England, Poland, & The Post-66 Decline

by | Mar 31, 2021

When England take to the Wembley pitch tonight against Poland, a ghost will be hanging in the air. Forty-seven and a half years ago, the last fragmented remains of England’s World Cup win of 1966 were blown away when they failed to beat Poland at Wembley, knocking them out of the 1974 World Cup without even troubling the finals. It was first time since they started deigning to enter in 1950 that this had happened, and this failure would reverberate through the game in this country for years to come.

We all know the story of that gloomy evening at Wembley, of manager-turned-pundit Brian Clough calling the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski “a circus clown in gloves”, and of Tomaszewski‘s subsequent incredible – if occasionally somewhat unconventional – performance to knock the winners-before-last out of the competition, thanks in no small part to some distinctly clown-like goalkeeping at the other end of the pitch. But, while it’s easy to get hung up on one result, the truth is that England’s elimination from the tournament started considerably earlier than this.

England’s qualifying group for the 1974 World Cup finals should hardly have been insurmountable for a team with aspirations of winning the tournament. In a three team group (with the winners qualifying), Poland had only ever qualified for the finals once before, in 1938, and, while Wales were regular opponents thanks to the annual Home Internationals tournament, they hadn’t beaten England in seventeen years, with England brushing them comfortably in the 1972 iteration, by three goals to nil in Cardiff.

The warning signs, however, had started to build over previous couple of years. Poland had been knocked out the European Championships that year by West Germany, beaten 3-1 at home before holding the Germans to a goalless draw away from home. The following spring, in the quarter-finals of the competition, England were also beaten by West Germany, and by an identical scoreline. 3-1 at home, 0-0 away. Later that summer, Poland won the men’s football gold medal at the Munich Olympic Games, beating Hungary 2-1 in the final.

Coach Kazimierz Górski had been there the whole way, with Poland. War broke out when he was 18, so he was among the generation of players who lost a chunk of their playing careers. Górski, however, was young enough to be able to resume his career when peace came, fitting in eight years with Legia Warsaw, before moving on to coach the Polish junior team and then, in 1966, the under-23 team. In 1970, he took over the main job and was able to bring through a generation of very talented players, such as Kazimerz Deyna, Gregorz Lato, and Robert Gadocha.

England and Wales kicked off the group at Ninian Park, and England scraped a 1-0 win,  the match won by a Colin Bell goal scored ten minutes from half-time, which came about primarily because of lax Welsh defending. In the return match at Wembley the following January, though, came another warning sign. After 23 minutes, Leighton James got behind Emlyn Hughes and crossed for John Toshack, who scored from close range. England levelled through Norman Hunter shortly before half-time, but they couldn’t find a way through in the second half. The match ended in a 1-1 draw.

In the group’s next match, Wales beat Poland in Cardiff, a comfortable win which, were one arrogant enough to think this way, could persuade one that your own performance against Wales at Wembley was an aberration, and that this Poland team wasn’t anything to worry about. It turned out that the opposite was true. It was Poland who’d had the off day, against Wales. England’s draw with them was a taste of things to come.

Next up, then, Poland, in Chorzów. It was the first week in June, not the ideal time for an ageing team which was still over-reliant on the team of seven years earlier. Three started – Martin Peters, Bobby Moore, and Alan Ball – two of who would go through a form of embarrassment by the end of the day. It only took Poland seven minutes to take the lead, a free-kick from the left by Robert Godocha that appeared to catch Moore on the way in, although the television angle was inconclusive and the goal has been given to Godocha.

Ramsey’s cautious instinct – this team had been set up to play for a draw – had backfired, and things got worse two minutes into the second half, when Moore was caught in possession by Włodzimierz Lubański, who ran through to double Poland’s lead. Moore never played another competitive match for England again. With twelve minutes to play, a thoroughly miderable night for England was capped off when Alan Ball was sent off grabbing Lesław Ćmikiewicz by the throat and kneeing him in the groin during a scuffle, as the match became increasingly bad tempered.

It finished 2-0 to Poland, which changed the complexion of the group, all the more so when Poland comfortably beat Wales 3-0 to go top by a point with only the England vs Poland match at Wembley left to play. A rancorous atmosphere was building around the England team. Ramsey requested that the Football League postpone its matches the weekend before the fixture so that his players could be ready, and the Football League secretary Alan Hardaker’s reponse, saying that England’s elimination from the World Cup “will be a terrible thing for six weeks and then everybody will forget about it.” The match was being shown live on the television, and Wembley was close to its 92,000 midweek capacity. England needed to win. Anything less, and Poland would qualify in their place. It couldn’t have been a more oppressive atmosphere for a team under pressure.

We all know what happened next, of course. England battered Poland, only to find Tomaszewski in the form of his life, and when Norman Hunter trod on the ball near the halfway line, such was England’s slowness to respond that within seconds Poland were in front, after Lato broke and passed to Jan Domarksi, whose low shot slipped under Peter Shilton’s body. The lead only lasted for six minutes before Allan Clarke levelled after a foul on Martin Peters, but even with 27 minutes still left to play, England’s unimaginitive attacking, some outstanding goalkeeping, brave defending and a little luck allowed Poland to hang on to qualify. England were out.

To a point, they had been unlucky. They had taken 36 shots to Poland’s two, had 26 corners, hit the woodwork twice and had four efforts cleared off the line. In modern parlance, the xG for this game would have been recorded as a very heavy England win. On the other, though, this was perceived as a disaster. The campaign had been an accident waiting to happen from almost the start, and it didn’t take much inspection to see that England being needing to win their last match was in itself a situation of their own making.

Criticism of Ramsey had been starting to swell since England were so comprehensively beaten by West Gemany in the European Championships a year and a half earlier. The German team’s fluidity had shown Ramsey’s lack of tactical evolution up for what it was, while the team hadn’t been allowed to evolve. Ramsey had kept faith with too many older players for too long, while his team’s football looked agricultural, in comparison with the top European sides.

But in terms of the damage that was done to their qualifying campaign, losing in Chorzów could or perhaps even should have left a deeper emotional scar than it has. Both goals were the fault of Bobby Moore, whose best time on the pitch had come and gone, while another player from 1966 was sent off for fighting. England were playing in yellow shirts and blue shorts to avoid a clash with Poland’s white shirts and red shorts, which led to David Coleman saying, at the start of his commentary, “for those of you watching in black and white, England are playing in shorts with ribands on them”. The majority of TV sets in Britain were still black & white in 1973 (sales of colour sets didn’t start to out-strip them in the UK for several more years), so doubtlessly millions of viewers were just thrilled at the FA’s sartorial choice.

It’s been said by some for years that Poland are England’s ‘bogey’ team, but Chorzów is the only time so far that Poland have beaten England competitively, in 17 attempts. England’s record against Poland is excellent. It’s just that when they did come up short, it happened in a way which marked the end of the greatest era in the history of the England national football team, which was delivered by Alf Ramsey and ended with Alf Ramsey. The “England were unlucky” believers are right in a sense, but miss the greater point that England didn’t deserve any better than they got, from their performances overall in the group.

And the question of ‘what if England had made it to the 1974 World Cup finals?’ isn’t a particularly tantalising one, either. We already know that England couldn’t live with West Germany, though optimists could point to the 0-0 draw in the second leg of that match, even though West Germany played at what could best be described as a “gentleman’s pace”.

There doesn’t seem to be much likelihood of them having been any better off with that creaking, accident-prone defence against the Netherlands of Johann Cruyff, either. A straight swap with Poland would have put them in a group with Argentina, Italy and Haiti. It’s not difficult to see England finishing below Argentina and Italy, in 1974. They’d likely have ended up playing the Netherlands, Brazil and East Germany, and winning that seems even less likely than them getting through the group stage. Poland claimed the competition’s third place, after being beaten to a place in the final by West Germany. There’s little in the historical record to suggest that the England of 1974 would have done the same.

If anything, it’s more likely that England’s most significant contribution to the 1974 World Cup finals might even have been hooliganism. The second half of the 1973/74 season saw the number of incidents in England start to significantly rise. Newcastle United supporters invaded the pitch during an FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest in March 1974. On the last day of the season, the day they were relegated from the First Division, rioting Manchester United supporters tried to get their match against Manchester City abandoned. At the UEFA Cup final second leg in Rotterdam, Spurs supporters had rioted. Crowd trouble didn’t really start to affect England matches for another couple of years, but a forthcoming World Cup finals in Europe would certainly have persuaded a lot of people to travel, and likely with few restrictions on those intent on causing trouble.

In England, the summer of 1974 was when the fences went up.

A different culture with regard to the manager’s role combined with heartfelt gratitude and admiration for his 1966 achievement meant that the FA were loyal to Ramsey. Almost certainly too loyal. The right time for him to go would probably have been after the 1970 World Cup. It would have allowed a new manager to bed in, and be given the opportunity to slowly move beyond 1966.

Instead, the game continued to evolve, whether England wanted it to or not. More lightweight boots, more water-resistant match balls and kits made of lighter materials made players more agile, while tactics became more sophisticated, and fitness improved. And all the while, England fell further and further from where they felt they belonged – on top of the pile. In 1970, they lost to both Brazil and West Germany. In 1972, they were thumped at Wembley by West Germany. In 1974, they didn’t even qualify, and were building fences around pitches to at least keep violence off the pitch. It tells its own story, and matters of bad luck pall in the face of it.

There are, therefore, different ways of interpreting England’s early elimination from the 1974 World Cup. On the one hand, it could be considered the near-inevitable conclusion of the years of stasis that the game in this country entered into following winning the trophy in 1966, the culmination of a string of individual and structural errors that left the game in this country lagging behind the best in Europe borne of a combination of parochialism and arrogance.

On the other, though, we can retreat into the comfort blanket of ‘bad luck’ while failing to address the modernisation that the game in England still needed, even after winning the tournament in 1966, if they were to retain the place they’d claimed at international football’s top table. That so many seem to have opted for the latter rather than the former speaks volumes for why the England national team remained a team chasing their own tails for so much of the next decade and beyond.