It was 50 years ago today! The Poland game that shocked Europe and turned the Eagles into heroes
On this day, fifty years ago, Poland’s national football team achieved its most famous result ever, an epic draw against England that sent shockwaves around the world.
Having won the World Cup just seven years previously, England were seen as hot favourites – playing on home soil, the English required a win to advance through from the group qualifiers to the World Cup finals taking place in Germany the following year.
The Poles, on the other hand, needed just a draw. Despite that, it was the visitors that were viewed as rank outsiders.
Typifying the blinkered attitudes of the time, Poland had been widely written off, even though they had beaten England 2-0 just a few months previously in Chorzów.
Looking back, the legendary commentator Barry Davies reflected: “It was win or bust, but I don’t think anybody thought England would fail. This was in the age when everybody felt we had an entitlement to be in the World Cup, and it was unthinkable we wouldn’t be there.”
The sense that this match would be a formality was underscored by Brian Clough. Acting as a pundit, the ever-controversial Clough labelled Poland’s goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, “a circus clown in gloves”.
Tomaszewski himself later confessed: “I wasn’t just afraid of England, I was terrified. They had beaten Austria 7-0 a month earlier, so when the national anthems were being played I was thinking, ‘I hope we’re not the next Austria’.”
Backed by 100,000 fans, England’s rabid followers had greeted Poland with screams of ‘animals’ as they ran onto the pitch, a reference to the hardman tactics the Poles had employed in their previous head-to-head.
But with Wembley, and seemingly the whole world against them, the Poles rose to the occasion to put in a performance that has since gone down in international football folklore.
“It was only a question of how big the defeat would be, and that gave us an internal motivation, like when your apartment is on fire and you rush out with a huge TV,” Tomaszewski later said.
Throwing the kitchen sink at Poland, England bombarded the opposition’s goal, but each and every time they found themselves thwarted by Tomaszewski.
Nil-nil at halftime, Clough’s confidence remained unshaken. “Put the kettle on,” he urged the TV audience. “The goals will come.”
Poland’s coach, Kazimierz Gorski, was of another mind. Rallying his players during the break, he said: “You see, the devil isn’t as frightening as you thought.”
With the fire in their belly stoked, Poland raced into the lead against the run of play on 57 minutes following blunders by Norman Hunter and keeper Peter Shilton.
The hosts were back level eight-minutes later, but although they laid siege to the Polish goal the winner didn’t come – again and again, Tomaszewski proved his value, not least in the 80th minute when he produced the save of the match to deny Allan Clarke.
Convinced his shot was destined for the back of the net, Clarke had already turned around to celebrate.
On the final whistle, ‘the home of football’ was left stunned, the shocked silence broken by the sound of the cavorting Poles.
Mustering just two shots against England’s 36, for Poland the result was a spectacular and almost unbelievable triumph of will. Heroes had been made.
It was also a sliding doors moment – for England, this was seen as “a sporting gravestone.” The next day, one newspaper led with headline: “The end of the world”.
For Poland, it marked their arrival on the global stage.
True, Gorski’s charges had won Olympic Gold in 1972, but this was not regarded as a serious accomplishment by the professional football world.
It was the England game that placed the Poles in the spotlight, and in 1974 they employed a cavalier brand of football that enthralled the world.
Unlucky to finish third in the World Cup, the rest of the decade saw them celebrated as one of the most adventurous sides on the planet during this Golden Age of Football.
As for Tomaszewski, he would be named the ‘best keeper’ of the 1974 tournament, in the process ridding himself of the “clown” tag so unfairly bestowed upon him.
For his part, “the man who stopped England” revealed that he had long buried the hatchet with Brian Clough.
Interviewed by the BBC, he said: “Years later we met at BBC in Manchester and Clough apologised for what he had said – we shook hands and I said thank you, because only great people can admit their mistakes.”