17 October 1973
ENGLAND (0) 1 (Clarke, pen 63)
POLAND (0) 1 (Domarski 55)
ENGLAND: Shilton (Leicester); Madeley (Leeds), Hunter (Leeds), McFarland (Derby), Hughes (Liverpool); Bell (Man City), Currie (Sheffield Utd), Peters (Tottenham); Channon (Southampton), Clarke (Leeds), Chivers (Tottenham) [Hector (Derby)]
POLAND: Tomaszewski; Szymanowski, Bulzacki, Musial, Gorgon; Kasperczak, Cmikiewicz, Deyna, Gadocha; Lato, Domarski
This is where the myth began. If you just read the constant references to this game you’d be forgiven for thinking England lost the match, but in a sense they did. Hosts in 1966, holders for 1970 this was the first time they had, had to qualify for the World Cup since 1962. England was still very proud of their World Cup win in 1966 and still felt unlucky to be knocked out by the West Germans in Mexico four years later. But the players who replaced the heroes of ’66 were not as talented and certainly not as together. By this stage there were also rumours of misgivings within The FA about the man who masterminded the rise to World Champions, Alf Ramsey.
In those days there were only 32 nations competing in the qualifying campaign, and England had been drawn in a group of three with Poland and Wales. After winning in Cardiff, England were held at home in the return fixture. Wales then went onto beat Poland before England suffered defeat themselves in Chorzow. A 3-0 win for the Poles over Wales left them only needing a draw at Wembley. England were favourites yet wary of their opponents who’d surprised them when they had met in June.
The defeat in Poland signalled a kind of watershed for England. The second Polish goal came as a result of Bobby Moore being dispossessed inside his own half, and as he was the last man, the tormentor, Lubanski, went onto beat Shilton at his near post. It virtually ended Moore’s international career as by the end of the year he would make his last appearance in the England shirt he wore with such pride and dignity. While there were mutterings about the 32-year old Moore, there were also concerns over the midas touch of Alf Ramsey. Never one to have had a positive relationship with the media, Ramsey now found them sensing a wounded animal and certainly keen to focus on any chinks in the armour. After the defeat in Poland they were also beaten in Turin where both manager and captain received further criticism.
England went into the game buoyed by a 7-0 win over Austria the month before and the country weren’t prepared to contemplate anything other than a victory as they had never failed to qualify for the World Cup since deciding the participate from 1950. The game was ultimately about the Polish goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski. In the build-up to the game ITV had Brian Clough on their summariser panel and he was scathing about the keeper’s ability referring to him as ‘a clown’. He would live to regret this statement.
Early in the game Tomaszewski was a little reckless in rolling the ball in his area almost letting Alan Clarke in, and was injured in his subsequent save leaving the visitors uncertain as to whether he could carry on. As he received treatment he appeared to be in agony but eventually summoned the strength to continue. Within minutes England had a free-kick centrally about 30 yards out. Skipper Martin Peters floated it to the far post where Roy McFarland knocked it across goal and amidst the scramble Mick Channon hit the post only to find the Poles clear the danger. Soon after England were on the attack again with Channon crossed from the right to the back post where Peters got up and nodded the ball down to Chivers. The Tottenham striker controlled the ball and volleyed it left-footed, but Gorgon blocked it. As the ball rolled to the edge of the area Tony Currie managed to dispossess a Polish defender to find Channon try to take the ball on. Another block saw the ball fall to Colin Bell on the edge of the area and his shot through a crowd of players was brilliantly turned round the post by Tomaszewski. It was exciting stuff and still only the first half.
England then had a free-kick on the left wing played back to Emlyn Hughes who couldn’t get a shot in. Roy McFarland eventually lobbed the ball into the area and as the Polish defence came out, Clarke found himself unmarked and he tried to direct his header to Tomaszewski’s left-hand post but the keeper was equal to it to pull off another desperate save. As half-time approached Peters played it wide to Clarke on the right-hand edge of the area, he turned back onto his left foot and crossed to Channon at the far post. The Southampton man timed his jump too soon and consequently could only loop his header but it still required ‘the clown’ to tip the ball over the bar.
A goalless first half lead to a growing sense of uncertainty amongst the home fans. 45 minutes were left to book their place on the plane to West Germany. Early in the second period Hughes charged forward down the left, then played the ball inside where Tony Currie hit a long range effort which Tomaszewski parried the ball away. It fell to Channon who met it first time on the volley but it hit the side netting. 55 minutes in and Norman Hunter made a mistake similar to Bobby Moore’s in Chorzow and Lato was clear. As he surged towards the England goal Gadocha made a run ahead of him which drew Hughes, leaving Domarski free on the right. Lato’s ball was met first time by Domarski but his shot along the ground looked to be straight at Shilton, but inexplicably the normally dependable Leicester keeper let the ball through his hands and Poland were in front. One could almost hear the collective sharply drawn breath now hanging like a pall around the country.
The fragility of England’s position was now very evident as the visitors only needed one mistake from their hosts and they gained the advantage. England would now need to score twice. The remaining 35 minutes became a siege on the Polish goal as the home side, and fans, became increasingly desperate. Surely a country which had only competed in one World Cup Finals tournament before, back in 1938, would not be able to repel such pressure? A long throw on the right by Chivers was flicked on by Peters where Clarke laid the ball off for Channon to put the ball into the back of the net. But the referee was already blowing his whistle for a foul by Peters. Almost immediately, on another attack Chivers took a quick free-kick to Peters on the right of the area and as he went past Musial the Polish defender knocked him to the ground. After hesitation the referee finally pointed to the spot. Allan Clarke was given the responsibility of taking the kick and he sent the keeper the wrong way for his 6th goal of the year, his 10th for his country and his 4th successful spot-kick in an England shirt. 1-1
The 100,000 strong crowd fully expected England to push on and Currie down the right crossed into the area but the ball appeared to be going in under the bar before Tomaszewski just got a hand to it in time. Peters and Channon then combined on the edge of the area to put Chivers in on the right of the area and his ball into the 6-yard box was strangely kicked in the air by the keeper. As Channon steadied himself for the header, Tomaszewski came out and punched again and then got himself in the way of Clarke’s shot. It was desperate stuff but Poland knew they were going to be under the cosh. The rewards were too great and too close for them to give up easily. Hunter burst forward combining well with Peters and his shot from outside the area was again parried by the keeper. Channon again forced his way down the right wing to cross into the area where Clarke got up first only to head just over the bar. Emlyn Hughes was increasingly operating as a left-winger as England piled on the pressure and during one move he cut inside to find Currie on the edge of the area and his first time shot was saved yet again.
The attacks were relentless as the Poles just seemed content to soak it all up. Currie found Peters wide on the left and he in turn found Hughes, who’d made a good run into the area. Hughes left foot cross to the far post hit Gorgon in the face as Channon looked to have been pushed over. The ball fell to Clarke who took a touch to set up a right foot shot. He met it perfectly from 7 yards out yet unbelievably Tomaszewski again threw himself into the save to push it round the post. Increasingly there were England players with hands on hips or head in hands but all this pushing forward left them vulnerable to a counter attack and on one occasion Lato was clear and cynically pulled back by McFarland, who was happy to take a yellow card rather than see the Poles score again. Within minutes Lato was put through again despite the offside calls and was one-on-one with Shilton. He took the ball round him but his touch took him too wide which allowed England to get back and defend.
Then as the game moved towards a conclusion England had a corner on the left, taken by Currie into the 6-yard box where Tomaszewski seemed to punch the ball back to his own goal only for Szymanowski to block it and before they could properly clear the ball Channon came in but put his shot wide. A ball from the left by Peters high into the area saw the Polish keeper come and punch again but only to Colin Bell just outside the area, who controlled the ball and then hit a low shot which cannoned off Tomaszewski for Gorgon to save on the line and away for a throw-in. The crowd were losing their voices and so were the commentators as few could believe England weren’t in front. The final whistle blew and the Poles were in raptures as they’d pulled off an amazing result to qualify for the World Cup Finals. Tomaszewski was easily the hero although his defence deserved significant credit for their resilience.
Inevitably Hunter was blamed for his mistake which lead to the goal although Shilton could still have saved the shot. To be fair to Hunter he admits his mistake calling it his ‘worst moment on a football pitch’. The country was in disbelief at what they had just witnessed. Emlyn Hughes recalled it as the ‘most one-sided game he had ever been involved in’. The ultimate fall-guy would be Ramsey who managed just two more internationals, neither of which England scored in and by April 1974 the reign of England’s greatest ever manager came to a rather inauspicious end. It was to become the catalyst for one of the bleakest periods in English football as they failed to qualify for the 1976 European Championships and the 1978 World Cup too as Don Revie systematically turned England into a very unconfident and disjointed side. For Poland they went onto enjoy their outing in West Germany eventually finishing third with Lato scoring the only goal of the game against Brazil. This was to prove a golden period for Polish football as they also finished third in 1982.
For the next 40 years English journalists and doom-mongers have referred back to this game as something to fear and there have been other crucial matches between the two which have decided qualification. For the English the game seemed to epitomise what it was to be an English sports fan. They love a plucky challenger who just gets pipped at the post. The English are rarely comfortable as winners, always reflecting on how easy a fall from grace can emerge, and often revelling in seeing a guy who has lead the whole race get beaten on the line, or a brave tennis player reach Semi-Final after Semi-Final only to keep coming up against one of the best players to have ever played the game.
Even though I believe this game bears no resemblance to the match on Tuesday there are disturbing similarities. With Ukraine playing San Marino the same night, it is very likely a draw is not good enough for England. They will hope the Polish goalkeeper this time is less blessed.