No-one knows that better than Barnsley’s Polish international defender Michal Helik.
Signed from Polish Ekstraklasa outfit Cracovia on his 25th birthday last September, the centre-back had been courted by the Reds since the summer of 2019 – but was forced to wait over a year before coming to Yorkshire.
Initial impressions of Helik were not particularly favourable. He certainly did not look international class, it has to be said.
On his Championship debut at Reading on September 19, Helik was sent off for catching Royals striker Lucas Joao in full-flight.
The defender, who arrived at Oakwell after seven years in his homeland where he made 137 appearances in spells with Cracovia and Ruch Chorzow, was later briefly dropped from the Reds side in December after being brought off in a brutal 4-0 home reverse to Bournemouth.
By the following Spring, he had won his first senior cap for Poland and later put gloss on a remarkable first year at Barnsley by securing a place in his country’s Euro 2020 squad.
The 2020-21 season was a year of domestic records for the Reds. If Helik makes an appearance in the European Championships, he will become the first Barnsley player to represent the club in the finals of the competition.
It would constitute another feather in the cap of the club in a year when their profile has been raised abroad as well as at home.
Since scoring both goals in Barnsley’s festive derby win over Huddersfield Town on Boxing Day, Helik has not looked back.
Strong in the air and blessed with a prolific ability to make telling blocks and interceptions, Helik also possesses presence in the opposing area and displayed wonderful consistency in the second half of the campaign.
As someone who is aggressive at set-plays, relishes the physical stuff and has a yard of pace, Helik – after getting over some early teething troubles – has shown why he always looked tailor-made for English football.
Small wonder that Reds chief executive Dane Murphy referred to him last week as a ‘steal’, while professing surprise that no other clubs in this country approached Cracovia before his own did.
The Chorzow-born player, named as the club’s player of the month for February and shortlisted for the Championship accolade, was later crowned as the club’s player of the season.
Whether it culminates in a finals appearance remains to be seen. One corner of South Yorkshire will be keeping their fingers crossed for Helik, who started in Poland’s penultimate warm-up friendly against Russia alongside Leeds United’s Mateusz Klich.
Handed his debut in a see-saw 3-3 World Cup qualifying draw against Hungary in March, Helik also started in the 2-1 loss to England at Wembley, where he gave away a penalty after catching the heel of Raheem Sterling.
Playing on the right of a defensive ‘three’ as opposed to operating in his preferred central role as at Barnsley, Helik looked uncomfortable at times, with veteran defender Kamil Glik, 33, chosen in the middle.
But in his short time in charge, head coach Paulo Sousa has been nothing but flexible in his five games – moving from an original 3-4-2-1 to a 4-3-3 and then back to a 3-5-2 before switching to a 4-4-2.
Should Poland operate a four-man backline, Southampton’s Jan Bednarek is likely to get the nod alongside Glik, with Helik being first reserve.
Helik’s ability in the opposing area might also just count for him, with an impressive tally of six goals for Barnsley last term confirming his reputation as a goal-scoring centre-back.
He once scored eight in a campaign at Cracovia and also scored in the 2019-20 Polish Cup semi-final against Legia Warsaw.
One thing that can be taken as read is that Helik and his team-mates will be clocking up the miles over the next week or so.
After today’s game against Slovakia in Saint-Petersburg, Poland face Spain in Seville on Saturday before returning to Russia for their final group encounter with Sweden on Wednesday week.
Just the Czech Republic and Croatia will travel further than Poland’s 7,000 kilometres in the group stages, with the Swedes having the benefit of extra day’s rest ahead of the last group game.
But with a goal machine in Bayern Munich superstar Robert Lewandowski – an idol of Helik’s – in their ranks, Poland have a clear and obvious weapon to utilise.
A talisman of the ilk of their revered former duo of Grzegorz Lato and Zbigniew Boniek, who graced the global game in the Seventies and early Eighties, he will ensure Poland have a chance.
A decent tournament for a country of almost 40 million inhabitants is probably long overdue.