With qualification in their own hands, England will kick off the final game of their 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying campaign against Poland tomorrow with their gaze firmly fixed on qualification.
Playing at Wembley, with support from their home fans, it would seem almost impossible to think England would fall short of getting the victory that will ensure qualification, but then again, never say never in football.
England has been down this route on previous occasions where they have needed favourable results at Wembley in the final game of a qualifying campaign to ensure qualification but failed.
The final games of the 1974 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign and the 2008 European Championship qualifying campaign quickly come to mind and this dangerous trend will firmly be at the back of the minds of the English players when the referee blasts his whistle to signal the commencement of the game.
No failed qualifying campaign hit England as hard as the 1974 FIFA World Cup. On the glorious Wednesday evening of October 17th, 1973, almost 40 years ago, England coincidentally faced Poland in the final game of their qualifying campaign.
Led by the legendary World Cup winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey, the English team had quality all over the side. Although many heroes from the 1966 World Cup winning side such as Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore were either no longer in the team or no longer guaranteed starters, England still had enough quality all over the pitch.
There was Alan Clarke in attack, Colin Bell and Mick Channon in midfield, Norman “bite your legs” Hunter in defence and the great Peter Shilton in goal to mention a few.
There was immense pressure on England but they would have felt confident going into the game having qualified for every single World Cup tournament since 1950 and also having a manager who won the tournament just seven years earlier.
England were all over Poland from the blast of the referee Vital Loraux’s whistle. It was attack after attack but the Poles, and especially their legendary goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski, stood firm. It was supposedly only a matter of time before England would take the lead but against the run of play, Poland stunned Wembley by grabbing the first goal.
Leeds United defender Norman Hunter had failed to deal with a routine loose ball and lost possession to Grzegorz Lato who then surged towards the box before setting up Jan Dormaski whose right foot shot went past Peter Shilton to give Poland the lead.
In truth, Shilton really should have done better. Mick Channon would later have the ball in the Polish net but the goal would be ruled out for a non-existent infringement. England would have another lifeline late in the game after Martin Peters was fouled inside the box and a penalty was awarded, which Alan Clarke stepped up and dispatched with aplomb to equalise.
According to BBC Sport, Peters latter admitted to diving out of desperation for England’s cause. The Three Lions continued to attack but failed to find the required second goal before referee Loraux blew the final whistle. A dejected England had failed to qualify for the World Cup at Poland’s expense.
It is hard to believe that the game ended in a stalemate because it was a completely one sided affair. According to BBC Sport, England had 36 shots to Poland's two, forced 26 corners, hit the woodwork twice and had four efforts cleared off the line.
Speaking in a documentary many years after, Barry Davies said “I can’t remember a match where there were so many near things”. If he truly ever existed, the God of football was clearly on the side of Poland on this night.
Interestingly, the hero of the night turned out to be Jan Tomaszewski, who former Derby County and Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough had described as a ‘circus clown’ both before and after the game.
England manager Sir Alf Ramsey became the main casualty of the failed qualification campaign as he was sacked by the FA after the Poland debacle.
Thirty four years later in 2007, England faced a similar but relatively easier situation when they met Croatia in the final game of their EURO 2008 qualifying campaign needing only to avoid defeat at Wembley to book a ticket to Austria-Switzerland.
This time England were a lot poorer than they were in 1973 as they went on to lose the game 3-2 after having earlier come from two goals down to tie the match. Steve McClaren paid the price and was sacked the next day.
Tomorrow’s game is crucial for England and the progress of English football and victory will go a long way towards burying the ghosts of 1973. Poland will have nothing to lose since they are no longer in contention for a place at the World Cup but that will make the game a lot more interesting because the Poles will be free to express themselves without any added pressure.
With quality players such as Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski they have players that can hurt England and it will be unforgivable if Poland stops England a second time. It is imperative that England turns out in the right frame of mind, believing they can get the job done.
The World Cup in Brazil in 2014 is expected to be the swansong for centurions like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole and they will surely want to do everything possible to ensure they bow out in the biggest stage there is, possibly as world champions.
There should be no underestimating any players like Clough did in 1973 and there should be no show of complacency and lack of concentration like Norman Hunter and Peter Shilton showed in the same year.
On the other hand, failure to defeat Poland may not terminally damage England’s hopes of being in Brazil because other results also have to go against them too, but with Ukraine playing against San Marino, who are yet to register a point and have a goal difference of -45, that would be the most unreliable basket England could put their eggs into.
On the plus side, the worst case scenario of failing to defeat Poland would see England land a play-off spot where they will get another opportunity to right the wrongs of a qualification campaign that has seen them fail to beat Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro away from Wembley.
England should beware the aides of 1973 if they are to ensure they will be on the plane to Brazil in 2014.
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