Jakub Wilk endured cartoon jokes in Poland and an unhappy stint in Romania, but he has found his feet in Lithuania with a VMFD Žalgiris team setting their sights on another league title and a "miracle" in Europe.
The former Poland midfielder, whose name translates as wolf in Polish and Lithuanian, made a surprise switch across the border to Vilnius at the start of 2013 after his contract with KKS Lech Poznań ended. He joined ambitious Žalgiris and, either side of a forgettable spell in Romania, he seems to have found his rightful home.
It helped, of course, that the club already had a Polish accent, in the shape of coach Marek Zub and forward Kamil Biliński. "It was very good to have them around, they helped me understand the team inside out and showed me around the city," says Wilk. "It was a big change: I was used to playing in larger stadiums with bigger crowds. But after 12 years playing in Poland I needed a change."
The 28-year-old quickly settled, his left-foot crosses and free-kick delivery helping him to six goals and nine assists in 16 First Division games. FC Vaslui took notice and Wilk jumped at the chance of a move to Romania last summer – he was soon wishing he could jump straight back. "It looked like a step forward, but aside from the top teams the running of the clubs can be a bit of a struggle," admits Wilk. "Players went unpaid at times and, when that happened, I decided to leave."
Wilk had offers from the Polish Ekstraklasa, but a call from Žalgiris made his mind up. "I was often in touch with Žalgiris. I felt good here, my family too. We liked Vilnius and the people, so I said 'why not?'. When I compare this year with last, the club have made one or two steps forward in many departments and the competitiveness of the league has gone up a level."
One thing Wilk does regret is missing out on Žalgiris's run to the 2013/14 UEFA Europa League play-offs, including a victory over home-town club Lech. "If I'd had more patience, it would've been great to play against Lech," he says. "I wasn't surprised by Žalgiris's performance but when I saw the final result [a 2-1 second-leg loss taking them through on away goals] I was shocked, as were many in Poland. That's the beauty of football."
Over the past four weeks Wilk has scored the winner in the Lithuanian Cup final and got married, but he is already focused on new objectives. "I hope to stay until the end of the season and win the championship, which I missed out on last year. At the moment we are in a good position." Indeed, Žalgiris are nine points clear after 16 games and looking good ahead of UEFA Champions League qualifying. Wilk concedes that the UEFA Europa League may be a more realistic target, but he is aiming high.
"We can take heart from teams like FC Viktoria Plzeň [of the Czech Republic]. I believe in our team and hope we can perform miracles. We just need to take one game at a time and see what happens." Wilk is similarly minded when it comes to talk of adding to his three international caps. For now he is content at Žalgiris which, as he points out, is a fit so perfect their logo has a wolf on it.
"Back at Lech I used to play with Marcin Zając, which translates as hare – me on the left wing and him on the right. When we exchanged passes people were shouting Nu pogodi! [Just You Wait!], like the old Soviet cartoon," he laughs. The programme centred around a wolf and his attempts to capture a hare – like his cartoon cousin, Wilk knows all about perseverance though he, at least, is gaining reward for it.
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