Thursday’s game between Scotland and Poland will undoubtedly prompt discussion about the many Polish footballers to have made contributions to our national game.
Artur Boruc, Dariusz Adamczuk and Maciej Zurawski have all had an impact but few people know about the intriguing story behind Hamilton Academical’s minor Polish influx of the early 1970’s.
It was a story the Glasgow Herald described at the time as ‘one of the strangest transfer deals recorded in Scottish Football’ and one that was at odds with the Cold War dominated political backdrop of the time.
Hamilton Academical, a club languishing at the bottom of the old Scottish Division Two, had just signed three internationals from communist controlled Poland for the price of some washing machines and assorted electrical items.
Alfred ‘Alfie’ Olek, Witold Szygula and Roman Strazalkowski were all approaching the twilights of their careers but had 36 caps between them and were still highly regarded in their home country (Strazalkowski had captained his country against Brazil at the Maracana just four years previously).
Washing Machine exchange
How did Hamilton Academical manage to attract three of the biggest names in Polish football for a fee of a few domestic items? Alan Dick, who was a club official at Hamilton Academical at the time of the signings, explains all behind Poland and Scotland's strangest football link:
“Hamilton at the time had a Polish chairman called Jan Stepek and he had good connections with not just Polish football but businesses in Poland too. He struck up a deal whereby he would ship washing machines and electrical items to Poland in exchange for footballers for Hamilton Accies.
“He had an electrical wholesale business in Cambuslang, it was a small empire of shops in Hamilton and district. Over the years he expanded his business and ended up with four or five shops across Lanarkshire.
“It took about a year of negotiations, obviously in those days VISAs were harder to come by, but they eventually arrived in September 1971 and Hamilton at that time were very poor. They’d gone through a traumatic few years and Jan Stepek had taken over and tried to improve the fortunes of the club. He thought that by bringing these players, who were of a very high standard, to the club it might turn things around.
"Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal had never tried it never mind ‘wee Hamilton Accies" Alan Dick
“Syzgula was a vastly experienced keeper. Very agile. Very commanding of his box. Just a great communicator. He was a real figure at the back.
“Roman was a cultured left footed central defender who could pass and spray the ball about. Very commanding in the air. He was tall – above 6 foot. His English was reasonable so he always tried to communicate and command his area.
“Alfie was an attacking wide player on both flanks. He was two-footed and very quick. He took on defenders with pace and would create a number of opportunities for the rest of the players.
“No Eastern European player had ever joined a British club direct from Eastern Europe before so we were groundbreakers in that sense. It was unheard of. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal had never tried it never mind ‘wee Hamilton Accies’. Because of the friendships of our chairman at the time and his connections, a deal was struck and these players duly arrived.”
“Unfortunately they weren’t able to resurrect Hamilton’s low fortunes but they certainly added a lot of interest in the Accies. Crowd levels increased and there was quite a bit of media interest from Poland. Relations between the East and West were cold, so it was only the top newspapers who carried stories at the time but there was some surprise about the signings. They had the desired effect of creating an interest in the club and helped to boost crowds.”