Jan Tomaszewski: The clown who made us cry

Thirty-two years ago, the Polish goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski famously knocked England out of the World Cup. Paul Newman talked to him about that unforgettable night
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"I hadn't noticed Allan Clarke," Tomaszewski said. "There was this 6ft tall Englishman standing in front of me in a white shirt, but I was so frightened I didn't even see him. It was only when Clarke tried to get the ball that I saw him. His challenge was legitimate, but he hurt my hand quite badly. As one of my team-mates said later, at least it woke me up."

Woke him up? If ever a footballer had his eyes wide open it was Tomaszewski on that extraordinary night in October 1973. Pilloried on television by Brian Clough, who had called him "a clown", the somnambulist goalkeeper roused himself to play the match of his life. A 1-1 draw plunged the English game into its deepest crisis since Hungary made fools of Billy Wright's men in 1953.

It was a hammer blow for the 1966 World Cup winners and effectively ended Alf Ramsey's career. It instilled a fear of failure that has arguably hung over England ever since. For Poland, qualifying at England's expense for their first World Cup finals since 1938, it was the start of their most successful era; they finished third at the 1974 and 1982 World Cups.

The ghosts of 1973 emerge whenever England play Poland and the presence of 57-year-old Tomaszewski on a TV gantry at Old Trafford tomorrow will not be the only reminder of one of the hosts' darkest hours.

Just as it was 32 years ago, Poland's visit is the final and decisive match in the World Cup qualifying group, although this time both have already secured their places in next year's finals. Austria, coincidentally, were also the warm-up act in 1973: England's 7-0 win at Wembley was the major reason why Tomaszewski and his colleagues took to the field like frightened rabbits.

Seeing Tomaszewski today, you cannot help thinking that Clough's description was, in one sense, rather apt. The former goalkeeper is no fool, but he loves to entertain. We meet in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Lodz, the Polish city that has been his home for the last 30 years. He performs for two hours, talking with a vivid sense of humour and drama about the events that have shaped his life.

Tomaszewski has spent most of the last 20 years as an outspoken television and newspaper commentator. Listening to him and watching his lived-in face grow ruddier by the minute, it is by no means fanciful to think this could even be Old Big 'Ead himself.

"I was sad to hear Brian Clough had died," Tomaszewski said. "I wasn't offended when he called me a clown. His comments were the perfect motivation for me. I met him in a TV studio in England a few years later. He was friendly, though he didn't exactly apologise for what he had said.

"At the time he knew that Alf Ramsey would leave if England didn't qualify. He wanted his job. He wanted to give the impression Poland were not a good team, which was why he lampooned me."

The bluntness of his views on Sven Goran Eriksson would certainly have impressed Clough. "England are in crisis," Tomaszewski said. "Eriksson clearly wants to change to a more European style. I'm not sure he's the right man for England. He worked in Italy for too long. Italian players are technically better than English players. Their football is all about short passing, which isn't England's strength. He can't change the mentality of English players.

"What Poland have to realise, though, is that there's always a Beckham or a Lampard who can make a difference. We didn't appreciate that when we lost to England in Chorzow last year."

He is never short of advice for Pawel Janas, the Poland coach - "It was my idea, which I explained to Janas, to build his team around past and present players from Wisla Krakow," Tomaszewski said with Clough-like modesty - and sees tomorrow as the chance for "a big Poland team to emerge", just as it did in 1973.

Tomaszewski himself had come to notice playing for Legia Warsaw, who had signed him from his local club in Wroclaw. "I didn't actually start playing in goal until I was 12," he said. "My family weren't well off, but every Christmas I was given a football. There was a children's home not far from our house. The boys there were a few years older than me, but they didn't have a ball. They let me play provided I supplied the ball and played in goal."

He had just established himself in Kazimierz Gorski's Poland team when England came to Chorzow in June 1973 for a World Cup qualifier which was a personal disaster for Bobby Moore. England's World Cup-winning captain deflected Robert Gadocha's early free-kick past Peter Shilton. Even more shocking was his error in the second half, when he was dispossessed on the halfway line by Wlodzimierz Lubanski, who raced away to score the goal that secured a 2-0 victory.

"England were too complacent," Tomaszewski said. "They were convinced they were going to win. We waited patiently and scored with our only two real chances. We set out simply to keep the ball for as long as possible. We weren't thinking about scoring.

"The second goal was down to Jacek Gmoch, our assistant coach, who analysed the opposition. He'd pinpointed a weakness in Moore's game. The defenders all passed the ball to Moore and left it to him to play it forward, but he tended to dwell on the ball. Gmoch told our forwards to expect this and to put immediate pressure on Moore. Lubanski had anticipated the pass to Moore and was on top of him straight away."

Tomaszewski believes the two weeks Poland spent in a training camp near Warsaw before Wembley was crucial; their opponents were playing for their clubs just four days before the game.

"We trained with English footballs. We called them potatoes because they were so hard and heavy. It was Gmoch's idea. Then we drew 1-1 in Rotterdam against the Netherlands, one of the world's best teams, a week before Wembley. It was a big boost, though we were still terrified about playing England. A First Division team might fail to beat a Third Division side once, but they don't do it again.

"The English newspapers had described us as animals. People were comparing Jerzy Gorgon to Joe Bugner. They said Kazimierz Deyna was stupid. They said all Grzegorz Lato could do was run. And Brian Clough called me a clown. We were determined to prove them wrong.

"I remember the last thing Gorski said before the game: 'You can play football for 20 years and play 1,000 times for the national team and nobody will remember you. But tonight, in one game, you have the chance to put your names in the history books.'

"During the national anthems we were standing bolt upright, quaking in our boots. I was just thinking: 'God save us from a 7-0 defeat, like Austria suffered.' The England players were casually chewing gum. They were so confident they looked like they were already leading 3-0."

The Poles had not been allowed to visit Wembley before the game. "It was the first time most of us had played at a ground with a roof over the fans. The noise was far louder than anything we'd experienced. I couldn't hear myself speak. When the English attacked there was an incredible noise, but when we attacked there was silence. That was much better for Shilton, who could communicate with his defenders."

The Poland goal was under siege from the start, but Tomaszewski's brilliance and England's erratic finishing kept the score goalless until the unthinkable happened after 57 minutes. In an echo of Moore's mishap in Chorzow, Norman Hunter lost the ball to Lato near the halfway line. The winger sped away before passing to Jan Domarski, who shot first time.

There was no great power in Domarski's strike and the ball seemed to move in slow motion towards Shilton. The crowd could hardly believe what they saw next. Shilton, partially unsighted by Emlyn Hughes' attempt to block Domarski's shot, tried to dive on the ball rather than parry it. Somehow it crept under his body. Poland led 1-0.

"I wouldn't blame Shilton," Tomaszewski said. "It must have been difficult to keep his concentration. He had so little to do. The goal didn't allay my fears. I just thought we might lose 5-1 rather than 5-0."

Six minutes later England were awarded a penalty. "I tried to look Clarke in the eye to see what way he was going to shoot, but he kept focused on the ball. He was very calm and struck it firmly past me."

The English bombardment continued. Although the Poles had chances on the break, Tomaszewski says there was "never one moment" when he believed his team would hold out.

He recalls a save from a Clarke volley as his best. "He struck the ball beautifully and I just threw myself at it," he said. "The England players got anxious, though the crowd was fantastic. They stayed behind the team throughout. They just kept chanting: 'England! England!'"

With a final throw of the dice, Ramsey replaced Martin Chivers with Kevin Hector two minutes from the end. It was an absurdly late substitution - Ramsey's watch had stopped and he thought there was still plenty of time left - though it almost paid off. However, Hector's header was cleared off the line.

"I don't remember anything about what happened at the final whistle, even though I've seen all the photographs," Tomaszewski said. "It was only when we were under the showers and the president of our federation joined us in his suit that I appreciated what we had achieved.

"There was a reception for 600 people after the game, supposedly to celebrate England's World Cup qualification. We attended and there was a table for the England players, but it was empty. I felt that was wrong. We all have to lose sometimes.

"All the other Poland players went out to celebrate, but I stayed at the hotel for treatment on my hand. I was given antibiotics and couldn't drink. I couldn't sleep because of the pain. Some players didn't get back till quite late the next day. I couldn't believe it when I saw the papers and there were all these photographs of me: 'The man who stopped England'."

Was it his best game? "It was my luckiest. I was a goalkeeper sent by God. I probably played better in the 1974 World Cup. But Wembley is what people remember most. We'd only played in one previous World Cup. It was hugely significant for the country."

The Poles went on to Dublin for a friendly and did not return home until the following Wednesday. "We were due to return on the Monday, but there was a party conference going on and the Government were afraid we'd take all the publicity."

Tomaszewski went on to play in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups. He spent most of his career at LKS Lodz: the Polish government would not allow players to join overseas clubs until they were 30. Tomaszewski, who interested Tottenham Hotspur, played for Beerschot in Belgium and Hercules in Spain before retiring in 1982.

Tomaszewski had little success as a coach; he was so unpopular at one club that his players arrived an hour before their scheduled departure for an away game and told the bus driver to leave without him. He makes a living today as a commentator and celebrity, though he also heads a commission investigating corruption in Polish football.

He is preparing for plenty of reminders tomorrow of the most famous night of his life. "A TV channel I used to work for had studios in Maidstone and at one stage I was coming to England several times a month," he said. "The customs officials would always look at my passport and say: 'Ah, Mr Tomaszewski, the man who stopped England'."

Wembley woe: 17 October 1973

* ENGLAND Shilton (Leicester City), Madeley (Leeds Utd), McFarland (Derby County), Hunter (Leeds Utd), Hughes (Liverpool), Bell (Manchester City), Currie (Sheffield Utd), Peters (Tottenham), Channon (Southampton), Chivers (Tottenham), Clarke (Leeds Utd), Substitute: Hector (Derby) for Chivers 88

* POLAND Tomaszewski; Szymanowski, Bulzacki, Gorgon, Musial, Kasperczak, Cmikiewicz, Deyna Lato, Domarski, Gadocha.

Goals: Domarski (55) 0-1; Clarke pen (63) 1-1.