"It's always been my dream to play for Croydon" - Lukasz Klimek
Having played over 350 times for his boyhood club, Łukasz Klimek is a reminder that loyalty still exists in a football world full of obscure transfers and player movements.
Łukasz Klimek, also known as Luke, has spent almost two decades at the historic Polish-Australian football club Croydon FC and has become a leader both on and off the pitch.
FPF caught up with the 32-year-old defender to talk about his time growing up around the club, his experience playing for Croydon, and his thoughts on the state of football in South Australia.
From day one, Klimek was linked with the club through his Polish background, and he usually went out with his father to cheer on Croydon's senior side.
"We didn't go out to every game, but whenever he had the Saturday off, we would go out to watch the senior team," Klimek told Front Page Football recently.
"He's an immigrant and grew up around the club. It was a place for him to connect with other Polish people, and it was something I loved to do with him.
"It was one of the only places he could meet with other Polish people and speak his mother language. He didn't have anyone here; he came to Australia by himself, so the place and club meant a lot to him.
Having family and cultural ties associated with Poland motivates Klimek to continue playing for Croydon. He takes pride in wearing the famous Polish Syrenka crest on his shirt.
"For me and my family, Croydon will always be called Polonia," Klimek said.
"For so many other families that came from Poland to Australia, they didn't have anything, and the club was their place to connect with others.
"The feeling of representing that community that has been there for generations is always going to be there.
"It was something I looked up to when I was little; I wanted to be like one of those senior players. It's always been my dream to play for Polonia. It's been a second home for me for so many years."
In 2019, Croydon said goodbye to their historic home ground Polonia Reserve. It will make way for a brand new stadium that is expected to be ready for the 2023 NPL SA season.
Three years on since the demolition of the ground, the only player of Polish background in the senior team still feels sad about leaving Polonia Reserve. But he is keen to return to a proper home ground next season.
"For me, it was pretty sad to say goodbye to Polonia Reserve," Klimek said.
"I remember walking off at the last game ever; it was emotional for me.
"I spent so much time and made many good memories, and it was a very emotional farewell.
"It's been pretty hard. We're training at a facility that used to belong to another club that moved to a newer facility, and it's not the best.
"It's a dog park during the day and [a] football ground at night. We're training and playing in different venues. It's been pretty difficult, and I'm sure things will change next season."
In 2014, Klimek was part of Croydon's historic Grand Final victory, as the Kings defeated Metro Stars 2-1 at Coopers Stadium to break a 37-year championship drought.
Being crowned champions of South Australia was very special and unforgettable for Klimek and the club.
"It was a crazy experience," Klimek said.
"We were such a young squad at the time coming up against Metro Stars, a very experienced team.
"The average age of our defence in the Final was around 18, and they had just played maybe one or two seasons of NPL first-grade football.
"In our finals run, we beat Adelaide City, [Adelaide] Blue Eagles, West Adelaide, and then in the final Metro Stars. We beat the best four teams in the entire state, and it was an amazing feeling to win the title."
A year later, Klimek featured in Croydon's historic Australia Cup debut against NPL QLD powerhouse Lions FC.
The Kings went down 2-1 with Klimek getting on the scoresheet. Representing his boyhood club on the national stage was a moment he will never forget.
"It was huge as it was the first time Croydon were on the national stage," Klimek said.
"To play against a strong team in Lions [FC] was an honour; they came out well-drilled, and you could tell the level that they were at. We were very much under the pump, especially in the first half.
"I know we lost, but it was an amazing experience to have Croydon play on the national stage on a broadcast station; it was crazy."
From 2014 to 2017, Klimek and his Croydon side dominated South Australian football, winning two Grand Finals (2014 and 2017) and a Federation Cup in 2015.
Consistency was key to Croydon's success over those years.
"Looking back [at] the 2017 Final win against Adelaide City, it showed the consistency we had in those three to four years," Klimek said.
"To win the title in 2014, the cup in 2015, and then win the title again in 2017 just showed what level we were at.
"Similar to 2014, we knocked out the best teams in the state and Adelaide City in the 2017 Grand Final were such a strong team, and they still are.
"City had such a good team, and it was a very tight final. We managed to win 2-1, [which] was good validation to show how consistent we were throughout those years."
Former Adelaide United midfielder and Socceroo Travis Dodd is the current manager at Croydon, with Klimek enjoying a very positive relationship with him.
"He's got a lot of tactical knowledge," Klimek said.
"Travis has got a lot of experience playing for so many years. He's got a great awareness of the game and treats everyone well.
"He's fairly young, and there isn't a major age difference between him and the playing group. So he can manage players well as players tend to be a lot different now.
"Even though I am the captain, he treats me like a normal player, and there isn't any special treatment I receive. It's more in-depth discussions about the team and what we can do to improve certain things."
On the 13th of May, Klimek played his 350th match for the club in a 1-2 loss to Campbelltown City.
Weeks later, Croydon set up a monumental occasion at their temporary home ground to commemorate Klimek for his services. The club promoted the game against Adelaide United Youth on the 25th of June with much build-up throughout the week.
"There was hype by the club, and they definitely tried to promote it a lot," Klimek said.
"The week leading up to it, to gameday, with all the presentations and looking back, it was extremely nice.
"I've been very lucky that I've stayed mostly injury-free for so long. A lot of players don't have the luck of playing that many games, and I'm grateful for that.
"It was a great honour to receive the guard of honour from both clubs.
"Adelaide United didn't need to do it, but it shows how much everyone cared about the occasion.
"I received a lot of congratulations on the milestone. It was nice to see. Even though we lost, it was a great honour to get the congratulations from both clubs and sets of supporters."
Klimek has been the captain of Croydon for several years, and it's a role he transitioned into with success.
He has played a role in mentoring the next crop of South Australian talent. This list includes Hosine Bility, Al Hassan Toure, Domenic Costanzo, and Mohammed Toure, all of which have played for Croydon.
"It's something I've grown into and something I've enjoyed more and more in my career," Klimek said.
"We were very lucky to have players like Hosine at Croydon. He was a good kid to mentor; he always listened and tried his best. In the 2017 Final, he was the best on ground at just 16 years of age.
"It's really enjoyable to see players grow and mature over time. To have played a little part in those players' careers, it's something very meaningful for me.
"Yes, you win championships, but one of the more important things to do is help other players around you, especially the next generation."
Klimek has been involved in NPL SA football for more than 20 years and believes that the quality in South Australia is underrated compared to other member federations.
"I've seen some huge changes," Klimek said.
"When I started, it was mainly 30-year-olds against 30-year-olds, or roughly about that same age.
"Now you're mostly playing against younger players, mainly around the 18 to 25 mark. It's probably the biggest change that I've noticed.
"The level is very high now; teams like Adelaide City play in the Australia Cup and do extremely well. Campbelltown City won the National Premier Leagues finals series too, and so did Metro Stars.
"With their success, you can see that the level in South Australia is very high, and it's good to see. I think the level of football in South Australia is very underrated compared to other states."
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