How a talented England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup

How a talented England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup

To many, the 1970s was a decade that style forgot, however tank tops and flairs were the least of our problems. England’s national team plunged into the abyss for most of that period with two consecutive failures to qualify for the World Cup, while Scotland were sole British representatives; oh the shame of it. It was a decade that had started with England as reigning world champions.

Striding into Mexico like preening peacocks, they had a stronger team than 1966. Alan Mullery, Terry Cooper and Francis Lee had replaced the old vintage; while Colin Bell was waiting in the wings to replace Bobby Charlton. We had Moore, Hurst and Peters at their peak and the incomparable Gordon Banks in goal. Extravagant young talent like Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson and Charlie George were also on tap, so what could possibly go wrong? Sadly, a glorious failure against the Germans would become ominously familiar. It also meant England had to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1962.

The 1974 qualifiers had been kind to England. Drawn with underachieving Poland and a relatively poor Wales, qualification would appear to be a formality – but Sir Alf Ramsey was already on borrowed time. His abrasive style would only be tolerated whilst he was winning; another failure could be curtains for the knight.

A three-team group required only four games, and a shorter qualifying campaign starting in November 1972. England’s opener against Wales was Ramsey’s 100th game in charge, with Andrew Stephen, chairman of the FA, presenting him with a silver salver prior to kick-off. Through gritted teeth both men smiled politely, but the strain was obvious.

Since Mexico, Ramsey had made a number of changes; some enforced some voluntary. Banks’ career was ended by a serious car crash, but he still had the luxury of Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence as alternatives, while Hurst gave way to the languid but lethal Martin Chivers. Ramsey also had an enviable choice of mavericks, gifted, mercurial players who could turn a game if they were in the mood. Rodney Marsh got the nod against Wales, as did Kevin Keegan in winning his first cap. The excellent Roy McFarland partnered Bobby Moore in the centre of defence, while Alan Ball was the only other participant from 1966.

Wales were a team of solid journeymen managed by Dave Bowen. They had a potent strike force in John Toshack and Leighton James but nothing England couldn’t handle. It was essentially a quasi-Football League game, all but three players plying their trade in the First Division. The thinking was that England could treat it like a league game and, in theory, make light work of the task.

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The reality was that England coughed and spluttered through the first half-hour, easily neutralised by a well-organised Wales defence. However, in the 35th minute, a neat one-two between Norman Hunter and Alan Ball broke the deadlock. A sharp cross from the latter was converted by Colin Bell at the far post. They squandered a number of chances in the second half but scraped to a 1-0 victory. It was a tepid England performance and they would have to do better in the return at Wembley in January 1973. 

Before the return, a brief diversion would offer some light relief. UK membership of the Common Market (European Union) took effect on 1st January 1973, and to mark the occasion, Three played Six at Wembley. The home nations, along with fellow newbies Ireland and Denmark, would field a combined team against Six, comprised of players from founding members of the Common Market.

Sir Alf became manager of Three and brought five English players from the Wales game with him. Complemented by Pat Jennings, Johnny Giles and Peter Lorimar, it was a pretty good line-up – but how would they fare against Six, managed by Helmut Schoen? His team selection was mainly German and Dutch, with Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller, Bertie Vogts and Günter Netzer all in attendance. The Dutch were represented by Johan Neeskens and Wim van Hanegem while Italy’s Dino Zoff could only make the bench. Bobby Charlton returned to the international fold as captain of Three clad in white, Netzer taking the opposite armband decked in red.

Like many invitation matches, it was a lively, attacking encounter. Both sides threatened but it was Three that went ahead in the 49th minute, Denmark’s sole representative, Henning Jensen, scoring with an excellent glancing header. Both sides rattled the woodwork but it was Colin Stein who settled matters to produce the most enigmatic scoreline: three-2 six-0. 

It also gave the press a ready-made headline as ‘three were better than six’. We might have “sacrificed” our independence for a brave new world but we could still do the business on a football pitch. After all, a scratch team comprised of mainly English players had rolled over the best mainland Europe could offer. But, as legendary sports journalist David Lacey once wrote, “fate once tempted rarely fails to oblige.”

Three weeks after the Common Market game, England met Wales at Wembley. It was to be one of those nights for England as a spirited Wales performance earned them a draw. Similar to the first game, England couldn’t find any rhythm and failed to impose themselves and the inevitable occurred in the 23rd minute as Leighton James gave his marker the slip, with Liverpool’s Toshack having the relatively easy task of a tapping-in from close range.

It should have shaken England into life but anything approaching a response was comfortably snuffed out. England’s blushes were spared four minutes from half-time as Hunter fired home from 25 yards. Any hopes that England might kick on in the second half were dashed as the game petered out to a draw.

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It wasn’t quite a disaster but certainly a setback as England contemplated upcoming games against Poland. Bobby Moore won his 100th cap against Scotland in a game to celebrate the SFA centenary. The Home Internationals were soon upon England as they faced Wales again at Wembley. With the same nucleus of players, England swept to a 3-0 victory. The word ‘typical springs to mind as England won the less important fixture, but there was some solace as Wales helpfully beat Poland 2-0 in Cardiff.

A humid Chorzow evening in June 1973 would host England’s game against Poland. With unnecessary candour, Sir Alf Ramsey declared he was seeking a point. A point would indeed have suited, but was it necessary to voice his thoughts quite so bluntly? He made four changes from the Wales games, while Poland had the twin threat of Włodzimierz Lubański and Robert Gadocha upfront. 

The early signs were not encouraging as the players took to the pitch, England sporting hideous mustard yellow shirts with blue shorts. Poland’s preferred white shirts clashed with England’s home kit but few could see what was wrong with red shirts? Such trifles aside, it was a game to forget for England. 

A seventh-minute free-kick whipped into the near post by Gadocha put Poland in front.  Moore lashed at the ball as it spun past Peter Shilton at the near post, betraying an obvious lack of communication between defender and goalkeeper. England seemed short on ideas and inspiration, but the fresh impetus of substitutes seemed lost on Ramsey. 

The second half began as badly as the first; Moore normally so self-assured, shaped to dribble past Lubański but was easily dispossessed. The Polish striker struck a hard shot past Shilton again at the near post. England had nothing left in the tank and Alan Ball’s dismissal for violent conduct capped a miserable display.

Moore agonised over his own performance, England’s World Cup-winning captain just didn’t make mistakes like that. In truth, we bore witness to a great player in decline and Ramsey was under pressure to drop him – but stubbornly selected Moore for the friendlies against the USSR and Italy. He was finally replaced by Hunter for the friendly against Austria in September 1973, the final game before the home fixture against Poland.

For the Austria game, Ramsey dipped into his box of mavericks and selected Sheffield United’s playmaker Tony Currie in a positive line-up also including Mike Channon and Allan Clarke. Austria came into the game with good results against Brazil and Hungary but they were put to the sword as England strolled to a handsome 7-0 win. Channon and Clarke each scored a brace with Chivers, Currie and Bell completing the rout. It was the perfect tonic as the fans purred with quiet satisfaction.

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As expected, Poland eased to a 3-0 victory over Wales in Chorzow leaving a simple equation: England had to beat Poland on 17 October to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Unsurprisingly, Ramsey named an unchanged side for the game. 

Scotland had already qualified, making their final game against the Czechs something of a victory roll. Playing on the same evening, it cranked the pressure up even more on England. To have two home nations qualify would be a tremendous fillip to national morale; the country was deep in recession with inflation running at 20 percent. A global fuel crisis was looming: power cuts and the three day week were close at hand, and the nation was about to enter a very dark place. The fans needed England to win; a summer watching two British teams in the World Cup surely wasn’t asking for too much.

The game itself belongs in the annals of history as the most one-sided ever staged. England launched wave after wave of attack but could find no way through in the first half. Poland’s goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski would become England’s nemeses with a string of remarkable saves, Brian Clough famously labelling him “a clown”. In context, it was the night goalkeeping as an art died. Tomaszewski was the first authentic shot-stopper who used every part of his anatomy to stop the ball, something now accepted as part of a goalie’s armoury – but there was once emphasis on agility, positioning and distribution. 

Nevertheless, the Polish goal enjoyed a charmed life as the barrage continued in the second half. England continually pushing up would leave them vulnerable on the break, and on the hour Poland went into the lead. A desperate clearance found Gadocha on the left as Hunter raced over to cover. Watching numerous replays, it’s still difficult to understand what Hunter was trying to do. Was he attempting a step-over or drag-back, much like the man he replaced? But he wasn’t like Moore in his prime; Hunter was schooled in functionality at Leeds and should’ve just put his boot through it. Instead, he tripped over his feet and Gadocha was gone. Jan Domarski took the pass and hit a powerful shot that inexplicably went under Shilton’s body.

England were unfazed by the setback and continued to push for that vital breakthrough. A push on Martin Peters led to a penalty in the 66th minute, Allan Clarke coolly slotting the ball home, but a draw would not be enough. Time was ticking by and England were still looking for a second goal. Moore reportedly argued with Ramsey on the team bench, demanding he make a substitution. Ramsey waited until the 88th minute before bringing on Kevin Hector for Martin Chivers, but it was too late: 34 attempts on goal and 26 corners couldn’t bring England the victory they needed.

Football isn’t all about skill, ability and fitness; it often requires a modicum of luck, grit and fortitude, something Poland had in spades. For England it just wasn’t meant to happen. Bobby Moore won his 108th and final cap against Italy in November 1973. The FA made Sir Alf Ramsey’s dismissal last six months (he even selected the squad for a tour of Eastern Europe). Ramsey was finally sacked in May 1974, a shoddy way to treat the architect of England’s finest hour. Joe Mercer took over as caretaker manager before Don Revie’s ill-fated reign began.

Scotland performed heroically at the 1974 World Cup but were eliminated without losing a game. They ultimately paid the price for not scoring enough goals against an average Zaire. Poland were outstanding and finished third, and were only denied a place in the final by West Germany who narrowly defeated them 1-0. Grzegorz Lato was the tournament’s top scorer with seven as Kazimierz Deyna emerged as a world-class footballer. Contemplating the ‘ifs’ is a futile exercise, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened had England been there.

By Brian Penn

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