialaer (Biała) part of the city, which was, at the time, an entirely separate entity. Over the years, the club has re-branded a further 14 times, before finally settling with it's current moniker in 2003.
Since the club's inception, the majority of its time has been spent in the lower regional divisions. But following a number of mergers with other smaller clubs, the men from Bielsko-Biała began to climb quickly up the Polish ladder. After winning promotion from the lowly fifth-tier in 1999, the club didn't waste any time in trying to push further. Two more promotions in just three years saw Podbeskidzie rise to the heady heights of the second-level in 2002/03. Here, a number of mid-table finishes saw the club consolidate their position in the I Liga, culminating in their highest ever league finish - ending the season in fourth place - during the 2008/09 campaign. However a disappointing start to the campaign saw the club struggling badly at the end of the Autumn round. As the winter break came, coach Marcin Brosz was relieved of his duties and replaced by former KSZO Ostrowiec boss Róbert Kasperczak.
Kasperczak quickly set about his task by trying to shore-up the Podbeskidzie back-line. Slovakian Goalkeeper Richard Zajac was brought in; and with his help, Podbeskidzie conceded just ten goals in their final fifteen games. Despite their improved defence, they were still struggling to put the ball in the net. Draws became a common occurrence, meaning important points were still being dropped; and if results on the final day of the season had gone against Podbeskidzie, they could have still been relegated. But a fantastic 3-0 victory over Flota Świnoujście put them 4 points clear of the drop-zone, in 12th place; giving Kasperczak a chance to build a team capable of progressing further.
When the summer came, the club was seemingly dealt a small blow as Zimbabwean striker Clemence Matawu left for a chance to play in the Ekstraklasa with Polonia Bytom; but this only spurred Kasperczak into improving his squad. After their good defensive record in the second half of the 2009/10 season, he set about concentrating on improving the club's attacking options. Striker Adam Cielinski joined from KSZO Ostrowiec, midfielder Maciej Rogalski came from Lechia Gdańsk, and finally Slovakian attacker Róbert Demjan signed from Czech II Liga side Viktoria Zizkov. All of a sudden, the team's objectives had moved on from consolidation; they now wanted promotion. And they started off their season with a bang.
Górnik Polkowice, Odra Wodzisław, KSZO Ostrowiec, Flota, Pogoń Szczecin, Dolcan Ząbki; all were beaten. Nieciecza and GKS Katowice even had five and six put past them respectively, as Podbeskidzie started the season by taking an incredible 26 points from their first ten league games; storming to the top of the table ahead of favourites ŁKS Łódz. And it wasn't until a trip to Wodzisław Śląski to face Piast Gliwice in the middle of October when Podbeskidzie's unbeaten run finally came to an end. But even this was just a minor hiccup for the Górale, as they ended the winter break just a single point behind ŁKS after 17 games, with a very impressive 39 points.
On top of their fantastic league campaign, Podbeskidzie were also turning bigger heads in the Puchar Polski. After early-round wins at Start Otwock and Piast Gliwice, their first Ekstraklasa scalp was gained after a 2-0 win at home to GKS Bełchatów; setting up a lucrative quarter-final tie with Ekstraklasa leaders Wisła Kraków.
The small side from Bielsko-Biała arrived at Wisła's Henryk Reyman Stadium for the first-leg with no fear, and from the start they took the game to their hosts. But despite dominating large parts of the game, they had to wait until the 88th minute, when Piotr Malinowski slammed home a late winner to leave the 12-time Polish Champions with an uphill task.
Two weeks later - after a win against Kolejarz Stroze and a loss at Górnik Polkowice - Wisła arrived in at Podbeskidzie's 4,500 capacity Stadion Miejski needing a win to stay in the competition. After an early own-goal from Demjan and a Genkov strike just after half-time, it looked like Wisła's progression was now a formality. However a tremendous fightback saw Cielinski - just a minute after replacing Malinowski - grab his 12th goal of the season, followed by defender Tomasz Gorkiewicz's first in nine months, earn the Highlanders a historic away goals victory - and a semi-final tie against Lech Poznań.
After continuing their great league form, Podbeskidzie headed north for the first-leg in Poznań. Though here, moods were deflated when a second-half strike from Bartosz Slusarski looked to have given Lech an advantage for the second-leg. But entering stoppage time, a teasing ball played in from the left side was met by top-scorer Cieslinski. Managing to get ahead of experienced defender Manuel Arboleda, he guided his header off of the far post and into the back of the net. The Podbeskidzie fans who had made the 450km journey erupted. They believed they could do it... And with one hour on the clock in Bielsko-Biała's second leg, it looked as though they had.
A 25th-minute strike from Damian Chmiel, followed by a 58th-minute Malinowski strike had sent the home fans into rapture. Even when Semir Stilic pulled one back, it looked like they would still pull off the biggest victory in the small club's history. But just two minutes later, Latvian striker Artoms Rudnevs destroyed Silesian hearts by equalising on the night, and sending Lech through on away goals. And with Podbeskidzie desperately looking for a winner, Rudnevs again broke away to put the tie beyond doubt.
Despite their disappointment, the win at Wisła coupled with their brave effort against Lech proved that Podbeskidzie had the ability to compete in the Ekstraklasa. Now they just had to concentrate on reaching that promised land.
Since reaching the Puchar Polski semi-finals, and the resultant headache following their exit, the club's league form had suffered. One win, one loss and five draws from seven league games saw the gap between Podbeskidzie and second placed Flota Świnoujście close; and there was a risk that if the slump continued, the Górale might miss out on their dream promotion. But back-to-back home wins against Bogdanka Łęczna and Sandecja Nowy Sącz broke their three-game winless streak and left them needing just six points from the final three rounds; and with three points guaranteed due to GKP Gorzów Wielkopolski's inability to complete the season, just one win would be enough for Podbeskidzie to secure their promotion. And as news filtered back from their next game - away at MKS Kluczbork - there were scenes of jubilation in the streets of Bielsko-Biała, as a 2-1 victory saw Podbeskidzie promoted to the top level of Polish football for the very first time.
The open-top bus parade through the city now seems a long way away as Podbeskidzie prepare for life in the Ekstraklasa. Coach Kasperczak has spent wisely to improve the squad. Former APOEL Nicosia striker and Polish international Adrian Sikora has returned to his former club after a spell of injuries, whilst Krzystof Król - an ex-Real Madrid Castilla defender - has joined from relegated Polonia Bytom and MŠK Žilina defender Ondrej Šourek has made the move north of the Beskid border.
When the First of August finally does roll around, the people of Bielsko-Biała will be glued to their TV screens as Wodzisław Śląski's packed-out MOSiR Stadion - which is being used whilst Podbeskidzie's own ground is being rebuilt - hosts Podbeskidzie's Ekstraklasa debut against Jagiellonia Białystok.
On paper, Jagiellonia's fourth-placed finish last season should mark them as favourites for the clash; but The Highlanders have already proved That, even though their list of honours could fit on the back of a postage stamp, the small club from the Beskids are more than capable of turning over the bigger names in Poland.
Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biala have waited 104 years for their chance to show what they are capable of; expect them to make the very most of it.