England v Poland: When the lights went out on the home of football

MALCOLM ALLISON, the wayward, some might say eccentric, Manchester City coach, said the period between 1967 and 1972 was the last golden age of English football. Allison, whose team was one of the leading lights during those years, was talking about the post-1966 era when the game received a boost as the nation celebrated England as World Champions. But it was also a period in which defensive football came to the fore in many quarters and hooliganism continued to emerge as a social menace. So it wasn’t all gold, but it was an age of great players, memorable characters and some legendary games.

But it all came to an end in 1973-74 as football and Britain lurched into crisis. While the economic affairs of the country improved over the coming years, the English game began a slow death spiral that would last a decade, so much so that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, if you were a football fan, you were almost embarrassed to say so.

All roads lead to…

Leeds United, who has acquired the tag of “eternal bridesmaids” after blowing a succession of league titles in 1970-1972, fairly well romped to the league title in 1973-74.  It was no more than they deserved, but it was really the final flush of Don Revie’s family-run “machine”.  Unlike in the past, when Leeds were accused of function over form, the 1973-74 model played a much more expansive game. They went 29 games without defeat at the start of the season and there was never any doubt they would win their second title. The Leeds team – Bremner, Giles, Lorimer et al – was a seasoned bunch and lost just four times in the 42-game programme, five points ahead of Liverpool. The latter won the FA Cup, beating Newcastle 3-0 in the final. So, one could be forgiven for assuming that it was business as usual. But on the international stage, all was not well.

We’ve got him now

England made a mess of their World Cup qualifying group, the first time they needed to go through this stage since 1961. On paper, nobody expected Wales or Poland to cause them much harm, but being in a three-team group meant there was no margin for error. Furthermore, while the core of the 1966 team had continued to fill the England side up until Mexico 1970, the new generation of England players – had yet to convince. England won just once in their four qualifying games, 1-0 in Cardiff. But the return game at Wembley saw Sir Alf Ramsey’s men clumsily draw 1-1. The summer game in Poland was to prove England’s undoing. They trailed to an early goal and then the normally reliable Bobby Moore slipped up on the halfway line allowing Poland to break away to score in the opening stages of the second half in Kattowice. To make matters worse, Alan Ball was sent off in the closing stages. The writing really was on the wall for England.

Ramsey’s relationship with the media was not good and some sections of the “fourth estate” seemed to revel in England’s discomfort. England had to beat Poland at Wembley in October to qualify. A 7-0 win against a poor Austria side was misleading and despite Brian Clough – who was making headlines of his own – dubbing Polish keeper Jan Tomaszewski “the clown”, Poland refused to read the script. The Poles, who had even lost to a very average Welsh side, took the lead through Domarski – after another defensive error, this time by Norman Hunter, who had replaced Moore. England levelled, from the penalty spot, and bombarded the Polish goal, but couldn’t score. There was an air of disbelief at the end of the game – England were out of the competition before it had started. As for Poland, they went on to finish third in the 1974 World Cup with a confident, free-flowing team.

Predictably, the media went for Ramsey’s throat. “We’ve got him now,” said one journalist in the press box as the hacks scurried around the corridors at Wembley. They had, and by the summer, Ramsey was gone. His acolytes and loyal comrades of ’66 have always considered Ramsey to be unfairly treated. The late Alan Ball, for example, who missed that fateful night at Wembley, commented just before he died: “This was the man who gave us our only World Cup win. He should have been put on a pedestal. But no, we threw him to the dogs.”

Candles in the wind

Going to the dogs was one way to describe the UK economy in 1973-74 as the nation entered recession in 1973 and didn’t come out of it until 1975. This was blamed on the 1973 oil crisis, which started in October 1973 after OPEC proclaimed an oil embargo. The country was stricken by industrial action and power cuts were a feature of daily life. The “three day week” also came in, reducing the income of millions of households. Inflation touched 20%. Unemployment peaked at 9%. Students studied by candle-light.  In short, it was a grim time for the UK. This had a profound impact on football, resulting in midweek fixtures being played in the afternoon, reducing the game of the masses to a county cricket-type audience.

United they fall

Equally surreal was the continuing saga of Manchester United and George Best. United’s post-Busby decline came to a peak with the club’s relegation in 1974. With McGuinness and O’Farrell both deemed failures, Tommy Docherty churned things over in a bid to save the ailing Reds. George Best’s early retirement, accompanied by his “on-off” relationship with United, ended with a bearded and sad Irishman playing his last game for the club on New Year’s Day 1974 at QPR (a 0-3 defeat) and finally walking out in an alcoholic haze. United put their faith in some useful youngsters and developed a harder edge to kick their way out of trouble, as epitomised by the gap-toothed Jim Holton. “Six foot two, eyes of blue, big Jim Holton’s after you,” was the song. It didn’t work, United were relegated on the final day, but not by Denis Law’s back-heel for neighbours City in their 1-0 win at Old Trafford – the damage had already been done. Just like Wembley in October 1973, there was a sense of confusion about United’s fall from grace, but it had been coming since 1970.

A delivery from Red Star

While Leeds were pushed by Liverpool towards the end of 1973-74, it was not until two years on that a period of total domination would begin. Liverpool had high hopes of a good European Cup run after winning the title in 1972-73, but they had a rude awakening when Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia beat them home and away by 2-1 (4-2 on aggregate). The manner in which Red Star outplayed Bill Shankly’s side – adopting a Slavic version of total football – was an eye-opener, not just for an open-mouthed Kop, but also for Shankly and his boot room colleagues, who had their own “road to Damascus” moment. The Anfield politburo realised that in order to be successful beyond the hit and hope world of the Football league, they needed a fresh approach, one that would eventually lead to triumph in Rome in 1977. There was, however, a growing realisation that English football was falling behind the rest of Europe, further underlined by Tottenham’s defeat in the UEFA Cup against Feyenoord, a team that would provide a big chunk of the Dutch squad that reached the World Cup final in the summer of 1974.

The wisdom of crowds

The harsh realities of the economy, crowd violence, poor quality football and then the downturn in fortunes of the England team had their affect on attendances in 1973-74. The fact is, it also had a lot to do with the relative decline of some of the larger clubs and the rise of other clubs that had a lower level of support. Whereas the past decade had belonged to big fish, the new breed of smaller clubs who had suddenly found themselves with a decent generation of players, came to the fore.

The average attendance for Division One in 1973-74 was 28,294, a 6% fall on the previous season and the lowest since the post-1966 boom began. Almost all the major clubs saw their gates fall significantly: Manchester United was down 12%, Manchester City 5%, Liverpool 12%, Arsenal 25%, Chelsea 13% and Tottenham 19%. The decline in London was reflective of their changing fortunes on the field – within a year relegation was the word on the lips of most of the capital’s top clubs rather than trophy hunting, a stark contrast to 1971 when London’s triumvirate won everything. At the same time, clubs like QPR (av.22,867), Ipswich (22,381), Stoke (21,587) and Derby (27,788) were enjoying the best of modern times. That said, the prizes still went to the traditional heavyweights.

Where to next?

The 1973-74 season was the beginning of the end of the old football model in England. Crowds would slump until the Division One average fell as low as 18,000 in 1984. A decade of sharp decline. This was followed by a ban on English clubs in Europe due to hooliganism and the continued change in fortunes of the national team. It was not until 1992-93 that it all changed, the creation of the bubble that is the Premier.

Photo: PA Images

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