CHARLIE CONNELLY explores the life of the legendary Polish footballer.
The summer of 1978 saw an unfamiliar frisson of glamour shimmer through English football. The FA had lifted their archaic two-year residency requirement for overseas players, paving the way for Argentinean World Cup winners Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa to arrive at Tottenham Hotspur and compatriots Alberto Tarantini and Alex Sabella to be unveiled by Birmingham City and Sheffield United respectively (the latter having decided against taking a chance on a promising youngster named Diego Maradona). Dutch internationals Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen joined Ipswich Town, but it would take until November for the new era’s most protracted – and arguably strangest – transfer to be completed when Polish international Kazimierz Deyna joined Manchester City from Legia Warsaw.
The deal was brokered partly by a Polish waiter at Manchester’s Midland Hotel and involved City’s delegation travelling to Warsaw to negotiate the transfer with military top brass, Legia being the army’s sports club. When Deyna joined the discussions, he was wearing his lieutenant’s uniform. The fee was agreed at £110,000 but unusually Legia didn’t want cash: instead they presented City with a list of items they required to the equivalent value, ranging from medical supplies to photocopiers.
When Deyna arrived in Manchester with his wife and young son it was into the teeth of one of the coldest winters on record in a nation blighted by industrial decline of whose language he had only mastered ‘no problem’ and ‘thank you’. Unsurprisingly he struggled to establish himself, but scored six goals in City’s last six games of the season to keep them in the First Division. Bad luck with injuries followed, but even when fit he struggled to adapt his cerebral, languid style to the beefy huff-and-puff of the English game.
‘You play the long ball up and there is a lot of hard work, but where are the thinkers?’ he said in a 1980 interview. ‘There are not many players in the City side who can read my passes. Their vision is very limited.’
Although misused in Manchester his genius was still obvious to many. ‘What a player he was,’ recalled teammate Brian Kidd. ‘He was sublime. So elegant. Such an excellent manipulator of the ball, so much guile and sophistication.’
For a man whose timing on the field was exquisite, in terms of his career Deyna rarely seemed to be in the right place at the right time. At City, when he finally found his form it was at the end of a season. The following two campaigns saw him become increasingly unhappy, but when he finally left in 1981 it was to the North American Soccer League – just after the brief golden period when Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer lit up stadiums across the country. He was also far from the glamour of the New York Cosmos, joining the unfashionable San Diego Sockers in California. He became an instant club legend, but his talent deserved better.
Growing up behind the Iron Curtain had proved to be a major hindrance. When he joined Legia as a teenager he soon helped them to their first league title in a dozen years, added a string of domestic trophies and enjoyed thrilling runs in European competition. His obvious talent deserved a wider stage but glamorous moves abroad were rare for players from Eastern Europe. Poland’s policy was not to allow a player to leave the country until he was 30.
During his mid-twenties when he captained Poland to third place at the 1974 World Cup, Deyna was feted as one of the greatest players in the world. That year he came third in the annual poll to select the European Footballer of the Year behind Cruyff and Beckenbauer as a host of the continent’s leading clubs sought his signature: Milan giants Internazionale and AC made enquiries, as did Bayern Munich and Saint-Étienne. Real Madrid even sent him a number 14 shirt, conveying the message that where Barcelona were built around Cruyff, Real would be built around Deyna.
It wasn’t to be, and by the time he’d turned 30 instead of lining up alongside the likes of Paul Breitner and Günther Netzer at the Bernabeu he was watching as long balls from Tommy Booth sailed high over his head destined for Ron Futcher at Maine Road.
The only time everything seemed to come together was when he pulled on a Poland shirt. He first shone at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, leading the national side to the final against Hungary and scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory. Olympic success fostered high hopes of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup finals when Poland were drawn in a three-team group with England and Wales. Having beaten England convincingly in Chorzow, the Poles arrived at Wembley Stadium in October 1973 knowing a draw would be enough to send them through at their hosts expense.
Famously, the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski played the game of his life but Deyna, buzzing around the midfield with his mutton chop sideburns and shirt cuffs scrunched in the palms of his hands, came of age that night in north-west London, putting in a brilliant captain’s performance while cajoling the best from his team in the face of relentless England attacks. ‘No England player came within a mile of emulating the elegance and skill of Deyna,’ wrote David Lacey in the Guardian after the Poles held out for a 1-1 draw.
In West Germany the following year Poland were given little hope of progressing beyond a group that also included Argentina and Italy, both seen as potential World Cup winners. Deyna promptly led the Poles to a 3-2 victory over the South Americans in their opening game ahead of a 7-0 thrashing of Haiti. When Italy were beaten 2-1 in the next game, the winner a thunderous Deyna drive from the edge of the area, Poland were beginning to look like serious contenders.
Two wins in the next group stage made Poland’s match against the hosts in Düsseldorf effectively a semi-final. A heavy downpour before the game turned the pitch into a quagmire and reduced the encounter to an inelegant slog. Gerd Müller’s goal proved enough to send the West Germans through to meet the Dutch in the final, but Poland signed off an extraordinary campaign by beating holders Brazil in the play-off for third place.
‘Kaziu was our conductor, we played to his tune,’ said Tomaszewski after the tournament. ‘Everyone knew about Beckenbauer, Cruyff was growing in the public consciousness, but that World Cup also gave us Deyna. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those two.’
If he’d then been able to leave Poland and play week in, week out, with and against the best players in the world in one of Europe’s top leagues Kazimierz Deyna might well be talked of today as one of the all-time greats. Instead he found himself entering his 30s at struggling Manchester City before moving to the footballing backwater of San Diego.
He became increasingly troubled in California, perhaps due to an increasing sense of what might have been. He’d been baned from driving for a year in England, two years to the day after joining City, and in San Diego he would receive three drink-driving convictions in four years. His state of mind wasn’t helped by the end of his marriage and the discovery that, as result of many bad deals, by the end of the late 1980s his career was over and he had practically nothing to show for it.
In August 1989 he flew to Denmark to take part in a veterans’ match that reunited the core of that great 1974 Poland side. Teammates would later recall how unhappy he seemed when he boarded the aircraft back to California, expressing a longing to return home to Poland. Two weeks later, in the early hours of September 1, Deyna’s 1974 Dodge Colt left Interstate 15 just north of San Diego and smashed into a broken-down pick-up truck on the hard shoulder, killing him instantly. An autopsy revealed he was twice over the legal limit at the time of the crash.
‘He’d been back to Europe and he was Kazimierz Deyna the star again,’ said a former San Diego Sockers teammate. ‘I don’t care what anyone says, it’s tough to lose the notoriety of being at the top and then suddenly you’re driving down the Mira Mesa Boulevard and nobody knows who you are.’