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HomeNewsFifty years ago today, the end of the world for England fans

Fifty years ago today, the end of the world for England fans

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I AM increasingly apt to seek refuge in the 1970s. Books, photos and YouTube are marshalled for the purpose. It’s an act of knowing self-delusion, of course. Our rational selves rightly reject the notion of a ‘golden age’. And if it ever existed, it was scarcely that power-cut and IRA-bomb-ridden decade.  

Still, there are worse coping mechanisms. Besides, every generation wallows in the past now and again. Ours, assailed by globalism and all its predations, has good reason to do so. It’s pleasurable, and we might even draw the odd lesson, see the present times more clearly: what we’ve lost, become.

I’ve been reflecting on a specific event, both unhappy and uplifting, which took place 50 years ago this evening, when England faced Poland at Wembley (still officially known, in pre-guilt-tripped Britain, as the Empire Stadium). As many readers will remember, at stake for both sides was qualification for the 1974 World Cup finals, to be hosted – the War resonances mounted – by West Germany.

Having lost the corresponding away fixture, England needed to win; a draw would be enough for the Poles. The home side threw the proverbial kitchen sink at their opponents – the attempts-on-goal count was 35-2. Alas, they couldn’t force victory, the match finishing 1-1. A few months later, manager Sir Alf Ramsey was sacked. (See Alan Ashworth’s That Reminds Me column tomorrow for more details.)

The Poland goalkeeper, Jan Tomaszewski, labelled a ‘circus clown in gloves’ by Brian Clough in the TV studio, broke English hearts (and a finger, in the third minute). When he wasn’t saving his side, last-gasp goal-line clearances, the woodwork and the referee were.

Two England ‘goals’ were dubiously disallowed, though they were also awarded a soft second-half penalty. As Allan Clarke stepped up to convert it and equalise, goalkeeper Peter Shilton, partly culpable for Poland’s goal, couldn’t bear to watch, sitting on his haunches facing the other way. 

The next day the Sun headline ran: ‘The End of the World’. It captured the mood of the country. After their heroics of 1966 and 1970, the national team had failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in its history. It was no disgrace: Poland went on to finish third in the finals, beating Brazil along the way. Lord knows that country deserved some cheer of its own. 

At the time, the details passed over my eight-year-old head. But I well remember the intense feeling of disappointment, mingled with pride at how bravely England had performed. It became a recurring theme. On sporting fields the world over we always seemed to come up just short. The role of gallant loser, with the emphasis on gallant, seemed to mirror the nation’s psyche: Britain the plucky underdog, an image the Left loves to shatter. 

Perhaps all of this was acceptable, even endearing, because we knew we’d won the things that really mattered. We had our struggles, but we were one people with a storied history. The Union Flag, rather than the St George’s Cross, was the emblem of choice on the terraces. Being English meant being British, with all it stood for.  

Needless to say, the national anthem was sung with gusto, and there was demographic unity on and off the pitch. A multicultural future didn’t even occur to us, though some had already sounded the alarm. If you’d suggested that the England team ‘take a knee’ for a violent US felon, you’d have been carted off to the funny farm – or the Tower.

Easily revived in the memory, can this solidly patriotic mindset be imbued in younger generations? The pendulum will need to swing a long way. For now, the best we can do is tell them it once existed. Before long, such testimony will be outlawed as hate speech, old sports recordings of insufficient ‘diversity’ wiped. 

Sadly, we’ve lost five men who played valiantly for England that cold autumn night: Colin Bell, Emlyn Hughes, Norman Hunter, Paul Madeley and Martin Peters, as well as unused substitute Bobby Moore. Still with us are Clarke, Shilton, Martin Chivers, Roy McFarland, Mick Channon, Tony Currie and the other two subs, Kevin Hector and Kevin Keegan.                

Poland’s gifted captain Kazimierz Deyna, who later played for Manchester City, died in a car crash in San Diego in 1989, aged 41. Tomaszewski the ‘clown’ had the last laugh on Clough, being voted the best goalkeeper at the 1974 tournament. According to Old Big ’Ead, his local Polish butcher ignored him for two years. 

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Stuart Major
Stuart Major
Stuart Major is an independent scholar based in Sussex.

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