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October 15, 2013 / ultrafox1963

The night England’s dreams were shattered


Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski repels yet another England attack

Poland goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski repels yet another England attack

When the schedules of qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup were agreed, the shadows of previous clashes between England and Poland re-emerged.

The two countries meet again at Wembley tonight, forty years to the week since the venue hosted their most memorable encounter. Then, as now, England needed a win to ensure progress to the finals.

In 1973, Poland had already shown they could be a force to be reckoned with, beating England 2-0 on their own soil. But their record outside the Iron Curtain was rather less impressive.

Meanwhile England had demolished Austria 7-0 the previous month. Many of their players, featuring captain Martin Peters – the only survivor from the 1966 World-Cup winning side – and goalkeeper Peter Shilton, then of Leicester City, looked to be in peak form.

So a massive TV audience, including this correspondent (then aged 10) settled in front of their screens to watch the first live televised game of the season (the next one would be the FA Cup final, some seven months later) expecting a comfortable home win.

However, this Polish team were determined to rewrite the script that had been assigned for them, Though frequently forced on the back foot, they showed great determination to prevent the English strikers from breaching their defence.

In particular, Jan Tomaszewski, the visiting goalkeeper dismissed – foolishly – before the game as a “clown” by ITV pundit Brian Clough, rose to the occasion magnificently with a string of superb saves.

Half-time arrived with the score still goalless. Anxiety levels grew on the Wembley terraces as the possibility of failure dawned among home supporters.

The second half followed the pattern of the first. Further waves of England attacks were repelled by Tomaszewski and his heroic defence. Then, on a rare breakaway, the unthinkable happened. Shilton let a tame-looking shot slip under his body and into the net. England were behind!

Sir Alf Ramsey’s side remained undaunted, though, and forced an equaliser within 10 minutes as Tomaszewski was finally beaten by an Allan Clarke penalty. It seemed only a matter of time before the winner arrived. But the Poles defended as if their lives depended on the outcome.

In the dying minutes, Ramsey made his final throw of the dice, sending on striker Kevin Hector to add extra firepower. Within seconds, the substitute beat the Polish keeper with a header, only for a defender to scramble the ball off the line.

The final whistle saw the crowd and the nation engulfed in shock and despair. England were out of the World Cup. The Polish team and their small bands of supporters within the stadium celebrated wildly.

In West Germany the following summer, Poland proved to be a far stronger side than many gave them credit for, finishing in third place. Indeed, they were only denied a place in the final through defeat by the hosts (and subsequent winners) on a pitch rendered virtually unplayable by a pre-match thunderstorm.

However, for England, the consequences and traumas of failure lingered for many years afterwards. Ramsey was sacked and a series of successors all failed to deliver the success the fans craved.

Could Artur Boruc, the present Poland goalkeeper, become a modern-day Tomaszewski? His form for Southampton in the Premier League, where he has conceded just two goals in seven games so far this season, suggests as much.

However, modern technology means that England are far more aware of their opponents than their predecessors were. In addition, Poland are already eliminated from next year’s competition, and therefore have only prestige to play for.

England have the chance to banish the ghosts of 1973 once and for all. Many will hope that they take it. 

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