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Žalgiris back from the dead in Lithuania

Published: Tuesday 12 November 2013, 16.26CET
"Five years ago, no one could have hoped we would win so many trophies so quickly," said VMFD Žalgiris captain Algis Jankauskas, with fans having rescued his boyhood club.
by Vaidotas Januška
from Vilnius
Žalgiris back from the dead in Lithuania
Algis Jankauskas kisses the trophy he won as captain of his boyhood club, Žalgiris ©Valdas Knyzelis
Published: Tuesday 12 November 2013, 16.26CET

Žalgiris back from the dead in Lithuania

"Five years ago, no one could have hoped we would win so many trophies so quickly," said VMFD Žalgiris captain Algis Jankauskas, with fans having rescued his boyhood club.

VMFD Žalgiris won a domestic treble in Lithuania this season. Back in the club's heyday, that might have been nothing remarkable, but given that the Vilnius side were a bankrupt husk just five years ago, it is a substantial achievement.

The only Lithuanian team to have enjoyed a significant profile in the Soviet era, Žalgiris dominated in the years following independence, yet the trail went very cold indeed after they claimed their third league title in 1999. Declared bankrupt in 2008, the club were revived by a consortium of supporters, and scrambled back to the top flight before a new board – including current director of football Mindaugas Nikoličius – took charge.

"You wouldn't even say we had to start again from zero – it was lower than that," he told UEFA.com. "When we gathered in 2010, it was in a neglected stadium with -15C temperatures outside. We had to train on a sub-standard pitch all season and use shabby dressing rooms. It was miles away from what we can afford now. But there was big potential in the city, and the fans that saved the club are unique in Lithuanian football."

Žalgiris finished third in the First Division in 2010, and were runners-up in 2011 and 2012. This time round, they seemed to be cruising to glory before they hit a late-season slump, failing to win their last five matches. Indeed, after a final-day home defeat by FK Sūduva they looked destined for a title play-off, only for main rivals FK Atlantas to draw with FK Banga and drop the championship trophy into Žalgiris's lap.

"We travelled from bottom to top in the space of a few moments," said coach Marek Zub. "One moment you have lost a game, then suddenly you are overjoyed that you can celebrate a year's hard work." Nikoličius added: "The title was so close for such a long time, but we couldn't reach it. However, I wouldn't change it for an easier path, because now we have this experience of what can happen during a long season."

Fatigue may have played a part at the end, according to Zub. "During the last nine months, we played more than 60 matches," he said. Those included a decent campaign in the UEFA Europa League, where Žalgiris became the first Lithuanian club to negotiate three rounds of a UEFA competition before being comprehensively beaten by FC Salzburg in the play-offs.

If Europe remains a long-term target as Žalgiris prepare for UEFA Champions League action next term – with a group stage campaign Nikoličius's dream – for now the champions have a few months to bask in their triumph. Defender Algis Jankauskas, a boyhood fan of the club, is enjoying that sensation more than most.

"When I was in the stands as a kid, I would never have dreamed that I would captain the team to the title one day," the 31-year-old beamed. "Five years ago, no one could have hoped we would have won so many trophies so quickly. I just have to thank the fans for believing in us. They are the reason why the club is still here."

Last updated: 12/11/13 16.29CET

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