England had won the World Cup in 1966, and offered up a more than reasonable defence of the trophy four years later, before heat, fatigue and an absent Gordon Banks did for them in Mexico. In 1974, the tournament would be back in Europe, in West Germany. Conditions would be much more akin to the climate in Britain, and England would have a chance to reassert themselves.
There was, of course, the somewhat irritating matter of a qualifying process to negotiate first, but in a group alongside Wales and Poland, to many fans it didn’t look like a problem. As it panned out, thanks to a ‘Curate’s Egg’ of a series of group matches, the final fixture would decide all. Poland were to visit Wembley on 17 October 1973. Should Sir Alf Ramsey’s charges prevail, the tickets to Germany would be booked, if the Poles could win or draw however, it would be sufficient for them to go through and England would fail to qualify for a World Cup Finals for the first time since they entered the fray in 1950.
Expectations were high among most England fans. Just a few weeks earlier Austria had visited Wembley and received a 7-0 beating. Surely Poland were just another mid-European side who would fold under the pressure that a hungry England would exert. Brian Clough, just two days after leaving Derby County was in little doubt of the outcome. Not many England fans knew much about the players that would line up against Ramsey’s men, but Clough was confident in his assessment of one player in particular. Famously describing the Poland goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, as a ‘circus clown in gloves,’ he reassured all watching England fans that everything would be fine. England would win, and qualify for the World Cup. England had been beaten 2-0 in Chorzów by the Poles a few months previously, but this was Wembley, and Cloughie had said their goalkeeper was a ‘clown.’ What could go wrong? Clough was seldom wrong twice in a few minutes but, sadly for England fans, this was one of those rare occasions.
In reality, Jan Tomaszewski was no clown and his team-mates were of a much higher calibre than England fans were led to believe. They had won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics, winning every game on their way to the top step of the podium. Their credentials were there to see, for all who chose to look. After securing qualification for the 1974 World Cup, they went on to claim third place in the tournament in Germany, where Tomaszewski became the first goalkeeper to save two penalties in open play in a World Cup Finals tournament. Poland also went on to win the silver medal in the 1976 Olympics, and again qualified for the FIFA football jamboree in 1978.
Ramsey had selected a forward-looking team. A front three of Chivers, Clarke and Channon would surely be amply supplied by a midfield containing Colin Bell and Tony Currie. Despite being top of the group, the Poles were fearing England. In an interview much later, Tomaszewski recalled that, “I wasn’t just afraid of England – I was terrified.” Explaining that, “They had beaten Austria 7-0 a month earlier.” Had it not been for the saves of the 25-year-old, it’s quite possible that things may well have followed a similar trend.
The game had only been underway for a couple of minutes when an error by Tomaszewski almost brought his participation to an abrupt end. After collecting the ball, he sought to get a Polish move going by rolling the ball out to a team-mate. He had not however noticed Leeds United’s Allan Clarke standing just a couple of yards away. The striker pounced, and the goalkeeper flung himself at Clarke’s feet. In the collision he broke no less than five metacarpal bones in his left wrist, but prevented the England striker from opening the scoring.
Climbing to his feet, he hurled the ball out to his left, surely looking for the touchline so that he could receive some attention for his injury. Unaware of the problem though, his team-mate gathered possession and cantered upfield. England players waved for them to put the ball out of play, but it was only when the attack broke down that the ball was hit from the field of play. With the adrenalin coursing through his veins, and a little of the freeze spray applied though, the pain ebbed into the background and Tomaszewski played on.
For the remainder of the half England pressed and Poland defended. Chances piled up, but by hook or crook, with hand, arm, leg and foot, Tomaszewski denied them all. On one occasion, he even dived the wrong way, but still managed to block the shot with his leg. Other chances were blocked by a solid line of red-shirted defenders and sprinkled among the more eccentric moments were a couple of genuinely outstanding saves, especially for a goalkeeper with an injured wrist. Flinging himself left and right to push efforts clear, and high on one particular occasion to acrobatically tip a header from Channon over the bar he kept the England at bay. At half-time, the game remained goalless.
Back in the studio during the break, Clough seemed to be unshaken in his confidence, advising the watching – and increasingly anxious – millions to “Keep calm. Put the kettle on, mother. Don’t worry – the goals are going to come.” This time, he would be proved right, but not in the way he was suggesting.
Time had ticked off a dozen minutes of the second period as England continued to press and Poland resisted with their goalkeeper performing heroics behind his backline. But with time ticking on and pressure mounting, England were becoming increasingly tense and pushing further and further forward. BBC’s Barry Davies had been a mite more cautious about the outcome than many other pundits, as he had seen the Poles display similar game plans in the past. “I could see how they were going to play,” he would later relate. “They knew they would be under pressure but they thought they had the pace to catch England on the break.” It was a sage comment.
On 57 minutes, Grzegorz Lato broke free down the Poland left flank. Leeds United’s rumbustious defender, Norman Hunter, had been selected in preference to Bobby Moore, who had suffered an embarrassing error leading to Poland’s second goal in Chorzów as Włodzimierz Lubański robbed him of the ball before running free to score. Seeing the Pole scampering down the touchline, Hunter closed. Most England fans would have been expecting the sort of challenge that had earned the defender his sobriquet of ‘Bites Yer Legs’ but with a need to try and gain possession rather than deposit both ball and player into the stand, Hunter seemed unsure, and the old maxim of ‘he who hesitates is lost’ reared its head again.
Breaking clear of the uncharacteristically ineffective challenge, Lato ploughed on towards Peter Shilton’s goal. Roy McFarland was pulled out of position as he tried to intercept and from the left, Emlyn Hughes was drawn into the centre to cover. Seeing the defence drift across to close down his space, Lato looked up to see team-mate Jan Domarski cutting in from the right. He played the ball across and from the edge of the area, the Stal Mielec wide man hit a hard shot, low towards Shilton’s left-hand post. Although well struck it was hardly the sort of effort to render a ‘keeper helpless, but Shilton appeared to be caught by surprise, and dived over the ball, allowing it to find the net.
England were a goal down, and now in serious trouble. Hunter would later ‘fess up on his part in conceding the goal, calling it, “the worst moment of his career.” As would Shilton. “I tried to make the perfect save,” said the England number one. “Had I been more experienced, I’d have stuck a foot or knee out.” Ifs, buts and maybes were no use to England though. An hour of the game had come and gone without them finding a way past Tomaszewski. Now they had to find a way to do it twice in less than half that time. Even Brian Clough would be having doubts.
‘It’s always darkest just before dawn’ as the saying goes, and although England had toiled without any reward for an hour, battering themselves against a solid and seemingly impenetrable Poland backline, just six minutes after going behind, they were level. Before that though, there was still time for England to get the ball into the net, but Channon’s side-footed placed shot into the left-hand corner of Tomaszewski’s net was ruled out for an earlier foul. On 63 minutes though, when the ball was in the net again, it counted – but perhaps it shouldn’t have.
Out on the right of the Poland penalty area, Martin Peters tried to skip around the outside of Adam Musiał. As he then tried to cut back inside, there was the inevitable tangle of legs and collision. The Spurs player fell to the floor and Belgian referee Vital Loraux pointed to the spot. Reviewing footage of the incident, the linesman on that side of the pitch clearly raises his flag for an offence when Peters hits the floor, but instead of holding his flag across his chest to indicate a penalty, he merely points towards the incident. I’ve seen reports that contend Peters later confessed to diving in desperation to get England back into the game. To be fair though, I’ve not seen anything first-hand from the player, or any quote directly attributed to him to confirm this. The Poland players complained vigorously, but to no avail. Whatever the validity of the decision and the television coverage of the game is of little help there, Allan Clarke was given the opportunity to level matters from 12 yards.
Images of the moment show Shilton sitting on his haunches, looking at his own goal with his back to the action taking place at the other end of the pitch, such was the tension of the moment. He had no cause to worry though. At the time, three of Clarke’s nine international goals had come from the penalty spot – he had only missed one – and he confidently turned that into four from ten. Between the sticks, Tomaszewski considered his options as he would later relate. “I was trying to read which side Clarke would shoot,” he recalled. “But when the whistle went, he just came up to the ball as if he was training with kids and slotted it past me.” There were still 25 minutes to play, and England just needed to beat the goalkeeper once more to qualify for the Finals.
It was a task that sounded easier than it proved to be. Possession was massively in favour of the home team, but the Poles were resolute, fired perhaps by the perceived injustice of England’s penalty. Behind them, Tomaszewski now seemed not only inspired, but also possessive of that key ingredient in the recipe of success – good fortune. Inside the last ten minutes, another effort by Clarke was stopped by the ‘keeper, just when the Leeds man thought he had the vital breakthrough. The save certainly had more to do with fortune than inspiration however. “He hit a beautiful shot and I did a blind save on my left-side,” Tomaszewski later explained. “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.” Sometimes it’s said that it’s better to be lucky than to be good. It’s surely better to be both, and on that October evening, the Poland goalkeeper had gloved handfuls of both qualities.
Inside the final five minutes, Ramsey played his last card, sending on Derby County’s Kevin Hector for a tiring Martin Chivers who was winning his 24th and final cap of a two-year England career. The move nearly paid massive dividends. The sands of time were running through England’s fingers when Tony Currie threw a corner in from the left. Rising in front of Tomaszewski, around the six-yard line, Hector nodded towards the unguarded net. With the ‘keeper stranded behind him, it seemed a certain goal, but huge centre-back Jerzy Gorgoń was guarding the line and somehow, with ungainly grace, blocked the ball with his knees before it was scrambled away.
It was now ‘Last Chance Saloon’ time, and England were hurling balls into the Poland box, in desperation. One more cross from Peters on the left dropped into the box, but Tomaszewski came forward to punch clear. In the confusion however, Gorgoń also attempted to head clear and baulked the onrushing goalkeeper. His his punch only landed tamely on the edge of the box at the feet of Colin Bell. Quickly controlling the Manchester City midfielder drove hard and low past the off-balance goalkeeper. Reflexes alive though, Tomaszewski managed to half-block the effort, deflecting the ball from its course towards an empty net, instead to a position by the post, precisely where defender Mirosław Bulzacki had dropped back to try and cover for his goalkeeper. The ŁKS Łódź defender, a club team-mate of Tomaszewski, cleared the ball away for a throw in. To all intents and purposes, that was it. Shortly afterwards, as another long ball headed towards Poland’s penalty area, the referee blew for full-time.
Understandably elated by the result, the Poles celebrated enthusiastically, with Tomaszewski running from his goal jumping and punching the air to be engulfed by his team-mates. Aside from the small contingent of cheering Polish fans, Barry Davies described, “a stunned silence in the stadium at the final whistle” although television footage clearly suggests more than a few boos arising from disappointed England fans. England had fired in no less than 26 shots to Poland’s two. They’d struck the frame of Tomaszewski’s goal twice and had no less than four efforts cleared from the line, but they had failed to score more than once against a goalkeeper whose eccentric and sometimes exquisite performance had both belied, and to some extent confirmed the comments of Brian Clough. Erratic? Yes, on occasions. Eccentric? Certainly, at times. Hero of his nation. Yes, without doubt.
On the touchline, Sir Alf Ramsey is seen shaking hands diplomatically with opposition manager Kazimierz Gorski and members of his staff. It would his last game in charge of the national team. The manager of the only England team ever to be crowned world champions was sacked from his post on 1 May 1974 just a shade more than a month before the World Cup Finals – that Poland would excel in, and where Tomaszewski would save two penalties, illustrating that England’s failure to beat them was no shame – got under way.
It had been a dispiriting evening for England, one where any misplaced perceptions of their ranking in the hierarchy of the football world were cruelly exposed. They had failed to qualify for the World Cup Finals for the first time since they had entered the competition in 1950. They would do so again for the 1978 tournament in Argentina.
For all England fans, 17 October 1973 had hit them like a cold shower. A certain Polish goalkeeper would see things differently though. In an interview with BBC Sport, Jan Tomaszewski would declare that he had, “never watched the game again.” Apparently, there was no need. “If you have a game like this, you always remember it in your heart. I can wake up in the middle of the night and remember every minute.” When he does so, it must be with a smile. There’s certainly no need for any “Tears of a Clown.”
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ website).