Having depended on hand-outs from fans for their survival last season, VMFD Žalgiris Vilnius have rocketed to the top of the table in Lithuania as their vision of becoming a community club bears fruit.
A third of the way through the 2010 season, Žalgiris – whose name means Green Forest – top the A Lyga standings; an incredible turnaround for a side marooned in mid-table in the second flight last term, fielding amateur players and surviving week by week thanks to contributions from fans. All of a sudden people are talking of the title returning to Vilnius for the first time in 11 years.
"It's hard to believe how much has changed," Ingvaras Butautas, a Žalgiris fan of 25 years told UEFA.com. "This time last year we had some hopes of promotion, but realistically the goal was to keep the club afloat. Thanks to the supporters we managed that, but that was only short-term survival. Without new sponsors and a competitive team, Žalgiris were still at risk."
Founded by fans in 2009 following the demise of FK Žalgiris, a side dating back to 1947 that won the last of their three Lithuanian titles in 1999, the new club's change of fortunes may be down to inspired leadership. Vilma Venslovaitienė and Mindaugas Nikoličius have experience working at clubs in Scotland and Germany, and spearheaded the group aiming to revive Žalgiris' fortunes.
With the newly-expanded A Lyga offering the new club a top-flight place if they got their house in order over the winter, Žalgiris got to work. Venslovaitienė, now the club's executive director, said: "Last December we created a vision and then had to work very, very hard.
There were difficult moments, but we knew that in such a short time we had to work a little miracle."
Her vision depended in part upon getting the local community involved in the day-to-day running of the club. "Everyone can become part of this club," explained Venslovaitienė. "A good example is that the Vilnius civic authorities agreed to become co-owners. Only by bringing together the forces we have at our command can we overcome hard times like these."
Attracting sponsorship was only half of the battle and, as director of football, it fell to Nikoličius to recruit players. Assisted by ex-boss Mindaugas Čepas and new coach Igoris Pankratjevas – one of Žalgiris' stars in the 1980s – he pieced together a side of veterans, local talent and hungry foreign players, notably former FC Zenit St. Petersburg academy stars Jan Bobrovskiy, Pavel Komolov and Andrey Nagumanov.
A 3-0 opening-day defeat by FK Ekranas did not augur well, but a seven-game unbeaten run has since seen them take top spot. Pankratjevas is not counting his chickens just yet, though. "This is a good start but we have a long way to go," said the 44-year-old, a member of the Žalgiris side that finished third in the USSR in 1987. "The goal is to try and win every game and then see where that leaves us at the end of the season."
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