As England’s footballers prepare for their World Cup qualifying showdown against Poland, the thoughts of many are bound to spin back 40 years to 17th October 1973. That was the night England’s superiority complex finally died, extinguished as much by tactical inflexibility as a Poland team which went on to finish third in the following year’s tournament. In hindsight, being knocked out of the World Cup by Deyna, Lato and co was no disgrace.
Live televised football was still something of a rarity in those days but England against Poland was live on ITV…and I wanted to watch it. It was a school night but earnest negotiations had begun with my parents days in advance. The situation was slightly complicated when my mother and father announced they were going out and that a teenager who lived across the road was going to “look after” my sister and I. Had my grandparents been chosen for that role, I’d have felt confident that I’d be able to watch the game but Lesley was an unknown quantity. What if she wanted to watch whatever BBC 1 was putting up against the two Brians, Moore and Clough? What if she asked what time we were to go to bed, which was normally before full-time on a midweek match night?
And then there was the fact that I had the tiniest nine-year-old schoolboy crush on Miss Evans. Would I be able to pay full attention to Sir Alf’s tactics with a willowy 17 year old in the room?
When Lesley arrived, the first issues were quickly dealt with. Mum was happy for me to stay up as it was such an important match and, apparently, there was nothing of interest on the other side. And so, we sat down to watch England qualify for the World Cup. For a nine year old, even a West Brom fan used to defeat and disappointment, there was no way England wouldn’t secure a victory to take them to West Germany.
England pressed early on and, I seem to recall a disallowed goal. With more than an eye on impressing my fellow spectator, I agreed with the referee’s decision. I knew all about football you see. Then, when the experts in the studio questioned that decision, I was forced to eat my words. Oh, sofa, swallow me up. Still, England would score soon enough.
Except, as we all know, they didn’t or at least not until the Poles had drawn first blood. With Bobby Moore dropped, his replacement Norman Hunter failed to make a tackle on the halfway line and Jan Domarski profited to put Poland a goal up. Though England equalised quickly through “Sniffer” Clarke’s penalty, no winning goal could be found, thanks in part to a Polish goalkeeper dubbed a clown by Brian Clough. That clown had the last laugh and, unthinkably, the 1974 World Cup Finals would go ahead without the Three Lions.
Sir Alf Ramsey waited until the 88th minute to make a substitution but any aura of English invincibility had long since disappeared. Sir Alf’s days were well and truly numbered and it would be nine years until England played in a World Cup Finals tournament again.
Oh, and Miss Evans? Well, she left home to go to University the following year and I barely recall her coming home. We moved house a few years later and I haven’t seen her since.
Memory added on October 11, 2013
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