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Laying the blame at Hunter's feet

As England prepare to face Poland at Wembley tomorrow, Ken Jones recalls the teams' historic match 23 years ago
Footballers of Norman Hunter's time swore you could hear his famous left foot cocking. So what was in Hunter's mind at Wembley 23 years ago when a tackle attempted with the foot he used mostly for standing on resulted in a goal that would prevent England from reaching the 1974 World Cup finals, and lead to Alf Ramsey's dismissal as manager?

Strange, but until last week, nobody had asked Hunter for an explanation. "It was so unlike you," I said, "and it doesn't get any better when they show it on television."

Hunter smiled. A smile was always the truth about him. A hard player for sure, but always up front, nothing devious. And the tackle, the wrong- footed blunder wide on the half-way line when trying to dispossess Grzegorz Lato that so uncommonly misrepresented his reputation?

After all these years I can still see Hunter moving in for the kill and thinking to myself that people in the royal box at Wembley were about to receive a visitor. "That was in my mind too," Hunter chuckled. "Then the bastard checked. It caused me to go in with the right peg, which was never a good idea, and I missed him."

Compounding Hunter's error, Peter Shilton dived over Jan Domarski's shot - "He could have thrown his hanky at the ball and made a better job of it," somebody said that night - and England, frustrated time and time again by Jan Tomaszewski's eccentric but effective goalkeeping, were up against it.

Described famously on television as "a clown" by the then Derby County manager, Brian Clough, Tomaszewski had the last laugh. If aided sometimes by the woodwork, he thwarted England with practically every part of his body: hands, feet, legs, torso, even his backside. One shot struck the back of his head.

"Every goalkeeper needs luck, and you have to acknowledge Tomaszewski's courage, but it was an amazing performance. Like nothing I'd ever seen," Gordon Banks said. "The further it went, the more he must have felt unbeatable and, of course, that gives a team the confidence to keep going, no matter how heavy the pressure."

The only effort that got past Tomaszewski was Allan Clarke's equalising penalty kick six minutes after Poland went in front. The clamour increased. Surely, it was felt, England would now break Poland's resistance.

Ramsey, however, was growing anxious. Forsaking a position in the stands - "Why has Alf got the team doctor sitting next to him?" Clough had sniped vindictively when addressing the nation - he went down to join the England trainers and substitutes on the touchline. Among them was Bobby Moore, whose error against Poland in Katowice four months earlier was partly responsible for making victory at Wembley essential. "Put somebody on," he implored.

Never happy with substitutions, Ramsey sat stony-faced as England threw attack after attack at the Polish defences. Finally, he conceded to Moore's urgings. "Kevin, get stripped," he ordered. Kevin Keegan jumped up, peeling off his tracksuit. "The other Kevin," Ramsey snapped.

With less than two minutes left to play, Kevin Hector made his international debut and missed what was probably the best chance of the match, sending a header inches wide. It was over. Five months later, Ramsey, the feted hero of 1966, was fired.

Shortly before that fateful Wembley encounter, I went with him to watch Poland play a friendly against the Netherlands in Rotterdam. On the return journey, Ramsey confided that he had thought seriously about recalling Geoff Hurst. "These people will be very difficult to break down, and there still isn't anyone in England better than Geoff at taking defenders out of position," he said.

"Of course, if I picked him we'd both get slaughtered before a ball is kicked. Especially in view of what Geoff has achieved for England, I don't think it would be fair to saddle him with such a responsibility. But I've been very close to bringing him back."

Unaware that senior Football Association officials were conspiring against him, Ramsey saw England's first failure to reach the World Cup finals as a reason for tactical change. "I think I've gone as far as I can with the present system," he said. "It's time to try something different, but I'm not sure I have the players to take it on."

England's next match, a friendly against Italy at Wembley in November 1973, saw Moore in the now fashionable role of sweeper. When England lost 1-0, Ramsey's days as manager were numbered.

England and Poland have met many times since, twice critically, but never in a game to match the drama and excitement of 23 years ago. "You can be sure that none of the England players - the Polish players too - are ever likely to forget it," Hunter said. "I was used to turning out in big matches, but the atmosphere that night was exceptional."

What if Tomaszewski's luck had deserted him? If Ramsey's last throw of the dice had made a hero out of Hector? England would have gone through to the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany, Ramsey would have survived, perhaps for a further four years, and Don Revie would have remained with Leeds United. Certainly England would not have been absent from the finals for a total of 12 years.

In that sense, Tomaszewski influenced history. Or was it Hunter? Or Shilton? "Who can tell?" Hunter asked. No wonder they call it a funny old game.