Kosta Runjaic working miracles in Poland

Kosta Runjaic has been among the most exciting coaches in the lower leagues for some time. His first job as a head coach saw the Vienna born man take over SV Darmstadt back in 2010. In his first season Runjaic managed to gain promotion after his team went on a 9 game winning streak.

Darmstadt’s exploits at 4th and 3rd tier level didn’t go unnoticed, and Runjaic was given a call by MSV Duisburg in 2012. The team was rock bottom of the Bundesliga and had just fired its head coach Oliver Reck after four match days. It didn’t take long before the coach with Serbian roots managed to turn things around, and in the end MSV finished in a decent 11th spot. However, after the season it became publicly known that the club was in a dire financial crisis. The team was forced to start anew in the third tier.

Runjaic left the side and joined Kaiserslautern instead, where he enjoyed two decent seasons. Afterwards followed a stint at 1860 Munich in the 2016/17 season which only lasted 13 match days. When Runjaic left the side the Lions were just one point ahead of the relegation places (in the end the team were relegated from the Bundesliga 2).

What to do next?

At that point it is safe to assume that Kosta Runjaic was at a crossroads. His next stint as a head coach needed to be somewhat succesful if he wanted to continue coaching at a higher level for the next few years. It took almost a year before Runjaic sat in the dugout once again.

He had passed on a few offers along the way. Runjaic wanted only to do something that he was entirely convinced of.

In November 2017 Runjaic called the German football writer Ronald Reng asking him what he should do. He had just received a call by Pogon Szczecin, the side being rock bottom in the Polish Ekstraklasa. Upon asking Reng what he should, the writer answered he immeditaly that Runjaic would be mad to join the side. “I just said yes”, Runjaic answered dryly.

Reng was among the many friends who told the 48-year-old coach not to join Pogon. Several of his friends pointed out that he would face several bariers upon embarking on a new adventure in Poland. There was the language barrier and additionally, Runjaic’s career might be over if this stint ended in desaster.

Pogon were facing an uphill struggle, being six points off safety after 15 match days had been played. However, Runjaic was sure that he could accomplish something with the side. He told sport.pl in Feburary 2019:

“I decided rather quickly. It was a gut feeling. I got good vibes from the people I was speaking with for the first time. … It wasn’t strategic. I’m someone who plans and thinks through matters.”

Runjaic was pleasently surprised by the first meeting. He had expected Poland to be a bit more like the Balkan countries he had a close connection to during his early years. However, Szczecin had a bit more of a Scandinavian touch to itself according to Runjaic. Furthermore, he was rather befuddled when he found out that nobody around him was smoking.

Positive attitude

“The situation was tragic, because the team was last in the table. Pogoń was the main candidate for relegation from the Ekstraklasa”, remembers Polish journalist Mateusz Kasprzyk when he being asked about the struggle the team were facing when Runjaic joined the side.

Even worse, the Ekstraklasa play off system had just been changed. In the years prior to Runjaic’s arrival the top 8 and bottom 8 played around of 7 matches deciding upon the championship and relegation. The points from the 30 matches prior to that point were halved back then, assuring that the fight for the title and to avoid relegation would be close and exciting.

However, this system was changed in the 2017/18 season. The points weren’t halved anymore, meaning that Szczecin would face a major uphill struggle if they weren’t able to do something about their six point distance to safety.

Given the situation, it is not surprising that the team was in tatters when Runjaic took over. Mateusz Kasprzyk states that the situation at the start of the German coach’s career at Pogon was dire:

“The team had no idea whatsoever how to play. During home matches it had problems with positional attacking play, basically hitting the head against the wall, whilst the fans whistled. After the arrival of Runjaić came better results and a more impressive style of play.”

No divas allowed

Coming to Poland in November had its challanges according to Runjaic. The weather is cold and coaches don’t have the chance to spend loads of time on the pitch explaining their philosophy to the players.

However, Runjaic spotted a few problems straight away. Some of the older star players were now given a fair run for their money by young up and comers. The most striking change from the early days of the 48-year-old’s coaching career at Pogon was the fact that Hungarian star player Adam Gyurcso was left out in the cold by Runjaic.

Gyurcso wasn’t interested in contributing to the defense according to journalist Mateusz Kasprzyk. Such diva behavior didn’t go unpunished.

On the other hand side the former Kaiserslautern and Darmstadt coach managed to find a spot in his team for such youngsters as Jakub Piotrowski and Sebastian Walukiewicz. Both players were later on sold to Genk and Cagliari for a nice profit, stabilizing Pogon’s finances according to Kasprzyk.

From turnaround to a more stable existence

At the end of the 30 matches before the play offs, Pogon had managed to get off the bottom in the table, finishing 12th. The team lost only once during the seven legged play off round, securing its existence in Poland’s Ekstraklasa.

The following year they  finished 7th, but we’re too far of the pace to challange for the title during the play off rounds. Having been down in the dumps was a harrowing experience for the fans, who now more than ever loved Runjaic according to Mateusz Kasprzyk:

“They trusted him from the beginning, because the German training methods are thought of as hard and orderly, and that is highly valued in Poland. With each passing month, supporters increasingly praised Runjaić and urged the club to extend his contract. His new contract was received with great enthusiasm. He is a man who has no critics in Szczecin.”

The performances of the pitch has seen Runjaic’s status rise at the club says Kasprzyk:

“No coach has in recent years had such a strong position with the president as Runjaic. He has a big impact on transfers, preparation, staff and many other things. He is recognized as one of the best trainers currently working in Poland.”

Furthermore, the local press seems also to have taken to the 48-year-old coach. Relations been the journos covering the club and the former Kaiserslautern manager are great according to Kasprzyk:

“He cares for good relations with the media, so he sometimes organizes meetings over beer, where in a relaxed atmosphere he can ask about the atmosphere around the club.”

Hunger for success

After 9 match days Pogon are topping the table. The turnaround under Runjaic at the club has truly been astonishing.

However, with such great performances come expectations, Kasprzyk explains:

“The fans are hungry for success, because Pogoń is the only big club in Poland that has never won a championship or a cup. Runjaic has made good transfers, the team wins, so expectations are high. This season’s goal is the podium and reaching a European competition after a break of almost 20 years.”

It is hard to imagine that Reng or any of Runjaic’s friends imagined that the coach would face hopes of winning silverware back when he signed for the club almost 2 years ago. Funny how quickly things can change within the world of football.

 

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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