FK Vardar may be the most successful club in the history of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia but few predicted they would be top of the Prva Liga at the winter break.
Five league championships and five Macedonian Cups since independence mean that the club that won the 1961 Yugoslav Cup and the 1987 title remain their nation's most successful side but, after a troubled 2010/11, Ilco Gjorgjioski's side were hardly expected to thrive. Last time out, Vardar finished second from bottom and were fortunate to escape relegation.
In truth, the Skopje club had been in decline for some time with frequent boardroom changes and difficulty securing sponsors. However the summer brought some stability, with new owners making sweeping changes to the squad and hiring Gjorgjioski, who guided FK Makedonija GP Skopje to the title in 2008/09.
The 40-year-old promptly worked his magic again, his new side ending the autumn unbeaten in 18 league games and five points clear of FK Metalurg Skopje at the top of the table, much to the coach's surprise. "Before the start of the season nobody expected us to be in this position," he said. "We were starting from scratch. Vardar's foundations had been destablised.
"Our primary goal was to get this organisation back on its feet, and only then could we think about pushing for trophies," Gjorgjioski added. "Our main title rivals – Shkëndija, Metalurg, Rabotnicki and Renova – have been building their teams for years and have settled lineups; our squad was put together just three weeks before the campaign started. However, they were inconsistent, which was not the case with us."
Also through to the semi-finals of the cup, Vardar's summer signings included the league's top scorer and club captain Filip Ivanovski, who has 14 goals to his name having joined in the summer along with Vardar alumni Vlatko Grozdanovski and Miroslav Vajs. "We have a winning mentality and that's what separates us from the rest of the clubs," said the 25-year-old Ivanovski, whose achievements for the season include a three-minute hat-trick – the fastest in the league's history.
"I'm happy with my performances and the fact that I am the league's top scorer, but the credit goes to my team-mates," he added. "Our squad is a great mix of quality individuals. We also brought a few excellent foreigners and that brought much-needed stability into our game."
A brilliant autumn has undoubtedly lifted fans' spirits; after Vardar beat FK Bregalnica 3-0 in their final game of 2011 supporters hoisted a flag in the club's black and red colours reading: 'Just like the old days.'
Optimism is all very well but Gjorgjioski knows titles are not handed out in the winter break. "It's great Vardar are top of the league, but we cannot kid ourselves that we have reached the finish line. Nothing is decided yet; there are many games left until the end of the season. The title will be settled in May. Until then we have to keep our feet on the ground."
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