It’s a game that defines an era, the start of England’s decline as a world footballing power. Just six and a half years after winning the tournament, England failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since they had deigned FIFA the honour of actually competing for the trophy in 1950.
In that World Cup, held in Brazil, England famously lost 1-0 to the USA. England’s full back that day was Alf Ramsey and 23 years after that embarrassment, Ramsey was in charge of the side for what was perceived as the worst result since that day.
However in the cold light that 39 years offers, England were not embarrassed. In fact on any normal day they could quite easily have emulated the result of their previous match and put seven past the Poles. Unfortunately for Ramsey and England, fate and a “clown” intervened.
Brian Clough’s famous description of Poland’s goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski has gone down in football folklore as an early example of the commentators curse. The outspoken Clough, fresh from his resignation at Derby County, could have been justified in his comments. Some of the giant keeper’s antics could have cost his side dear on the night. To Clough and England’s chagrin, it was the hatful of unbelievable saves which would be remembered.
The task facing England was a simple one. Beat Poland and they would qualify for the World Cup the following summer in Germany. Anything else would see the Poles (who were Olympic champions) reach their first World Cup since the war had devastated their country. Ramsey’s side was unchanged from that which had hammered Austria the previous month. Bobby Moore was still missing, but Norman Hunter had proved to be a more than able deputy in the past. Tony Currie retained his place in the side, with Alan Ball suspended following his sending off in Chorzow. Martin Chivers partnered Allan Clarke, the Leeds man at the top of his game for both club and country.
The nation settled down in front of their TV’s, the FA agreeing to show the game live, with ITV given the rights to show the game. Brian Moore presented with his usual big match panel, which included Clough with Hugh Johns and Billy Wright on commentary duty. Unfortunately my copy of the game is from a Polish rerun of the game.
Tomaszewski almost proved Clough right in the opening seconds. Collecting the ball in his area, he rolled the ball in front of him, as was allowed at the time, to advance to the edge of his box. He hadn’t seen Clarke lurking and “Sniffer” sensed an opportunity, attempting to steal the ball away. Tomaszewski recovered the ball, getting a bang on the hand in the process, but offering England hope that he may prove to be fallible.
That hope was magnified as the Poles started extremely nervously, looking shaky in possession. England were right at it from the beginning, forcing the Poles back, the visitors finding it incredibly difficult to even get out of their own half. The opening 15 minutes though, despite the domination, saw England fail to test the keeper.
England continued to press, with Tony Currie driving an effort in from the edge of the box, which Mick Channon diverted just over the bar via the Southampton man’s head. The Three Lions corner count continued to rise, but the desperation was rising at a similar speed. It was now time for the clown to take centre stage.
The Polish keeper produced a stunning full length save to deny Colin Bell, touching the ball away at full stretch as the Man City man smashed a shot from 20 yards as Poland once again failed to clear their lines. Then Tomaszewski denied Clarke, pushing away a header as the Leeds striker was left completely unmarked by a Polish defence rushing out in a failed offside trap.
Wave after wave of England attacks continued, with the Polish defences getting weaker and weaker, at one stage not even getting the ball out of their half for a five minute period. Yet England could not breach the line and when they did, Tomaszewski was there to deny them again, producing a backpedalling tip over the cross bar from a Channon header.
The half time whistle brought blessed relief to the Poles and left England 45 minutes from elimination. However there seemed little doubt that if England continued in the same vein, there was no earthly way they could be denied.
England started the second half with the same fire in their bellies, and with continued attacking intent. The impressive Currie forced Tomaszewski into another fine save, the Pole punching out his 25 yard effort and then seeing Channon volley into the side netting. Then with 57 minutes gone, the most shocking moment since Larry Gaetjens goal in Belo Horizonte 23 years earlier saw England fall behind.
Poland looked for a little relief, playing the ball away from defence down the left flank. Hunter went out to collect the ball, under a little pressure from Gregorz Lato on the halfway line. It was a challenge Hunter would win 99 times out of a hundred, the Leeds hard man normally would have played the ball, and most probably the man into the stands. However in his eagerness to keep England’s attacking momentum going, he attempted to keep the ball in play and allowed Lato to get a foot in to rob him. With breath-taking speed, Lato broke forward, finding Domarski in support on his right hand side. With Emlyn Hughes desperately trying to cover, Lato slid the ball to his right to the onrushing Domarski. The Poles effort was powerful and low, but should have been dealt with by Peter Shilton in the England goal. However the young keeper seemed to be unable to get his hands down and appeared to dive over the top of the ball, allowing the shot to fly under him and into the net to give Poland the lead.
If there were people dropping pins inside Wembley, you would have heard them clattering to the floor, as Domarski wheeled away in celebration. England having had all the play were now left with the task of scoring two goals in half an hour to save their World Cup lives.
Heads could easily have gone down, yet England had the ball in the net almost immediately through Channon. Unfortunately Clarke was deemed to have handled in the build-up as the ball struck his arm before he laid the ball off.
England were not to be denied though for much longer and within minutes had their equaliser. Skipper for the night Martin Peters burst into the box and was challenged by Jerzy Gorgon. “He barely touched me but I went flying. I dived. It wasn’t a penalty, but the referee didn’t see it that way,” Peters is quoted as saying on fifa.com. The referee indeed had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Clarke, as he waited to take the penalty, looked the coolest man in the stadium, unlike his goalkeeper Shilton, who was on his haunches at the edge of his box, with his back to the action. The roars will have told him that Clarke had scored, the Leeds striker, who scored a penalty against Romania on his international debut at the 1970 World Cup, casually stroked the ball into the top right hand corner. 25 minutes remained for England to grab the goal they required.
However whereas England had bombarded the Polish goal in the opening period of the match, the visitors now were full of confidence and having hit England on the break once, looked capable of doing so again. With England wary of being caught out again, their attacks lacked the intensity of the first half, leading to a period of more measured play.
That is not to say that England lacked attacking intent and as the minutes ticked away, they began to drive forward again. Hunter was denied instant redemption as Tomaszewski pushed away a powerful strike. The keeper then denied Currie again by clutching a 20 yard effort by the Sheffield United midfielder.
The writing though was on the wall as Tomaszewski produced an unbelievable closing to the match to ram Clough’s words firmly down his throat by denying Clarke with an incredible save, throwing himself at a shot from just eight yards to turn the ball wide.
With England fully committed to attack they were leaving huge gaps at the back. Roy McFarland plugged one of them by rugby tackling Lato with the Pole away and clear. The Derby centre back grabbed the striker by the shoulders and threw him to the floor; the yellow card he earned was scant punishment for the opportunity he had denied.
Moments later Lato broke clear again, but this time Shilton produced some fine goalkeeping, standing up to the onrushing striker, forcing him wide and allowing his team mates to come back and scramble the ball away.
It was Poland who looked most likely in the closing stages, England’s desperation for a goal leaving them dangerously exposed. Shilton again saved well, this time denying Polish skipper Kazimierez Deyna with a scrambling block.
Substitutions had always been Ramsey’s Achilles heel, and the England manager left it until the 89th minute to make a change. With Kevin Keegan on the bench, there was widespread surprise when Ramsey brought on Derby’s Kevin Hector for Chivers as his final throw of the dice. The striker had enjoyed a fine spell under Clough and was one of the Football League’s top goal scorers, but this was a high pressured moment to be making his international debut.
It was almost an inspired change, as seconds after his introduction, Hector managed to get his head to a corner, only to see his goal bound header hacked off the line by Hector Bulzacki, Peters putting the rebound just wide. In the final seconds Colin Bell finally beat Tomaszewski, only to see Bulzacki clear off the line again. Seconds later the final whistle blew ending England’s World Cup dreams.
There were scenes of unparralled joy from the Poles and the few supporters that managed to make their way onto the field. The happiest man by far was the goalkeeper, who punched the air with as much delight as he had the punched the ball. England by contrast stood dejected, unable to retreat to the safety of the dressing room until the archaic practice of standing for the National Anthem had been undertaking.
All the talk after the game was about the incredible performance produced by Tomaszewski. The FIFA Website fifa.com records the thoughts of Guardian journalist Frank Keating: “He hurled himself arms, knees and bumps-a-daisy all over his penalty area like a slackly strung marionette,” he wrote. “And all with a half-taunting, half-surprised smile which made one think this might be his first-ever game.”
Tomaszewski himself said: “I remember the last thing [Kazimierz] Gorski said before the game: ‘You can play football for 20 years and play 1,000 times for the national team and nobody will remember you. But tonight, in one game, you have the chance to put your names in the history books.’ He was right. It wasn’t my best-ever performance and I had a lot of luck during the match.”
If it wasn’t his best performance but it was one that made his name, and is still remembered to this day. It put Poland on the football map and began England’s banishment to the international wilderness.