The Night A Clown Helped The Donkeys Beat The Thoroughbreds
Wembley Stadium. October 17th 1973. England v Poland. World Cup Qualifier.
England needed to beat Poland to progress to the 1974 World Cup Finals. England had never failed to qualify for a World Cup Finals. Poland were largely unfancied. Brian Clough had labelled the Polish goalkeeper "a circus clown in gloves". Peter Taylor, Clough's assistant went further, "these donkeys will get taken apart by our thoroughbreds!" What could possibly go wrong?
At the start of the campaign, England had been placed in a qualifying group with Poland and Wales. On paper it seemed like a foregone conclusion that England would top the group and head to the finals in West Germany. They had started their campaign impressively enough with a 1-0 victory over Wales in Cardiff. However valuable points were dropped when Wales arrived at Wembley as they held England to a 1-1 draw and worse was to follow in the away game against Poland. It was a bad tempered affair and England lost Alan Ball to a red card and the game 2-0. With Wales bottom of the group having played all their games, England were behind Poland by a point and needed to beat their visitors to reach the finals in West Germany.
The nation expected and up and down the country, the mood was one of confidence. Fleet Street's press printed similar views, and if their opinion's were to be believed, the three lions only needed to turn up to bag their place in the finals. Journalist predictions ranged from 2-0 to 7-0, surprising considering that Poland had not only beaten England a few months previously but they had also won the Olympic gold medal a year earlier. But this was a time when England expected to beat everyone, especially at Wembley against a team from behind the iron curtain that they knew little about.
Back in 1973, live games were a rarity. Only the FA Cup final and England v Scotland in the Home Championships were shown live but due to colossal public interest in this game it was broadcast live. Brian Clough, one of the guest summarisers for the game, informed viewers during the pre match build up that England were guaranteed to go through, famously labelling the Polish goalie Jan Tomaszweski "a circus clown in gloves". Peter Taylor, his assistant, went further and dubbed the Polish side "donkeys" when compared to England's "thoroughbreds".
The Wembley pitch was perfect. The touchlines had been widened to help England's attack, as it was felt Poland would come to defend, needing only a draw to qualify. As the match kicked off, the Wembley roar was deafening and the opening few minutes frenetic as England mounted early attacks. In the third minute Tomaszweski nearly lived up to his clown tag when he inexplicably dropped the ball at his feet to clear, unaware that Allan Clarke was just yards away. Clarke launched in for the ball and the Polish keeper recovered well, smothering the danger just in time. He was injured in the challenge, Clarke having kicked his hand instead of the ball. It could have all been different there and then as it seemed for a while he would not be able to continue but after a touch of the magic sponge he sprang back to his feet and carried on.
The first half was one of entire English dominance. They kept Poland pegged back, indeed Poland struggled to get out of their own area, let alone their own half. Dominance and intense English pressure led to numerous chances. England were thwarted not just by Tomasweski but when they thought they had beaten him, his team-mates were on hand to rescue the team and clear the danger. Reaching the break with the score level, for Poland the job was half done. They only had to frustrate England for another 45 minutes. But pundit Clough could not see this happening. During the half-time interval he advised viewers "keep calm, put the kettle on, do not worry, the goals are going to come".
The second half started as the first ended, with wave after wave of England attack and it just seemed to be a matter of time before Clough's prophecy came true and there was a goal. Indeed, Cough's prophecy was to come true as the deadlock was broken in the 57th minute. It was not however England who broke it but Poland. Poland knew the only way they were going to score was by way of a breakaway attack, using the pace of their front players. A Polish defender played a long hopeful ball upfield and it was chased by winger Robert Gadocha. England centre back Norman Hunter was covering and favourite to get to the ball. He got there first but inexplicably tried to play his way out of trouble and trod on the ball. Freed by this mistake, Gadocha sped away and squared the ball for the fast arriving Jan Domarski. Domarski still had to overcome a lunging challenge from Emlyn Hughes and get the ball past Peter Shilton, not an easy task. With Shilton having been a virtual spectator for the game thus far, he was not quick to react to the shot and it squirmed agonisingly beneath him and into the England net to hand their visitors the lead.
The silence which met the goal was deafening and both Hunter and Shilton slumped to the Wembley turf, horrified by their mistakes. Within a minute however, the crowd was lifted as England attacked straight from the kick-off, Tony Currie narrowly missing from close range. England were handed a lifeline 8 minutes after the goal as Martin Peters went down under what seemed an innocuous challenge but the referee, after a moments hesitation, pointed to the spot. Allan Clarke calmly stepped up and sent keeper Tomaszweski the wrong way. There was still plenty of time for England to get the winner but every attempt on goal was thwarted by Tomaszweski, his hands, his feet, his body or when he was beaten, the woodwork. With minutes to go, the whole of England and Wembley thought Clarke had won it when he turned and shot from 8 yards out. He wheeled away to celebrate, convinced he had done enough to beat the Polish shot stopper but he was wrong. Despite being unsighted by one of his defenders, the keeper guessed the right way and did just enough to keep the ball out.
Kevin Hector had a ball cleared off the line in the last minute and England's final chance had gone, and with it, their hopes of reaching the World Cup as the referee blew for full time moments later. England had had 35 attempts on goal, hit the post 4 times, won countless corners but it was all in vein. They could not get past the Polish Clown and Jan Tomaszweski, who technically did not help the donkeys beat the thoroughbreds more the main inspiration behind thwarting them. England had failed to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time and it was to be another 11 years before they appeared at another finals. Sir Alf Ramsey was to pay the price for the failure, as soon after he was no longer England manager. 1966 and the golden age of English football was over.
So 40 years on, will England be thwarted by another Polish stopper?
Whatever happens, remember,
Next Goal Wins.