Tomorrow evening Transylvanian club Targu Mures visit Giurgiu to play Astra. A win would put a first-ever Romanian title within 90 minutes’ reach – only a year after promotion. Hot on their heels are record champions Steaua Bucharest. Peterjon Cresswell reports on the team nicknamed ‘The Expendables’ and a club currently swirling with rumour.
The story is almost unbelievable, even in Romania. A team filled with thirtysomethings, put together by a young mastermind who left the club halfway through the season, is set to win the title only 12 months after joining the top flight.
And, in fact, only two years after being rebranded. From 2008 to 2013, ASA Targu Mures were FCM. Now they have regained the name and the colours of their 1970s’ heyday. No longer wearing the yellow of one of the main political parties of Transylvania, ASA are back in the blue and red of the László Bölöni era, when they enjoyed the backing of the Romanian Army.
But there’s far more to this story than just names and shirt colours. For the man behind this transformation, and the man who created this team of old hands, is Daniel Stanciu. This month, the title race with former army stablemates Steaua Bucharest going down to the wire, Stanciu returned, having walked out last December on the club he had so successfully revamped.
Not only that, but if rumours are true, this 40-year-old whizzkid managing director is also being joined by all-time ASA hero Bölöni, a former European Cup winner with Steaua Bucharest and renowned coach in France, Belgium, Greece and the Gulf.
A personality so revered the old ASA stadium was named after him, Bölöni has been quick to urge the Romanian press to ‘leave ASA alone’, and let them get on with the business of winning the title. Stanciu, meanwhile, has been displaying signs of solidarity with current ASA coach Liviu Ciobatariu, saying that they are ‘both pulling the same cart’, to use a suitable Transylvanian phrase. Ciobatariu’s appointment in December saw Stanciu’s exit.
ASA just need a win on Sunday night at Astra Giurgiu to put themselves a game away from a first-ever championship. Trailing by one point, if Steaua slip up at home to Botosani tomorrow, the title goes to Transylvania.
Admittedly, ASA have been helped by a chaotic Romanian season in which the former superpower in Transylvania, recent three-time title winners CFR Cluj, were docked 24 (!) points for financial mismanagement, and half the league (including Dinamo Bucharest) were denied the potential reward of European football next season for similar reasons.
But on the pitch, ASA have proved their worth. The team that Stanciu built, dubbed ‘The Expendables’ after the Hollywood film about action veterans, have beaten main rivals Steaua 1-0 home and away. They would be worthy champions. If they succeed and gain a Champions League qualifying place, they would probably need to travel to Cluj for home matches.
And Cluj is where flank midfielder Ioan Hora and 15-game clean sheet goalkeeper Eduoard Stancioiu earned their spurs. But ‘The Expendables’ were really forged in Timisoara, where Stanciu, then in his thirties, first emerged as a savvy general manager/technical advisor. Forwards Ianis Zicu and Dorin Goga, and defender László Szepsi, were part of his Politehnica Timisoara side that gained runners-up spot in the league in 2010-11. Shortly afterwards, Politehnica folded, leaving their large fan base bereft and forcing the likes of Zicu, top league scorer that season, to drift from Sofia to Pohang to Gangwon.
With a background in sports media rather than a major playing career, Stanciu knew where to turn when he set about forming another powerful team from Transylvania. These were players with years of top-flight experience in their legs. Offering modest salaries but significant bonuses, he incentivised his Targu Mures side to gain promotion from Liga II in 2013-14.
Stanciu then found gold in Senegalese veteran Ousmane N’Doye. Playing out his days at unknown Sageata Navodari, a club that has since folded, N’Doye had started out on his European career at Toulouse way back in 2002. At Targu Mures, Stanciu gave him a key role in midfield. N’Doye has duly notched 15 goals to become top ASA scorer – at 37.
No-one knows what will happen at Targu Mures after tomorrow. Ciobatariu is on a short-term contract, Bölöni is floating behind the scenes somewhere and Stanciu has the bit between his teeth. One point ahead of Steaua, ASA can even lose or draw tomorrow and still be in the hunt, the final games to come next Thursday.
But what is clear, given the relative demise of CFR Cluj and collapse of Politehnica Timisoara, is that there is a new force in Transylvanian football. And one that isn’t afraid to take on Steaua Bucharest and win.