According to football folklore, England failed to reach the 1974 World Cup finals because they could not beat Poland at Wembley on a night when Jan "the clown" Tomaszewski defied Sir Alf Ramsey's team with a series of extraordinary saves. Ramsey, however, knew that the seeds of that failure had been sown on the same ground eight months previously against much more familiar opposition. A 1-1 draw against Wales proved to be the first step along a road that would lead ultimately to Ramsey's dismissal as England manager.
Although England and Wales were to carry on playing each other every year in the Home International Championship until their last meeting in 1984, the match at Wembley in 1973 was the last occasion when the two countries have met in a World Cup or European Championship qualifying tournament. That sequence ends at Old Trafford with this Saturday's World Cup qualifying match, a game with many echoes of the Ramsey era.
The most obvious parallel with 1973 is the fact that England, Wales and Poland have been drawn together in the same group. A key difference, however, is that Northern Ireland, Austria and Azerbaijan make up the numbers this time. Thirty-one years ago there were only the three teams in the group.
"You didn't have too much room for error because there were only four games then and 10 now," says John Toshack, who played for Wales in both games against England in that campaign. To some extent England and Wales cut each other up and Poland took advantage."
England, with only Bobby Moore and Alan Ball left from their World Cup winning team of 1966, were in transition. The disappointment of the 1970 World Cup, when England were knocked out by West Germany in the quarter-finals, had been compounded two years later by defeat against the same opponents and at the same stage in the European Championship.
Growing public criticism of the national team was hardly quelled in the opening game of the qualifying campaign for the next World Cup, against Wales at Ninian Park in November 1972. Two young Liverpool men, Kevin Keegan and Ray Clemence, made their international debuts and England gave a disjointed display. Colin Bell won the match with a 35th-minute goal, but England were unable to convert their dominance into clear-cut scoring chances, while Wales never got going. "It was a rather disappointing game all-round," Toshack said. "Maybe the pressure got to us a little bit. I don't think we could have complained about being beaten that night."
Poland had still to play their first match when England and Wales met again at Wembley two months later. The Welsh team was not dissimilar in balance to today's, with Leighton James and Toshack providing an attacking threat not unlike that of Ryan Giggs and John Hartson, but with a defence looking short on quality.
What the Welsh had above all else, however, was a passion which England could not match. "In those days Wembley was the shrine," Toshack said. "You couldn't go to Wembley and not be excited by it. I remember the first game I played for Wales against England at Wembley. When I say that what I mean is that I remember not remembering a thing about the match. I was completely overawed by the place. I went back later for the Cup final with Liverpool and by then I knew it a bit better. A few of us had been there before by the time we played England in 1973 so we were better equipped."
England's Norman Hunter remembers how tough the Welsh could be. "Games against them were always very hard and competitive," he said. "Like the Irish and the Scottish, the team they wanted to beat was England. You were often playing against your team-mates, but that didn't make a difference. You wanted to win for England."
Wales, competing ferociously for every ball, took the lead in the 22nd minute. Brian Evans, who played for Swansea City in the old Third Division, forced his way through a series of tackles to release James. "Leighton was an outstanding winger and I can remember him going down the right and crossing the ball," Toshack said. "I met it before anyone else and slid the ball in and scored from about seven or eight yards."
Toshack was renowned as a great header of the ball, but Hunter also had great respect for him on the ground. "He was a very intelligent player and he had a better touch on the ball than people gave him credit for," Hunter said. "He knew the game. He was very much aware of what was happening in and around the box. He never just stood there and let you mark him. He was always making a run, checking and coming back again."
England's equaliser came from an unlikely source, when the ball rolled free on the edge of the penalty area into Hunter's path as Wales tried to clear an attack 18 minutes later.
"I remember the ball rolling out to me and a few defenders coming towards me, so I just hit it as hard as I could from about 20 yards out," Hunter said. "By the time I looked up I thought: 'That's in.' It absolutely flew into the net. It never varied direction. It hit the stanchion in the back of the net. It won the goal of the month award. It was certainly one of the best goals I've ever scored. Being a defender, you just strike the ball and it's more good luck than judgement."
England, however, could not build on Hunter's goal and the crowd grew increasingly frustrated, particularly with the three strikers. Keegan appeared overwhelmed by the occasion, Martin Chivers failed to find his club form and Rodney Marsh came in for press criticism for concentrating too much on his repertoire of tricks. For the first time for many years, England fans booed the team off the pitch. The attendance was 62,000, on a night when only 3,000 fewer fans watched Manchester United play Everton in the old First Division.
Ramsey's verdict was succinct. "By holding us, Wales have made our task of qualifying so much harder," he said. "It was the best performance I've seen from a Welsh team. They really made it difficult for us with their defensive, negative tactics."
The Welsh, however, went on to prove their quality with a deserved 2-0 victory at home to the Poles. Poland then beat England and Wales at home in their next two matches, which left the group to be decided by the Poles' visit to Wembley. A 1-1 draw was to realise all of Ramsey's worst fears.
ENGLAND v WALES QUALIFIERS
WORLD CUP QUALIFIER
Wembley, 24 Jan 1973
ENGLAND: Clemence (Liverpool), Storey (Arsenal), Hughes (Liverpool), Hunter (Leeds), McFarland (Derby), Moore (West Ham), Keegan (Liverpool), Bell (Manchester City), Chivers (Tottenham), Marsh (Manchester City), Ball (Arsenal).
WALES: Sprake (Leeds), Rodrigues (Sheff Wed), Thomas (Derby), England (Tottenham), Hockey (Sheff Utd), Roberts (Birmingham), Evans (Crystal Palace), Mahoney (Stoke), Toshack (Liverpool), Yorath (Leeds U), James (Derby C). Substitute: Page (Birmingham) for Rodrigues, 60.
WORLD CUPS AND EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIPS
Oct 15, 1949: World Cup qualifier (Ninian Park). Wales 1 England 4.
Oct 10, 1953: World Cup qualifier (Ninian Park) Wales 1 England 4.
Nov 16, 1966: European Championship qualifier (Wembley) England 5 Wales 1.
Oct 21, 1967: European Championship qualifier (Ninian Park) Wales 0 England 3.
Nov 15, 1972: World Cup qualifier (Ninian Park) Wales 0 England 1.
Jan 24, 1973: World Cup qualifier (Wembley). England 1 Wales 1.Reuse content