My English friends of similar vintage will not thank me for recalling this hour and a half of pure footballing drama.
England v Poland on 17 October 1973 sticks in my memory like a limpet to a rock. It remains to this day one of the greatest games of football I’ve ever witnessed.
Still short of my eleventh birthday, but in an age when very few matches were televised live, excitement had reached fever-pitch. It was billed for weeks before, ‘England’s most important game since 1966’. Practically the whole population was primed for the event. Not just in England, but in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland too.
And even though the billing was accurate, you still had the distinct feeling, despite my precocious age, it was all being over-hyped, that the teams would go out and play for 90 mins, Poland would make a decent fist of it, or not, and then England would win the game.
World Cup qualification was at stake. It was unthinkable back then, as it seems to have become again, that a World Cup would not include England.
Poland had won an ill-tempered affair amongst the coalfields of Katowice a few months before. A game in which Bobby Moore hardly covered himself in glory, letting Lubanski in for one of Poland’s two goals. Alan Ball was sent-off. Poland won 2-0 and Moore never played another competitive fixture for England again.
Significantly Poland now topped the group by a single point with only the Wembley meeting of the sides to come.
In between the games there was crippling news for the Poles. Lubanski, the country’s most celebrated player picked up a knee injury that would hamper a blossoming career. They wouldn’t have wanted it this way but conversely, it was good news for England.
I have never been anti-England, but by the time this game came around, and probably following the popular mood at home, not so much of youthful peers but of elders, I had grown tired of the international football diet of England, England, England that was rammed down throats via our TV screens.
The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish barely had a look-in from the British Broadcasting Corporation.
I had followed England from an even younger age, before I even knew my own country Northern Ireland had a team. When George Best came to open a pub in our town - I was 6 - it never once occurred to me that the event coincided with a home game for Northern Ireland in Belfast. Back then, I was still oblivious to our team’s existence. But I knew about England.
So as the world began to make sense in a footballing way I became ABE, (Anyone But England), joining the great many Scots, Welsh and Irish who already felt similarly.
I was so excitedly up for Poland on the night as I settled down to watch with my dad, you’d have been forgiven for thinking I was Warsaw-born and bred. Absorbed, glued to the screen, kicking and heading every ball, which was more often than not in the Polish penalty area.
To this day, I have yet to see another game where one team had so much dominance, and created so many chances yet failed to win. If ever a game deserved the label ‘Alamo’ it was this one.
England simply pulverized Poland. It really was quite remarkable. I was nervous for the Poles, so invested had I become. At half-time by some miracle, it remained scoreless. The palms of my hands were sweating. Jan Tomaszewski, a bright yellow shirt leaping between the sticks for Poland, was having the night of his life, fuelled by a generous helping of charm.
Big, blond Jerzy Gorgon a centre-back who stood out like a light-house beacon, was in defiant mood too, getting his head, knee, foot or any other legal body-part in the way of anything England launched at the Polish rearguard. How England had not scored was a miracle, you felt it was just a matter of time.
Over to the panel in the studio and the famous discussion when one of my favourite footballing personalties of all time, the one and only Brian Clough, reassured the nation, and refused to take back his pre-match assertion that the Polish goalkeeper was ‘a circus clown in gloves’.
“Keep calm. Put the kettle on, mother. Don’t worry - the goals are going to come,” uttered Clough.
He would be proven right about one thing; a goal did come early in the second-half, but for Poland, not England.
The Poles were aware it was a night when they would have to defend stoutly. They also knew in Gregorz Lato especially, they had the pace to trouble England on the break. And so it proved, with Poland’s wide man accelerating after yet another long punt from an over-worked and creaking, red-shirted defence.
This time Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, in for Bobby Moore, comfortably arriving at the ball first, got his legs in a tangle and Lato was on his way.
Jan Domarski, more a squad player than a regular, racing up the middle like a steam train, accepted Lato’s ball from the wing and hit a low shot that skidded across the surface eluding Emlyn Hughes and escaping under Shilton’s dive.
The unthinkable had happened, Poland had scored!
The England response was predictable. The same as what had gone before but increasingly relentless and frantic, even higher in intensity... if that were possible.
Late on, England could be criticized for unimaginatively lumping ball after ball hopefully into the box, something that’s been a feature of some notable, inglorious defeats since. But they did hit the frame of the goal twice, saw four efforts cleared off the line and faced Tomaszewski having the night of his life.
But often forgotten amongst England’s vast dominance, Grzegorz Lato missed a one-on-one with Shilton, and on another occasion was pulled down by Roy McFarland when clean through. Still, England really should have been out of sight.
They did manage to get back level six minutes after the Poles scored and after Mick Channon had a goal disallowed. Martin Peters went down as he tried to go around the outside of Musial and the ref pointed to the spot. It was suspect and Peters reputedly admitted later to taking a fall.
“I was trying to read which side Clarke would shoot,” said Tomaszewski. “But when the whistle went, he just came up to the ball as if he was training with kids and slotted it past me.
“He was so cool. If I could have done, I would have applauded him at the time for doing that under so much pressure.”
England had 27 mins to get a second, but it wasn’t to be.
Tomaszewski (25 at the time) the hero of the hour, spoke many years later about his incredible Wembley experience.
“As we walked out, the England fans shouted ‘animals’ at us. It was referring to our win in Chorzow. To be honest we had played very violently there.”
“I wasn’t just afraid of England - I was terrified,” he added. “They had beaten Austria 7-0 a month earlier and when I was in front of the royal box with the national anthems being played, I was just thinking ‘I hope we are not the next Austria’.”
But the ‘keeper’s first eccentric save was almost his last after only two minutes on the clock.
“I was feeling the pressure and did not notice that Allan Clarke was standing two metres away from me when I rolled the ball out,” Tomaszewski explained.
“I dived at his feet to make a save but he kicked me instead of the ball and I broke five tiny bones [his metacarpals] in my left wrist, like glass.
“They were frozen during the game and the adrenaline meant I did not feel the pain. Afterwards, one of my team-mates Adam Musial told me ‘it was good that he kicked you because he woke you up’.”
On a night when Tomaszewski made saves even if he dived in the wrong direction, his most memorable stop was one in the last 10 minutes from the same Allan Clarke who had beaten him so coolly from the spot.
“Allan Clarke thought he had scored England’s winner. He hit a beautiful shot and I did a blind save on my left-side.
“I have to admit I did not save that ball, I was just in the right place at the right time and the ball bounced off me.
“England thought they had scored but they only had a corner. It was funny because when I looked up, Clarke was crouched down with his eyes wide open - he could not believe what had happened.”
Even then, England weren’t quite yet done. With two minutes to play Sir Alf Ramsey threw on Derby’s prolific striker Kevin Hector for his first international cap and he almost won the game meeting a cross from the left.
Tomaszewski was all at sea, his attempt to reach the ball ahead of the much shorter and better-placed Hector, flailing, but again, the big ‘keeper had insurance on the line, and Hector’s goal bound header was hacked to safety.
Poland held on, 1-1 the final score and England were out. They had failed to qualify for a World Cup they had entered, for the first time ever.
It lead to a perceived decline in England’s national team. The country continued to develop brilliant footballers, but again four years later the national team failed to qualify for Argentina, losing out on goal difference to Italy, who had enjoyed greater winning margins over whipping boys, Finland.
Failing to add variation to a one-dimensional power game is one plausible cause for their failure, but other qualities of the British game remained in evidence and were still effective. In truth England’s qualification failures for each of the ‘74 and ‘78 World Cups came at the hands of countries which went on to excel in the finals, Poland finishing third in ‘74 and Italy 4th in ‘78.
Even in 1976, when they narrowly lost out in qualifying for the Euros, their masters were Czechoslavakia who won the competition. England had hammered them 3-0 in the qualifying group.
The Poles who people still didn’t fancy much after beating England, went from strength to strength of course, securing third place finishes in the World Cups of ‘74 and ‘82.
It was a great Polish side which developed by leaps and bounds in a short space of time buoyed by the confidence gained in eliminating England. As well as Tomaszewski, there was Deyna, the captain, Lato, Gadocha, Szarmach, Gorgon, Kasperczak and a few years later the wonderful Zbigniew Boniek.
But back in ‘73, Tomaszewski didn’t get to celebrate the Wembley success with his team-mates.
“How did I celebrate? I was the only one who didn’t. The team went out all night but I was in pain with my wrist and stayed in my hotel room to take medicine.
“In the morning, I saw the newspapers and felt extremely satisfied because I was on the front pages.
“They called me the ‘man who stopped England’ but it was not just me. It was Gorski [the coach] and the 11 people he positioned on the pitch. Against England, I made mistakes but they were not punished because of my team-mates.”
But at least the big Polish net-minder had the last laugh on his critic, Brian Clough.
“Years later we met at the BBC in Manchester,” he said. “Clough apologised for what he had said about me. We shook hands and I said thank you, because only great people can admit to mistakes.”
Check out the latest, The Ball Is Round Podcast (Episode 22). Recorded last evening (31 March), the TBIR team discuss the National Team’s Goal Rush; Almost but no Cigar (the U23s in Mexico), CONCACAF WC qualifying format & Wilfried Nancy’s Tuesday video-conference... Plus all the usual favourite features... including, Eve’s Time Machine... Don’t miss it!
Every Week - The Ball Is Round... @TBIRMontreal - please follow us for regular, weekly CF Montreal, Canadian, MLS and international content in English!