Pole stars to light up the dark SPL sky

FERGUS McCann was renowned as a man who could cut a deal, but he never quite managed to barter fridge freezers for three international football players. Perhaps Fergus, or his successors at Parkhead, could take some lessons from Hamilton Accies.

During the last few weeks, Bank of Scotland Premierleague clubs have tapped into an economic trend which businesses from Helmsdale to Hawick have been cultivating for months.

Polish football players are arriving en masse at Scottish clubs, the most high profile examples being at Celtic where 2million striker Maciej Zurawski jetted in from Wisla Krakow. Goalkeeper Artur Boruc joined him at Parkhead this week, having signed on loan from Legia Warsaw.

Those are the headline-makers. Elsewhere in the SPL, teams are turning their attention to Polish players in the absence of funds to attract talent from Britain and many other mainland European countries.

Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibs and Dunfermline have all been in negotiations with Poles, who have become far more readily available now that their country has become a member of the European Union.

Back in 1971/72, Hamilton Accies chairman Jan Stepek, an electrical shop owner and a Pole, engineered a deal which saw the first players from behind the Iron Curtain come to play in Britain. Accies were struggling at the bottom of the second division, and finished the season with just 16 points, but the arrival of midfielder Roman Strazalkowski, goalkeeper Witold Szygula and striker Alfie Olek lifted the Lanarkshire side. Strazalkowski had captained his country against Brazil in Rio before arriving at Douglas Park. However, all three had played their last internationals before arriving in Scotland.

The Accies secretary at the time was Alan Dick, who takes up the story. "It was a remarkable deal," recalls Dick. "Jan Stepek sent fridge freezers and other mechanical appliances to Poland, and in return their authorities allowed three of their top players to come to Hamilton. They were full-time players, and clearly too good for us which is why they didn't stay longer than a few months, but were paid only a very basic wage of under 200 per week."

Such meagre salaries seem sure to attract Scottish clubs to Polish talent, more than 30 years on. Wojciech Tycinski, the Polish Consul General for Scotland, said: "Good football players in Poland can earn decent money, but not comparable to what the top guys in the UK earn. People from Poland generally come to Britain for economic reasons, that is the fact of the matter.

"Before Poland joined the EU [just over a year ago], a special working visa was required for those wishing to work in Britain, and it was very complicated. Now, though, there is free movement to Britain, Ireland and Sweden which means only a letter to the Home Office is required Within the last fortnight, two airlines have set-up direct links from Scotland to Poland. The tourist trade in the Highlands has many Polish workers, and some hotels in Edinburgh have almost 100 per cent Polish staff."

Scottish football clubs therefore can go without the red tape of 1971, which delayed the arrival of the three players in Hamilton for some six months.

Aberdeen's on-trial striker Piotr Wlodarczyk has scored four goals in two friendly appearances, but Hearts decided against signing his Legia Warsaw team-mate, Maciej Murawski, while Dunfermline hope to see LSK Lodz player Maciej Nuckowski in competitive action this week.

Hibs have completed the signing of goalkeeper Zbigniew Malkowski after a successful trial period, although the player moved from Dutch side Feyenoord rather than direct from Poland. New Tynecastle manager George Burley narrowly missed out on the capture of striker Marek Saganowski on Thursday, as the player opted for a move to Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes.

Raymond Sparkes was the agent acting for Saganowski, having spent six months building up contacts in Poland. Sparkes has worked for both Polish clubs and players at different times, and said there is a mutual attraction between Polish players and Scottish clubs.

Sparkes said: "George Burley is one guy who knows all about the Polish market, having brought Grzegorz Rasiak to Derby County. Rasiak and Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek have been the two real Polish success stories in English football in recent years.

"This isn't a bubble, and Polish players along with other Eastern Europeans will come to this country for a while yet. I identified a gap in the market for these guys when Poland was admitted to the EU, given there is a long history of top athletes and football players coming from that country. From there, it was a case of developing relationships with clubs and players out there. Football is replicating society to a large extent, but British and western football is attractive to Polish players. As a race, they are also friendly to deal with and very humble people."

Sparkes has a key Polish contact in Dariusz Wdowczyk, who spent four years at Celtic from 1989. Capped 53 times by his country, Wdowczyk is now a respected media figure in Poland and a fully qualified coach. His time at Parkhead was spent in the company of his former Legia team-mate and playboy striker Dariusz "Jackie" Dziekanowski. The last high-profile Pole to play in Scottish football was Dariusz Adamczuk, who starred with Dundee before a move to Rangers went the way of so many other talented players who shine at smaller clubs and then are snapped up by the Old Firm - disappearing from the SPL without trace. The midfielder later returned to his homeland, suffering from depression.

It would be disrespectful to consider Polish players as the B-list of European football. The international side sits top of their World Cup qualifying group, two points clear of England, albeit with a game more played. Historically, they have been third in the World Cup twice.

As harsh financial realities bite hard in Scottish football, it seems the lure of football's equivalent to cheap labour is simply too strong for the country's top sides to ignore after having their fingers burned too many times with glamour-names who have so often failed to justify their expensive arrivals - and drained precious resources to a critical level.