Remember when Leicester City won the English Premier League? They 5000-1 to win the title before the start of that season.
The Foxes had been promoted in 2014 before escaping relegation from England’s top flight the following season.
After narrowly avoiding the drop no one would have foreseen them challenging for, let alone winning the league title.
If that was an unlikely league triumph, what’s happening in Poland is completely unfathomable.
In the country’s top division, the Ekstraklasa, a team that has never finished above third in the league is looking increasingly likely to finish first.
Oh and by the way, they were in the sixth division as recently as the 2001/02 season.
This is the story of Lechia Gdańsk.
From Failed Mergers to Success as an Independent Club
Founded in 1945, Lechia Gdańsk began life in the third division. Just a few years later in 1949, they played their first season ever in the top flight of Polish football.
The club experienced some struggles with relegation, but for the most part, remained stable in the upper echelons of the football pyramid.
But in the 1960s the team suffered a dip in form and faced eventual relegation to the third division. They were back to where they started.
Financial aid from construction companies helped the club but they couldn’t manage a return to the first division.
Fast forward to the 1995/96 season, Lechia Gdańsk merged with another club, Olimpia Poznań, bringing them back into the first division. Yet this failed as they were then relegated that same season.
Falling back into the third division another merger occurred, this time with Polonia Gdańsk in 1998. The joining of these two teams meant they’d begin the season in the second division. Although they maintained their status for a couple of seasons, the club were once again relegated into the third division.
That team dissolved and an independent Lechia Gdańsk was created all the way down in the sixth division. The club hit rock-bottom. A first division league title seemed unreachable.
The Fruits of Labor: Successive Promotions
Rather than pushing for a quicker way up the divisions through mergers, Lechia Gdańsk would now look to earn their way up by starting from the bottom.
They were promoted to the fifth division as champions in the 2001/02 season. A great start for the new independent club.
The following season saw another promotion as champions. Two successive promotions is quite the feat, and they were now in the fourth division.
But they were just getting started.
The 2003/04 season saw Lechia earn yet another promotion as champions into the third division. They were back to familiar territory in their efforts to make it back into Poland’s first division.
The following season, they did it again. Promoted as champions of the third division, the team was now one off the top tier.
Their rapid rise through the ranks of Polish football, becoming champions every step of the way, is one that is unique, not only in Poland, but throughout the history of football. Although it is not quite an unprecedented series of achievements, it remains a rare one.
That Last Hurdle Before A Return to the Top
The second division proved a more difficult prospect for Lechia, and as a result they ended their first season in 11th place.
In the 2005/06 campaign Poland’s second tier, the I liga, consisted of 18 teams. The top two would be promoted, third place qualified for the promotion playoff, and the bottom three were relegated. The club finished 11 points away from third and 15 points above the relegation zone.
Attempting once again to return to the promised land of the Ekstraklasa, the team failed, but there was clear improvement as they finished in fifth place.
The organisation of the I Liga changed that season as the top four teams earned promotion while the bottom five faced relegation. This meant that Lechia were a mere four points away from promotion, and fourth placed Zaglębie Sosnowiec.
The third time was the charm for the Gdańsk based club. The 2007/08 season saw the team finish in first place, not only attaining that precious promotion back into Poland’s top flight, but doing so as champions.
After 20 years since their last season in the top flight, they were back. The Gdański Lwy — the Gedanian Lions — even won the league by a margin of five points ahead of second place Śląsk Wroclaw.
They conquered the sixth through second divisions in seven seasons. What an incredible accomplishment. Utterly remarkable to say the least.
Doing More than Maintaining their Top Flight Status
Despite the amazing rise of the club, they don’t seem to be satisfied just yet as they now look likely to win the Ekstraklasa title.
This is no typo. Lechia Gdańsk, the club languishing in the sixth division of Polish football just 17 years ago, are now frontrunners to win the top flight crown for the first time in their history.
When they made it back into the first division, the league had 16 teams in which the bottom two get relegated. The team finished in 12th, just two points above the relegation zone.
In the 2009/10 season, the club improved, ending the campaign in eighth place. They were ten points above the relegation zone and 16 points off of third place and a UEFA Europa League spot.
This was followed by another mid-table finish, before the club found themselves in 13th place in the 2011/12 season. They managed to avoid falling back into the I Liga by seven points. The same number of points separated them from the relegation zone the next season, but they still managed to finish eighth.
From the 2013/14 season the format of the competition changed, with the league table being split into two separate groups towards the end of the season.
Teams placed first to eighth became a part of the Championship Round while ninth through 16th played in the Relegation Round.
In the regular season, Lechia finished eighth before earning fourth place in the Championship Round, their highest finish since 1956 when they finished in third. The club was just two points away from third placed Ruch Chorzów and a Europa League qualification spot.
The subsequent two seasons saw them make the Championship Round and finish mid-table, but in the 2016/17 regular season Lechia Gdańsk finished fourth, five points off first place Jagiellonia Białystok.
In the Championship Round they retained their fourth place but were in a three-way tie for second — only denied a place in the Europa League by goal difference — and were just two points away from title winning Legia Warsaw.
The club was performing better and looked closer to winning a title than they could have ever dreamed of back in the sixth division days. Yet, there was an unfortunate drop in form the next season.
Last season, for the first time since the inception of the new league format, Lechia fell into the Relegation Round.
They ended the regular season in 14th, five points above bottom club Sandecja Nowy Sącz. In the Relegation Round, they escaped demotion by just three points.
The Unlikeliest of Title Challengers
The 2018/19 regular season has ended with Lechia top of the Ekstraklasa table, ahead of Legia Warsaw on goal difference.
The club were undefeated at home during the regular season, conceded the least number of goals in the league, and were also among the best in terms of goals scored.
They are now competing in the Championship Round, where they’ll face the other seven teams that qualified to determine a league champion.
To put this possible achievement into context, the club has never won a first division league title in their history.
Only 16 teams have been crowned champions of the Polish top flight. The last team to win it for the first time was Zagłębie Lubin in 1991.
Their nearest rivals for the title, Legia Warsaw have won the last three. A fourth would equal the record number of titles a single club holds at 14.
Taking that into consideration, and the fact Lechia Gdańsk maintained their top flight status by just three points last season, no one would have expected them to be this close to winning the league.
They have collected league trophies from the sixth division to the second. Against the odds, like Leicester City, they might win the biggest one of them all.
*Information for Lechia Gdansk obtained from this fan website. Google translate was used to interpret it as I do not speak Polish.
League standing information from here.