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AP Interview: The Polish hero who stopped England

October 14, 2013

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Through the windows of the bus that took them to Wembley, Poland’s players saw English fans flashing five, sometimes all 10 fingers: one for each goal they believed Alf Ramsey’s team would score.

Their confidence before that Oct. 17, 1973 match England needed to win to qualify for the 1974 World Cup was understandable: England had become world champions in that same stadium just seven years earlier.

But the fans underestimated Jan Tomaszewski.

With save after save, playing with an injured hand, Tomaszewski became “the man who stopped England.”

England and Poland meet in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday night, when Joe Hart will be the goalkeeper under most pressure because he has been so error-prone of late. But as he pulls on his gloves and stares down the field at Poland players wanting to make his poor start to the season worse, Hart could perhaps draw inspiration from the heroics 40 years earlier of the Polish ’keeper with shoulder-length rock-star hair.

In an Associated Press interview, Tomaszeswki recounted how in 1973 the crowd yelled “animals, animals” at the Poland squad as the players filed onto the pitch in their red jerseys.

“You could not hear your own thoughts,” he recalled.

Tomaszewski was so stressed he almost gifted the ball to England striker Allan Clarke after two minutes. But from that point on, he put in the performance of a lifetime. England threw everything at Tomaszewski, and got 26 corners compared to Poland’s two.

“I’ve never played in a more one-sided game in my life,” England’s Norman Hunter said years later in a television interview.

With acrobatic dives and a dose of luck, Tomaszewski kept out a barrage of goal-bound shots and headers.

He recalled, in particular, a volley by Clarke from five yards (meters) out.

“I blindly threw myself to the left and felt the ball hit me and it was out. And then I saw Clarke standing there and looking at me: how was it possible? But I also saw in his eyes a professional appreciation of the adversary.”

After 55 minutes of frustration, the unthinkable happened for England. Hunter missed a tackle on Grzegorz Lato, on the half-way line as he was sprinting down Poland’s left wing. Lato veered inside and passed to Jan Domarski. His shot streaked under Peter Shilton.

Hunter wished a hole could have opened up and swallowed him.

“That’s probably one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had on a football field,” he said.

Later, Clarke scored from the penalty spot to level the scores at 1-1.

“He is standing there, hands akimbo, as if ready to dance. That showed how great he was, his body language gave nothing away,” Tomaszewski said. “The referee whistles. He runs up sort of casual, I go to one corner, he shoots in the other one. That’s top class.”

But with more saves from Tomaszewski and a goal-line clearance, Poland denied England the winner it needed. The “Miracle of Wembley” was complete. Poland, instead of England, went to the World Cup in Germany. There, it beat Brazil 1-0 in the match for third place. Ramsey was replaced as England manager six months after the upset, one of the biggest in World Cup history.

Too emotional to sleep that night, Tomaszewski went out the next morning for an early stroll to discover his name plastered on Britain’s front pages.

“They did not know our names so they took the first one from the lineup,” he said modestly. “The man who stopped England was made of 12 parts: (coach) Kazimierz Gorski and 11 players who he precisely placed on the pitch like pieces in a puzzle.

“I made plenty of mistakes at Wembley, but my colleagues saved me. They made mistakes, and then I saved them.”

Poland’s then-communist government blocked British clubs, including Tottenham, from recruiting Tomaszewski with rules barring players under 30 from moving abroad.

“I never regretted it,” said Tomaszewski, now 65 and a lawmaker. “We won the hearts of the Poles. We were heroes. We were received by kings, presidents and government leaders. You cannot buy that with any money.”

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