Almanac Soccer: A forgotten powerhouse – Polonia Melbourne

This piece is about Melbourne’s Western Eagles Soccer Club. Old timers remember them as Polonia Soccer Club or KS Polonia. To those who have invested their time in Australian football from the 21st Century, this is the club who recently nurtured and facilitated Thomas Deng’s growth towards a career with Melbourne Victory.

 

 

The information that I can share is limited, as many of those directly involved with Polonia within my family tree over the years are not with us today. I can only go from the few photos stored within albums and the vague anecdotes and confirmation of personnel through my grandmother. This adventure into the club’s past is just a hobby of mine that I wish to persue within my free time and eventually will delve deeper into the club’s archives once the Covid-19 pandemic de-escalates.

 

 

The relevance of my [indirect?] family tree can go as far back as the as the founding year of the club in 1950. The club’s first president was Wladyslaw Kowalik. He was the stepfather to my great uncle’s wife. His presidency tenure was only for a year but he remained a significant figure, spending the majority of his life devoting time into running operations within the club or assisting in various roles.

 

 

1951 End of season photograph at Williamstown Racecourse [Source: Author]

 

The club played its first official league game on the 7th of April 1951 at the Williamstown Racecourse against Geelong United where they were the eventual winners [3:1]. They experienced a meteoric rise from starting in the 4th division to being promoted to the 1st by 1954.

 

 

The venue itself carries historical significance. Construction began in 1858, and by 1885 the Williamstown Racecourse Railway Station was opened which made the venue more accessible. It hosted prestigious horseracing events, featurng the likes of the legendary Phar Lap before the Australian Government took over to use it as a military barracks during the outbreak of World War Two. By 1947 the grandstand had succumbed to a fire and subsequently left in ruins until it met its eventual closure and death.

 

 

My grandfather was born in the city of Lodz in 1942, and in his early 20s, he boarded an Italian cruise ship with his family and set sail to Australia, leaving behind a war-torn country confined behind the Iron Curtain that was rendered poverty stricken by a Communist puppet regime directed by the Soviet Union.

 

 

Like every other European, Australia presented an opportunity for a new life but proved to be difficult because of language barriers. Typically, many huddled within their own ethnic-based communities whilst working away in factories, as my grandfather did. It was routine to wrap up work on Friday night from the framing production shop and head off to the Polish football club, not far from his home in Spotswood.

 

 

Although he could seem a fairly distant family figure, he was closely associated within our family circle. This ties in with my grandfather, who was not a player himself, but a fan and a regular attendee of games during the 1960s and 1970s.

 

 

1960s – Dining at a Polish Social Club: Kowalik (3rd from left) with son-in-law Janek and stepdaughter (4th and 5th from left) as well as my grandparents (6th and 7th from left). Janek being the brother of my grandfather Jacek Mataska. [Source: Author]

 

During this time he met Kazimierz Szygalski, a player from Poland who had transferred to Melbourne [clarification on details still needed], the two became good friends over the years. Szygalski was part of Polonia’s golden generation wherein they won the Victorian first division title back-to-back in 1960 & 1961. Additionally, they also won the 1961 Dockerty Cup, a 4-2 result against George Cross in front of a crowd of 5,000 at Olympic Park.

 

 

While they hung up their boots closer to the end of the ’60s, the ’70s still kept a recurring lifestyle of spending time and keeping in contact at Polonia’s home venue. As my mother recalls, occasionally she would be taken to the games at a young age with her sister, but would find herself to be the designated driver if Jacek had a bit too much to drink with the group, driving the family’s Ford Falcon back home. She was only 12.

 

 

The old stomping ground at the now abandoned Tracey Speedway, shared with Melbourne Croatia (Melbourne Knights). [Source: Les Street]

 

In 1981, Polonia returned to the first division after spending the majority of the ’70s decade flirting with relegation before eventually dropping to the 2nd division. They achieved second place in 1984 and eventually won their third state championship in 1987. In that year, they were managed by former Gold Coast United coach, Miron Bleiberg.

 

 

However, it was the beginning of the end that same year where financial constraints caused Miron’s premature departure mid-way through the season. After winning the title with their interim manager, they began a vicious downward spiral to where they are now mired in State League 3 and 4 divisions until today.

 

 

It is unfortunate that I will never have the opportunity to hear stories from Jacek, nor does my family have contacts with those that they knew of this time. The ’80s were a time where the majority focused on raising their own families and eventually drifted apart. Especially Jacek decided to leave behind his Spotswood home in the inner Western Suburbs to build his own house in Mount Waverley on the other side of Melbourne.

 

 

I only vaguely remember meeting Szygalski in person one time in the early 2000s, perhaps during Easter or Jacek’s birthday. He was playing with my football in the grandparents’ backyard and he showed me a trick of how he could balance a ball on his foot and launch it vertically upwards roughly two stories high, with a glass of whiskey in one hand, then control it perfectly on the spot.

 

 

Polonia players in the photo: 2nd from left Marek Konopka, 4th from left Kazimierz Szygalski, and 5th from left Stasiek Hildebrand. Jacek is pictured 3rd from left who sits in Szygalski’s home where his achievements are displayed proudly behind them [Source: Author]

Hidden Easter Eggs

 

The Gronowski Brothers

Henryk and Robert represented Polonia Melbourne from 1961-1962 where they won the Victorian State Championship during the 1961 season. Both are highly revered players in Poland by their top divisional clubs. They both started their journey at Piast Gliwice before they transferred to Lechia Gdansk. There, Henryk made 258 appearances as a goal keeper and Robert, a renowned forward, made 161 appearances for Lechia with 58 goals.

 

 

Their accolades and services for Lechia Gdansk are remembered by the two of the 21 “Avenue of Stars” that are planted within the old Lechia Gdansk stadium.

 

 

Pictured is Robert Gronowski in action during his first and only appearance for Poland against Albania. [Source: Author]

 

Pictured is Henryk during an interview. [Source: Author]

 

Zdzislaw Kostrzewa

Pictured below, he represented Poland on three occasions and also took part in their 1978 World Cup campaign as a third choice goalkeeper. Most notably he won the Polish Cup back-to-back with Zaglebie Sosnowiec in 1977 and 1978. His contribution to Polonia Melbourne was winning their third and most recent state championship in 1987 during the three seasons he spent with the club.  He passed away in Melbourne in 1991 due to a workplace accident.

 

 

Zdzislaw Kostrzewa [Source: Author]

 

Edmund Zientara

135 caps for Legia Warsaw, with a Polish Cup & Championship to his name, he finished his playing career at Melbourne Polonia where he played from 1962-64. He played the role of midfielder and earned 36 caps for Poland, with one goal to his name and three appearances in the 1960 Olympic campaign.

 

 

Edmund Zientara. [Source: Author]

Wieslaw Janczyk

Acknowledged as a legend for the Polish Club LKS Lodz, for whom he made 143 appearances, including a Polish League title in 1958. He had also played basketball for the Lodz Sports club where he won the national championship in 1953. Wieslaw was a player-manager for Polonia Melbourne in both of their championship seasons of 1960 & 1961.

 

 

Wieslaw had notably practised his craft in coaching, including South Melbourne Hellas, Melbourne Knights and Juventus SC (Aus). His resume also includes acting as a player-manager for Team Victoria in a friendly against the visiting AS Roma and an assistant coach of the Australian National team.

 

 

Pictured is Polonia’s 1960 squad. [Source: Author]

 

Concluding Statement

This article of mine was first published in July 2020 on my own personal blog shared amongst close contacts. I wish to once again bring this club to light via a vast range of followers on the Footy Almanac and perhaps have it reach a few people who were once involved with the club during its golden years to relive these memories and/or motivate them to share their stories and preserve the club’s legacy.

 

 

The original article, with more photos and a bonus video, can be found: HERE

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Fine piece, Luke! Excellent sporting history, social history and history in general terms!

  2. Appreciate that you took the time to read it Kev!

  3. Mark ‘Swish’ Schwerdt says

    I love this stuff. Well played Luke. What’s next?

  4. Wonderful read and some fantastic photos Luke, I too love learning more and more about our football history. You should check out some of Adam Muyt’s stuff too – he’s a font of knowledge on many stories of migrant football clubs from 50+ years ago.

  5. This is absolutely fascinating, Luke. Thanks for sharing this.

    I am a born and bred Williamstown man, and have taken a great interest in the suburb’s history, but I have never before been told of football being played on the site of the old racecourse.

  6. Mark – I’m not sure, I’ll definitely be covering a friendly game between South Melbourne and Brunswick City this Saturday, but I do have a borrowed thesis from a friend in Poland who works within the Polish FA currently, and she did talk about the state of affairs of crowd management and different psychology elements in the lead up to the 2012 Euros. When she visited Australia she did comment how there is some differences as to how our stadiums are managed. The fun fact being, in polish football games, police aren’t permitted to patrol inside the venue unless there have been serious incidents.

    Jarrod – I’ll have a look for sure

    Smokie – Supposedly they have played on the racecourse during the period right after their foundation only for a short period of time as the club themselves have claimed. I can only go by the match records on ozfootball.net but nothing provided for division 4 in 1951 and division 3 in 1952, only an end of season ladder.

    From 1953 to 1954 they have been playing their home games at Royal Park – Parkville and Campbell Reserve – Coburg

    1955 they’ve called Maribyrnong their home

  7. Good writing Luke. Would i surmise you are Richard’s son?

    If my memory is correct I recall Polonia had the ground in Maribyrnong Road.

    Glen!

  8. Albion Rover says

    Thanks Luke. It’s great that Polonia is still in action, when many of the club’s contemporaries from the state league’s golden era of the 1960s and 1970s are sadly long gone – Prahran Slavia, Melbourne Hungaria, Hakoah, Footscray JUST.

  9. Glen – There is a Richard Radziminski, and he is a cousin of my dad’s. From my knowledge he played in the reserves for Footscray some time ago. The funny story is that we don’t have contact with him at all and wasn’t really mentioned until I started high school at Mazenod College. Low and behold a teacher by the name Matt Johnson introduced himself and immediately recognised my surname. He himself too made a few appearances for Footscray in the late 70’s and played in the reserves with Richard.

    Albion Rover – it’s a damn shame, and they did pull in the big crowds when there have been dockerty cup finals. Lot’s of stories waiting to be re-surfaced again.

  10. Luke i primarily remember Richard from his time in the VFA, especially with Sunshine.

    He didn’t play too many senior games in his time with Footscray, whom he last played for in 1971. His claim to fame there was kicking the winning goal in the 1970 night grand final.

    Glen!

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