A journey into the unknown

8th March 2017

A journey into the unknown

By Douglas Barr-Hamilton

In the end, it lasted for four matches, spanned four different countries and brought a taste of European club volleyball to England for the first time in five decades. Defeat at the hands of the Dutch side Draisma Dynamo Appeldoorn may have knocked IBB Polonia out of the CEV Challenge Cup at the last 16 stage but, for everyone involved, the journey was an exciting – if somewhat challenging – one.

Reflecting on their entry into the competition, IBB Polonia’s chairman Bartek Luszcz said: “Playing in Europe had been long been a part of our club’s vision. We started preparing for this moment over three years ago. However, I was one of the last to be convinced that this was a good idea. The prospect of huge financial risk and the challenge of organising things properly were scary but I decided to go ahead; we had a dream and I don’t believe big things can be achieved without big dreams.”

Other senior figures in the club were more enthusiastic than Luszcz was originally. Team captain Marius Ciortea had already played in Europe for his Romanian team, Remat Zalau. Coach Piotr Graban had helped propel Poland’s Atom Trefl Sopot to two national championships and appearances in both the Champions League and the Champions Cup, winning a silver medal in the latter.

This enthusiasm would have counted for little however without the assistance of some very supportive sponsors. Thankfully, in IBB Polish Building Wholesale and The Polish Bakery, IBB Polonia had two sponsors who shared the club’s vision for further progression to the highest levels of European competition.

Playing in the Challenge Cup requires a significant financial investment to stage matches and to transport players across Europe. In addition, there are stringent CEV rules around, among other things, venue specifications and the presentation of matches which are strictly enforced and which, if broken, carry a hefty fine. All of these financial risks and implications had to be weighed up by a club venturing into unknown territory.

The home venue quickly became a major consideration. With their usual Brentford hall not meeting CEV regulations for the amount of space needed around the court, the CEV gave special dispensation for their first round tie to be played in Poland. With volleyball being such a big sport there, the match attracted TV coverage as well as curious spectators and provided an attractive visit “home” for the sponsors.

Victory over the Hungarian side Fino Kaposvar in that tie was a wonderful moment for the club but it did mean a second injection of financing was required. Happily, IBB were so delighted by the game’s profile as well as the victory that they quickly and generously agreed to support the next round too.

For the second round, eyes turned to Crystal Palace which was available on the date the match had to be played. In using it, IBB Polonia renewed an association with a venue which had hosted top class English volleyball back in the early 90s.

Watching the second leg against Appeldoorn among 1,200 spectators at Crystal Palace, the professionalism which that investment had brought with it was not lost on me. In the 1970s, I was part of Southgate VC’s foray into the European Championship. Back then, we were amateurs with amateur standards. In contrast, IBB Polonia were quite clearly amateurs working to highly professional standards.

I recall the Southgate coach, Roy Pankhurst, undertaking pretty much all the club admin himself; something which today’s more well organised clubs simply wouldn’t countenance. For the Crystal Palace match, IBB Polonia’s team of off-court volunteers (already larger than their on-court team) was supported by a host of other one-off helpers, ranging from university students on social media duty, right through to the club’s junior members acting as ball retrievers and floor moppers.

In the final reckoning, the two rounds cost IBB Polonia well over £40,000. That’s a significant sum by English volleyball standards although, by way of comparison, it was suggested to me that professional European clubs – with their professional wage bills – could expect to lay out as much as £2 million to reach the final of this competition.

Despite all the barriers and potential pitfalls, IBB Polonia did it; they brought European club volleyball back to the UK. The insights they have learned along the way, especially regarding planning, manpower and commercial support, should prove invaluable to any other Super 8s side contemplating going down the same route.

In the end, even the previously reluctant chairman found himself advocating, “Don’t wait until you are ready before taking the next step in your club’s development. Keep maintaining that progress.” It seems to have worked for him.

Douglas Barr-Hamilton was a rugby-playing bank employee, enjoying some knock-about volleyball during an evening fitness class in North London, when he was invited to be treasurer of the Amateur Volleyball Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He stepped down after 13 years as the sport grew and the work became too much like his day job. He continued as a vice-president, with his various assignments including the Spring Cup and the 2001 Island Games. He co-founded the 3Touch Volleyball magazine with Barbara Totterdell and is still encouraging volleyball development by helping to organise the local league in London.

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