By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Sept. 29, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – On October 17th, 1973, England needed a win against Poland at Wembley to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. They got a 1-1 draw, missing out on a trip to West Germany.
At the time, the result was unbelievable. According to one headline, “The End of the World.” Was it a just result?
The obvious answer seemed to be an emphatic No! England, who played the entire game as though they were down a goal with five minutes remaining, created more than a dozen clear chances and won 22 corners compared to just two for Poland. The Polish goalie, Jan Tomaszewski, who had been described as “a clown” by one English club manager (Brian Clough), made several miraculous saves, three shots were cleared off the line and several others hit the woodwork or just missed the mark. Poland – who would reach the semifinals at the World Cup before losing to the hosts – launched four interesting counterattacks in the second half, but only because England had pushed every one of their players into the Polish end.
The point, apologists maintain, is that England could hardly be accused of being cautious and were simply victims of fate. The next day Geoffrey Green of The Times of London claimed that, “How England failed to win will always remain one of those mysteries, hard to explain in a hundred years.” Their manager Sir Alf Ramsey simply thought that “England have been the better team, we just didn’t have the luck.” Even the Scottish boss, Willie Ormond, expressed sympathy: “If ever a team deserved to win that was England.”
Critics, by contrast, thought that this failure was the inevitable outcome of more than a decade of mismanagement of the English game.
Ramsey had become the English manager in 1962 after leading unfashionable Ipswich Town to the 1st Division title (the 1st Division morphed into the Premiership in 1991). Neither defenders nor critics doubted, as Brian Glanville put it, that this was an “extraordinary feat, achieved with a team of obscure and rehabilitated players.” What critics doubted was whether such an approach, built more on hard work and organization than skill, would be suitable for a presumably more talented national team.
I say ‘presumably’ because Ramsey marginalized many of England’s most talented players and only selected those who could adapt to his system. Eventually, under his reign, England went from 4-2-4 to 4-4-2, more or less completely abandoning the idea of using wingers. He consistently chose selfless forwards over natural scorers, ball winners instead of creative midfielders, and had no qualms about using ruthless players like Nobby Stiles to take the necessary chunks out of the opposition.
England won the World Cup in 1966, but critics like Manchester United’s Sir Matt Busby were very worried about what Ramsey and others of his ilk were accomplishing: “The way things are going alarms me deeply. Hard men are nothing new in football (Stiles was a key part of Busby’s teams). What is new and frightening about the present situation is that you have entire sides that have physical hardness as their main asset. They use strength and fitness to neutralize skill and the unfortunate truth is that all too often it can be done. Of course, there are really great players who cannot be subdued all the time, but their talents are only seen in flashes and they have to live dangerously.”
“To Alf’s way of thinking,” one peer explained, “skill meant lazy.” Given that conviction, Ramsey saw little point in investing in players who could only display their wares in flashes.
His approach, for better or for worse, permeated the entire English game long after the loss to Poland. To their credit, English clubs achieved unprecedented success in Europe, winning eight European Cups, three Cup Winners’ Cups, and ten Fairs/UEFA Cups between 1968 and 86, but League attendance fell from 30 million to 16.5 million during the same period and goal scoring declined by 30% between the 63/4 and 73/4 seasons.
The fans might not have felt this way, but Ramsey personified the view of most English managers that, as Esquire magazine suggested, “Pleasure in English sport is still by and large the satisfaction of the result.” Rodney Marsh, who went to the NASL in part to escape this stultifying atmosphere, put matters more poetically: “In England, soccer is a gray game played by gray people on gray days.”
Few would argue against Ramsey’s claim that England were the better team that night, but it simply does not follow that their method still didn’t leave a lot to be desired. Within forty seconds, Allan Clarke had clattered Tomaszewski well after he had comfortably collected a free kick. Roy McFarland, a very skilled central defender, nonetheless resorted to horse-collaring Grzegorz Lato when he was clean through on goal. The next day one Polish paper quipped, “The British Empire tried to save itself by pulling off the pants of Polish footballers.” And, in retrospect, Norman Hunter, the kind of uncompromising defender Ramsey loved, regretted only that he didn’t knock Robert Gadocha “into the Royal Box” rather than try to win the 50/50-ball that led to Jan Domarski’s opening goal.
As for the English attack, it was criticized for being overly predictable. What width there was, in the absence of wingers, came almost entirely from the fullbacks, Paul Madely and Emlyn Hughes, who of course tended to settle for crosses from deep positions. Brian Glanville conceded that England “had pressed for most of the evening” but quickly added that they lacked “the wit to make many clear chances.”
Perhaps Ramsey’s greatest fault was that he had all but ignored a whole generation of creative players. He did select Tony Currie, a true playmaker who was at the heart of many of England’s most inventive moves that night, but he largely ignored the brightest generation of footballers England had produced since World War II: Charlie George, Peter Osgood, Frank Worthington, Marsh, Alan Hudson, and Stan Bowles.
Defenders of Sir Alf (he was knighted after winning the Cup in 66) might claim that such men were, literally and figuratively, not fit for the physical demands of English football, but this begs the question?why is English football committed to being so physical??and undervalues the possibility that skill can win out in the end.
Ray Wilkins, another talented English player who came of age shortly after Ramsey’s tenure, dismissed the notion that modern players do not have the time or space to make proper use of the ball after playing in Italy: “When I was at AC Milan we spent 20 minutes every day juggling with the ball as part of our warm-up exercise. We had to keep it in the air all of the time. It gave you a wonderful feel for the ball and marvelous close control. When people say, ‘it’s all every well talking about the Italians, but they have a lot more time in Italy’, they miss the point. The fact is the Italians make more time because their first touch is so good.”
This is a point that Sir Alf failed – and the English probably still fail – to grasp. In the early 70s, while the Brazilians were proving that improvisational attacking play could unlock even the securest defenses and the Dutch and Germans = whom the even the English would concede respect the physical side of the sport – were inventing Total Football, Ramsey and the English FA were busy turning play into labor and art into craft.
It may not be fair to blame Ramsey for England’s failure on that particular occasion. But, after more than thirty years of bitter disappointments, it might be time to concede that there is a fundamental problem with the way they approach what should be a game.