Wembley on Tuesday will see England’s latest attempt to exorcise one of the troublesome ghosts that haunts their under-achieving past. The name of the spectre is Jan Tomaszewski, still happily alive and kicking his way through dual careers in Poland as football coach and legislator for justice. But the Polish keeper’s outstanding display in defying the big guns of England that far-off Wembley night had massive repercussions for the game in this country and a ripple effect that is felt even today.
Consider the myriad “what ifs” that radiate outwards from the impact crater of that momentous qualifying tie. What if…..England had won? First and most obviously, it is highly likely that Sir Alf Ramsey would have continued in his job, quite possibly after the 1974 World Cup Finals with a view to leading England in the European Championships of 1976, ten years after his triumphant World Cup campaign on home soil. Maybe then there would have been several more years of Don Revie at Leeds, and no catastrophic mismatch of talents with the frankly silly idea of a lonely Brian Clough, deprived of his mate Pete’s steadying influence, at a hostile Elland Road; possibly even an early renaissance for Brighton as Clough and Taylor worked their combined magic on the south coast – and would we ever have heard of Nottingham Forest again?
Such cause-and-effect speculation is an entertaining way to beguile an idle hour, and intriguing alternate reality scenarios readily conjure themselves up. Leeds were reigning Champions that 1974/75 season and still a force – but weakened and demoralised by the toxicity and rancour of Clough’s brief, turbulent reign. Who knows what benefits might have accrued from a few years more continuity? A European Cup, perhaps, in 1975 and a sympathetic transition from one great Revie side at Elland Road to another? A consequent lessening of Liverpool’s domination through the later seventies and the whole of the eighties? And on the international scene – success for England in the Euros of 76 with qualification for Argentina in 78 and a good chance of being the first European side to lift the World Cup in South America? The possibilities are almost endless and the fact that they failed to come about has its roots at Wembley in 1973.
Remember the key moment: Hunter misses a tackle near halfway and Poland spring forward. Shilton is beaten with uncharacteristic ease at his near post and England are one down in a game they must win. Now Tomaszewski, labeled a clown prior to the match by Clough – frankly Brian, it always was Taylor that was the better judge of a player – Jan Tomaszewski played the game of his life to thwart attack after Three Lions attack. Beaten only by an Allan Clarke penalty, the Clown left the field of battle triumphant, his country bound for West Germany ’74 while England dined on the bitter fruits of recrimination and disappeared from the world stage until 1982.
In many ways, the scene is set similarly forty years on. England must win to ensure qualification, though the possible safety net of a second-place play-off chance sways reassuringly below them. The press have the game as a must-win though, and doubtless a certain 65 year old former Polish goalkeeper will be invited to help with the build-up, recalling all those saves he made from Currie, Bell, Clarke and the rest, to ensure that clowns would haunt the nightmares of England fans for the foreseeable future.
The big difference of course is that four decades ago, it was dog eat dog and devil take the hindmost. Poland needed a draw to qualify, England needed to win. The stakes were high for both sides. On Tuesday at a newer Wembley and with England, needing the win, nicely warmed up by their demolition of Montenegro, their old adversaries will not be similarly motivated. Poland’s defeat in the Ukraine means that their hopes of progression even via the play-offs have disappeared; they have only pride to play for.
That should always be motivation enough in the nationalist fervour of representative football, but England’s more material incentives will probably see them carry the day. And there will after all be no stubborn clown between the Polish sticks on Tuesday to banish English hopes and break English hearts. 1973 and all that was a long, long time ago.