Whatever the truth of England’s Poland trauma, the lessons of 1973 still resound | Jonathan Wilson
Version one: England played really well at Wembley, had 36 shots to Poland’s two, conceded to a goal that stemmed from uncharacteristic mistakes by Norman Hunter and Peter Shilton, and were unfortunate to draw 1-1.
Version two: England deservedly failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup as they could only draw against Poland, their lack of attacking intelligence exposed by the way they spent the final minutes of the game as they chased a winner endlessly lofting the ball into the box.
As England face Poland in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday, thoughts in both nations will inevitably turn to the 1-1 draw at Wembley in October 1973. It is a game that has an extraordinary place in the footballing consciousness of both countries and, perhaps for that reason, is remembered almost entirely for its consequences rather than for what actually happened.
In Poland, it is the game that transformed perceptions of the coach Kazimierz Gorski, who had been working with the national setup at various age groups since 1956, and instilled a self-confidence that would carry them to third at the World Cup in West Germany the following summer (and third again in Spain eight years later). “After Wembley,” said Poland’s goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, “everything was different.”
The draw meant England failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since they had first entered in 1950. It was a night of such trauma that it gave birth to the enduring myth that Poland were England’s bogey team, even though England haven’t lost any of the 15 subsequent meetings. But ask those who witnessed it what happened and you will hear radically different accounts.
Elimination ended Sir Alf Ramsey’s reign as national manager and inaugurated a period of exile: England wouldn’t play another game at the finals of the World Cup until 1982. “Euthanasia,” Peter Batt roared in the Sun, “is the only course open to put us all out of our misery. We must blow soccer up and build on the ashes.”
Batt – a Fleet Street legend who was once mistaken for a survivor of a plane crash in the Alps when he was rescued by nuns as, hungover, he blundered about in a blizzard looking for other journalists – should not necessarily be relied upon as an analyst of tactical minutiae, but he did reflect a wider mood.
The public were bored by Ramsey’s functionalism, particularly after the home defeat to West Germany in 1972 had shown just how far England had fallen behind the very best on the continent. Ramsey had remained too loyal to too many of his World Cup winners for too long, and there was a sense of an era coming to an end.
Yet the real damage had been done in Chorzow the previous June, a 2-0 defeat to Poland sealed when Bobby Moore was caught in possession by Wlodzimierz Lubanksi, and that forced changes. The England captain never played another competitive international. The only starter at Wembley who had played in the 1966 World Cup was Martin Peters (although Hunter had been in the 66 squad).
It is true that England, late on, lumped ball after ball into the box without much variety or imagination, a pattern that would become increasingly familiar through the defeats to Ireland in 1988, Brazil in 2002, Croatia in 2007 and Iceland in 2016, but it’s also true that they hit the woodwork twice, saw four efforts cleared off the line and came up against a goalkeeper in Tomaszewski, notoriously described as “a clown” by Brian Clough, who had the night of his life.
It could have been argued that England battered a side who would come third at the following summer’s World Cup; a transition was perhaps under way. But the template of decline was already in place, and for history was reinforced by missing out on the World Cup again four years later – even though England finished behind Italy only because they had beaten Finland by fewer goals.
The issue, perhaps, was the shock of a first failed qualifying campaign. “The English ‘knew’ they had qualified,” said Tomaszewski. “It was only a question of how big the defeat would be, and that gave us an internal motivation, like when your apartment is on fire and you rush out with a huge TV.”
Andrzej Strejlau is now 81 and still a regular pundit on Polish television; at Wembley, he was part of Gorski’s backroom staff. “Before the game the fans started to shout ‘animals’ at our players,” he said. “They were angry and wanted to go and fight immediately.”
The specific insult sounds unlikely, but there’s no reason to doubt that Poland faced a hostile reception – although it is hard to believe that particularly unusual or more intimidating than elsewhere.
Tomaszewski seems mainly to have been unnerved by the way the roof made sound reverberate during the anthems. “It was like Cinderella going to the ball,” he said. “I said I would give five years of my life simply not to be humiliated.”
The memories of both, though, fit the general outline of a fairy story, of everymen entering the lions’ den. And both stress Gorski’s calmness, the way at half-time he said: “The devil is not so frightening as you thought?” and how he stood up from the bench with five minutes to go and began to walk to the tunnel, as though to say he felt the vital point was secure.
“We were lucky but we were organised,” said Strejlau, pointing out that Grzegorz Lato missed a one-on-one with Shilton, and was also pulled down by Roy McFarland when clean through. The memories of Mick Channon, perhaps not surprisingly, focus more on the second-half goal he had harshly ruled out.
So which of the two versions is correct? The Polish account of their heroism in the face of a mighty and arrogant foe seems just as unreliable.
Perhaps the truth is that all are true, and none are true. Even more than most, that 1-1 draw at Wembley nearly half a century ago is a match that reflects back almost whatever the viewer wants to see.