England and Poland's draw came exactly 39 years to the day since the game that would define a generation.
It was the match that defined a generation, and that younger fans must be made aware of it. It cost the most successful England manager his job, Bobby Moore his England career and set off a chain of events that went down in folklore – and even spawned a recent movie. All because of one chilly, dark night in October 1973. England v Poland.
Of the masses of literature produced on this iconic footballing spectacle, I have yet to find one which properly contextualizes the build-up. Jan Tomaszewski’s legendary goalkeeping display is still treated as manna from heaven, heralded merely as the ultimate riposte to Brian Clough’s depiction of him as a “clown.”
And yet Tomaszewski was far from the only keeper to wow the crowds with both ability and good fortune at Wembley that year. On that very Wembley turf not five months before, Sunderland’s Jim Montgomery had pulled off the most astonishing double-save in FA Cup Final history, as his underdog Black Cats clung on to beat mighty Leeds. Ominously, three of the unlucky Leeds side who watched him do it would be lining up against Tomaszewski – Madeley, Hunter and Clarke. As far as Wembley was concerned, 1973 was not only the Year of the Underdog, but the Goalkeeping Underdog aswell.
Furthermore, Clough was unfairly pilloried for apparent gross underestimation of Tomaszewski. Were he in his Derby job, he might not even have found time to do the interview. As it happened, he was sacked two days before the tie, meaning not only that he was inundated with interview requests, but poured all his bitterness into them. Suddenly unemployed on the eve of the England match, his insult towards Tomaszewski was one borne of grouchiness and publicity seeking, doubtless to let other chairman know he was still out there waiting to be employed.
What was certain was that England, as a team and as a nation, underestimated Poland in a way that only that era could have made possible. Alf Ramsey’s men had not needed to play a World Cup Qualifier for eleven years prior to 1972, having hosted and won the tournament in ’66, thus given a bye to the finals on both occasions. Their 1970 defeat, the depression of which some have attributed to Labour’s election loss the next day, was put down to Gordon Banks’ food poisoning and Peter Bonetti’s nerves. In the minds of the vast majority at Wembley that night, and huddled round the TV sets at home, England were still World Champion material with a world-beating manager at the helm. As far as opponents were concerned, anyone east of Germany was expected to be beaten with embarrassing ease.
Poland certainly felt looked down upon in that way as they took to the Cauldron of Noise, filled with 100,000 frenetic fans fresh in the knowledge their side had never lost a World Cup Qualifier at home. Goalkeeper Tomaszewski, having digested the shouts of “animals!” from a raucous bunch near the touchline, soon noticed some England stalwarts were chewing gum. “It was like they expected to go 3-0 up in no time and then toy with us,” he told Polish TV many years later.
That England should not have felt that way was evident from their display in Chorzow four months earlier, when Poland had given them the rudest of awakenings in front of a beer-fuelled socialist crowd. Bobby Moore, in particular, had endured a nightmare, possibly turning the first into his own net from a free-kick, before getting hopelessly caught in possession for the second on 47 minutes. Alf Ramsey promptly dropped him on the assurance that Moore would be made captain for the 1974 World Cup Finals. It was a decision that the iconic manager would be left to question the moment Norman Hunter missed THAT tackle with Greg Lato.
By that stage, of course, the white shirts of England were expecting to be home and dry, and Tomaszewski might have been thinking the same. The Three Lions, quite simply, played brilliantly, and looked far the superior side from the outset. The onslaught began when Martin Peters, the only surviving member of the 1966 Final, chipped a free-kick towards Roy McFarland, who slid the ball across goal for long-haired Micky Channon to rattle the post. Moments later a lofted ball from blond bombshell Colin Bell found Martin Peters on the right, whose hanging cross was miskicked by a clumsy combination of Clarke and Channon. Clarke was presented with an even better chance shortly after, but couldn’t quite get the turn on his dogged red-shirted marker just yards from goal. From the resultant corner, McFarland again found himself hacking away at the ball just yards from goal, the clearance finding its way to Tony Currie whose blaster thudded off Channon and landed inches over Tomaszewski’s bar.
A chorus of expectation rang out from beneath the Twin Towers. England were just one shot away from World Cup ’74. But as long as Poland kept the scores level, it was they who would qualify at England’s expense. Such a humiliation on one’s home turf was unthinkable to the average Brit. The tension was ratcheted up ten-fold accordingly.
Another England move on the right saw another deep cross perfectly headed back by the leaping Peters, only for Martin Chivers to blast his shot against a center-back from eight yards. A melee ensued which finally saw the ball break to Colin Bell, whose howling drive almost broke Tomaszewski’s right hand. The red shirts were scurrying in all directions again shortly afterwards as nice English build-up play on the edge of the box resulted in a floating ball which Clarke powered downwards magnificently with his head. Alas, he watched in agony as the goalkeeper who had earlier broken a finger in a challenge with him somehow leapfrogged the pain barrier to claw the effort away.
The mop-haired goalkeeper produced an even better stop during the next attack when Clarke twisted and turned at the right-corner of the box and flipped over a left-footer onto Channon’s flapping dark locks. The ball dipped awkwardly from the header and Tomaszewski’s right hand literally sprang from nowhere to tip it over. Amazingly, he had kept the score at 0-0 for 45 minutes, and set the tone for the second half where an increasingly confident England would pin the visitors against the 18-yard line for almost the entire duration.
Poland were also feeling the tension now and defensive errors, akin to Moore’s howler in Chorzow, were beginning to occur. A reckless game of ping-pong among the red-shirted back-line saw Jerzy Gorgon completely lose the ball just 12 yards out, and doubtless thank the heavens as Tony Currie blasted the gifted chance far wide on his left foot. It was the same player who also took charge of England’s next chance, seeing his vicious right-foot effort from fully 25 yards uncomfortably repelled by Tomaszewski, onto the right-boot of Channon who volleyed ever-so-narrowly wide.
England had created so much in the first 55 minutes that there was never any suggestion it was not going to be their night. Tomaszewski and his shaky back-line, a nation reasoned, would simply have to crack. And yet, just as England set about planning their next foray, Channon suddenly mistimed his dribble in front of Gorgon, allowing the center back time to hack it clear. Still, there seemed no danger as Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter raced towards the stray ball at the right touch-line, the half-way line a couple of paces away. Of the 20 players in front of him, he was most unsettled by the sight of menacing marksman Greg Lato bearing down on him. Fatally, despite easily reaching the ball first, Hunter took his eye off his feet and stumbled.
Lato was away and England ‘keeper Peter Shilton was still not even warmed up, having barely had to touch the ball all match. McFarland desperately tried to close him down, as did Hughes scurrying back from the left, but Lato saw through their defensive façade and neatly picked out Jan Domarski, ghosting in from behind them 18 yards out. As the ball stopped dead against Domarski’s right boot, it looked as though Hughes had somehow made the ground, the high-voiced Liverpool-star preparing for the dramatic slide to safety. But the slide seemed underpowered, off-balance – the exact opposite of a composed Domarski. Still the drive seemed too close to Shilton, who surely had it covered with both hands diving to the left but…
A net gently bulged. Then a roar. A muffled roar but enormous in its significance. Fifty-seven minutes gone. England 0, Domarski 1. Poland were half an hour from inflicting England’s first World Cup qualifying defeat at home. The Lions needed a goal to prevent that, and two to qualify for World Cup ’74. It was madness. And out of such madness, true men would be found – or so Alf Ramsey hoped. Ominously, the goal which had led a charmed life on behalf of Jim Montgomery was the very one which Tomaszewski was now defending. Surely it couldn’t happen again.
As the roars of the home fans became deafening, England found the strength to continue, and almost lifted the roof off Wembley within 30 seconds. A long throw was knocked down to Channon who made no mistake from 12 yards! And yet euphoria was crushed by the disappointment of a referee’s whistle; Allan Clarke was dubiously penalized for pushing. Play continued amid a cacophony of boos.
Poland were desperately trying to keep the ball, but just as Shilton had come to lament the bobbly surface, so too would the visiting defenders. Another pass went astray, resulting in a last ditch challenge to prevent the breakaway. A free-kick was then rolled into the path of Peters, who went down under the challenge causing an entire stadium to erupt. The Belgian referee Vital Loraux had no choice but to award the spot-kick, triggering a tension so enormous as to cause Peter Shilton to turn away from the play and crouch down like a quivering wreck, staring mournfully at the ground. Thankfully Clarke kept his cool when everyone around was losing theirs. His effort was finely placed in the right corner. England were on level terms. Sixty-three minutes gone. Twenty-seven minutes to beat “the Clown” one last time.
Tomaszewski really did look like a circus act the next time a ball came his way, Currie twisting his marker inside out before delivering a swerving right-footer which the Polish ‘keeper only just palmed off his crossbar while facing towards his goal. He looked even more eccentric shortly afterwards, clearing Chivers’ cross with his boot and then shakily punching the looping ball over an attacker, somehow steadying himself to deflect Allan Clarke’s shot on the follow-up. The next move saw Hunter almost make amends for his earlier mistake, hammering a shot into Tomaszewski’s chest following a neat one-two with Peters. Still the Poles would not crack.
Now things were getting desperate. Channon’s dazzling skill on the right allowed for another cross to find Clarke and be headed over. Emlyn Hughes’ composure on the left saw him find Currie inside the D, only for Tomaszewski to save and actually hold the sliced effort. Hughes and Peters were now running rings around the right-back, the former’s inch-perfect cross narrowly missed by the frantic dive of Currie but knocked inadvertently to the predatory Clarke.
Six yards out. Only Tomaszewski to beat with defenders’ mouths gaping in alarm. A hundred thousand fans rose as the “Sniffer” sought to justify his name with the most powerful close-range strike of the season, in exactly the same position as Peter Lorimer had been against Montgomery. Thwack! Clarke’s right delivered the same brutality as Lorimer’s left… and Tomaszewski’s left performed the same heroics as Montgomery’s right! The hand he had seemingly broken earlier in the match somehow withstood the phenomenal impact of Clarke’s piledriver and tipped it to safety. Insane!
Then came two incidents which appear to have been lost in English – and Polish – folklore. Lato actually broke completely free with only Shilton to beat, only to be wrestled back by McFarland. What would now be classed as a clear red card offence only merited a yellow in those tough-tackling days of yore. Then came the heart-stopping moment as Lato actually sprung the off-side trap again, timing his run brilliantly as a static McFarland raised his hand like an imploring fifth-grader. The striker latched onto the through ball long before a mentally exhausted Shilton, who performed a Bruce Grobbelaar style jig in his yellow jersey as Lato rounded him. Thankfully, the Pole took it too wide allowing the custodian to regain his ground, and the danger subsided with a harmless shot over the bar from a team-mate. Amazingly, England had another let-off on the break shortly after as Poland sought to seal their World Cup berth in style.
There was time for one final England rally, first substitute Kevin Hector seeing his header cleared off the line (Channon smashing the rebound wide) before from the resultant goal-kick, England worked the ball to Tony Currie. The tireless midfielder fired in a last-ditch cross from all of 40 yards which Tomaszewski and two defenders all went for, the ball dropping to Colin Bell who fired with the goalkeeper yards off his line. Had the ball not bobbled it might have been the most sensational World Cup goal in British history, topping even Beckham’s effort against Greece. But the lacerated pitch took vital pace off the shot, allowing for a grateful Bulzacki to hack the effort away.
Within a couple of minutes, England would fail to qualify for the Finals for the first time, and Ramsey would be effectively out of a job. Don Revie would get to fill a lifelong dream of managing his country and the unemployed Brian Clough would – via a bizarre stint at Brighton – take his job in one of football’s most disastrous managerial moves. Bobby Moore, who had held the Jules Rimet trophy on the shoulders of his team-mates on that same ground, would see his international career finished. Poland, meanwhile, could shake off the specter of communist political rule to express themselves freely in the sporting arena, winning third place at the following year’s World Cup. England’s football fans, though, would be left with a horrible unprecedented feeling of self-doubt. Their footballing nation was about to receive its first, and subsequently unshakable, “Can’t Do” tag. That was the significance of England v Poland.