Kecskemét: A Hungarian Cinderella Story

The sleepy city of Kecskemét, situated around 86kms to the south of Budapest, may be more famous for its bi-annual air show, barack palinka, and for being the birthplace of Hungarian playwright József Katona than for its football club. 

However, following back-to-back promotions from NBIII to NBI, that narrative is quickly changing as, under the guidance of head coach Istvan Szabó, the club sets about penning a new and exciting chapter in its history.

Szabo was handed the reigns at Kecskemét’s Széktói Stadion in June 2021 following the Bács-Kiskun county sides somewhat fortuitous promotion from NBIII to NBII at the end of the 2020/21 season. 

Holding a two-point advantage going into the final three games of the season, Kecskemét contrived to lose two and draw one of their final fixtures finishing the campaign 6 points behind champions Ivancsa in the fight for the solitary promotion spot from NBIII Közép.

Seemingly destined for another season in the wilderness of NBIII, Kecskemét was handed a lifeline as Ivancsa declined to apply for an NBII license, handing Lilac promotion via the backdoor.

After his inability to see the season through to a naturally successful conclusion, Zsolt Gombos departed as manager replaced by Istvan Szabó who had led FC Dabas to a highly respectable third placed finish in NBIII Közép.  And so began the Cinderella Story of Kecskemét.

Nowhere Men

Established in 1911, Kecskemét has spent the majority of its existence in the lower and county leagues of Hungarian football and did not trouble the NBI until as recently as 2008/09.  The club from Bács-Kiskun then enjoyed a seven year stay in the top-flight, winning the Magyar Kupa in 2011, and embarking on their maiden European adventure the following season. 

Fun fact: Kecskemét has an unbeaten record in European football, drawing 1-1 and 0-0 against Aktobe of Kazakhstan, eventually exiting the 2011/12 Europa League on the now retired Away Goals rule.

At the end of the 2014/15 season, and despite finishing 9th in NBI, Kecskemét was demoted by the MLSZ to the Bács-Kiskun county first division due to financial reasons and left to start the journey back to the top all over again.

Write Offs and Relegation Fodder

Kecskemét’s return to NBII was expected to be a short lived one, but not quite in the way it eventually worked out.  A run of 13 games without defeat, including a 7 game winning streak to round out the season, saw Kecskemét bow out of NBII not as relegation fodder but as runners-up and promoted to NBI.

Upon his arrival in the summer of 2021, Istvan Szabó set about reshaping the squad that had squandered its chance of winning the NBIII title the previous season and into one capable of defying the odds in NBII.

With no money available to spend on transfer fees, Szabó scoured the market to find the best write offs, misfits, and discarded talents from NBI and NBII with the hunger and ability to play his style of football.

Among the 24 new arrivals during the 2021/22 season were goalkeeper Bence Varga (MTK) who kept an impressive 7 clean sheets during the season; midfielders Soma Szuhodovszki (MTK II) and Bálint Katona (Ferencvaros) whose industry and combined total of 10 goals and 4 assists were the driving force at the heart of the team; and forward Dániel Lukács discarded by Honved II, who would go on to end the season as top scorer with 25 goals to his name.

The summer 2022 transfer window was a little less congested for Kecskemét with only 14 new arrivals.  This did include the re-signing of loan players Varga and Katona from the previous season, alongside Máté Katona (Ferencvaros), Márió Zeke (Fehervar), and Bence Banó-Szabó (Honved); the latter brought in partly to replace Lukács who signed a pre-contract with DVTK, condemning the forward to another season in NBII.

At the mid-point of the 2022/23 season, it looks like the boys in Lilac are doing just fine without last season’s talisman, currently sitting in second place in the top flight, albeit 8 points behind runaway leaders Ferencvaros.

Total Football the Kecskemét Way

Aside from some excellent recruitment, the key to Kecskemét’s rise back to the top has been Szabó’s commitment to playing a fluid and attacking system based on playing out from the back and in game player/system rotations that also allow Lilac to soak up pressure before launching more direct attacks.

Structural flexibility has been core to Kecskemét’s impressive displays over the past season and a half with young left centre back Gábor Szalai a key component of Kecskemét’s style.

Szalai, one of Hungary’s most promising ball playing defenders is extremely comfortable in possession and often the starting point for Kecskemét’s extended passing sequences, linking well with Zeke at left back/wing back and the aforementioned Szuhodovszki and Katona in midfield.

Szalai’s ability to play at both left centre back and left full back allows Kecskemét to effortlessly switch between systems depending on the phase of the game with Szabó often utilising 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 / 3-4-2-1 / 3-4-3/ 4-5-1 set ups throughout a match as part of game management.

At just over 6ft tall, Szalai has also proven himself to be a threat in the opposition penalty area, scoring 10 times during the 2021/22 season.

However, Szalai’s positional flexibility is not Kecskemét’s only strength. 

The midfield industry of Levente Vágó, who tops the league in terms in interceptions made along with team mate Csaba Belényesi, allow the attacking midfield trio of Szuhodovszki, Bálint Katona, and Banó-Szabó the freedom to operate behind the mobile strike duo of Tóth and Levente Szabó; the latter set to return to MOL Fehervar for the second half of the season unless Kecskemét can renew his loan.

Having defeated Ferencvaros 2-0 at the Széktói Stadion back in October, Kecskemét re-announced themselves on the big stage.

A drop in form before the World Cup break, 4 games without a win, saw their grip on second place slip slightly but you would not bet against Szabó operating wisely in the winter transfer window to help secure a most unlikely return to Europe for the club with the lowest overall market value in NBI according to transfermarkt.