The return of our Harold...
Much had changed in the ten years since Wilson had first won power. The optimism of 1964 was but a distant memory, long replaced by a grim fatalism. The three-day week and the miners’ strike were still in place (though television had been given special dispensation to resume normal broadcasting, so that politicians be not deprived of the oxygen of publicity), and the old triumphalist, presidential style, derived from John F. Kennedy, would clearly be inappropriate in this bleak new world. This time therefore, Wilson resolved, he would occupy a different role in government.
Reaching for his book of football metaphors, he decided that while in the ’60s he ‘had to occupy almost every position on the field, goalkeeper, defence, attack’, he would now play at centre-back, ‘letting his ministers score the goals’.
Coincidentally, in the real world of football, the English FA was also staging a momentous changing of the guard at exactly the same moment, the state of the national game having declined steadily since that 1970 defeat to West Germany.
In 1973 England was obliged to play in a qualifying competition for the World Cup for the first time in twelve years (previously it had been excused, first as hosts and then as champions), but, at least on paper, it didn’t look like too difficult a proposition. Drawn in a group of three nations with Wales and Poland, however, England underperformed, achieving a win and a draw against Wales and losing away to Poland. That left the final fixture, against Poland at Wembley, to decide who topped the group and thereby progressed to the tournament proper.
Played in October 1973, as the first implications of the fallout from the Yom Kippur War were becoming evident, the match has gone down in English footballing folklore as a disaster to be mentioned in almost the same breath as the defeats by the USA in 1950 and by Hungary in 1953. England needed a win, but despite having thirty-five shots on goal, compared to Poland’s two, emerged with just a 1–1 draw; not unreasonably, the man of the match was the Polish keeper, Jan Tomaszewski (referred to in advance as ‘a clown’ by Brian Clough, a man not known for bottling up his opinions and who had earlier that week sensationally resigned as manager of Derby County).
For the first time since England had deigned to recognize the World Cup in 1950, it had failed to qualify for the tournament. And in March 1974 the FA sacked Sir Alf Ramsey as the national manager and installed Joe Mercer in a caretaker capacity; his first words to the squad suggested that his was a poisoned chalice to rank with becoming prime minister at a time of economic crisis: ‘I didn’t want this bloody job in the first place.’
The man chosen as Ramsey’s permanent replacement was Don Revie, an appointment that seemed somehow symbolic of a coarsening of public life in Britain. Ramsey had been criticized for being overly defensive and for not giving sufficient opportunities for flair players. Revie, however, had an entirely different reputation: he had coached the Leeds United side that dominated the English League in the early ’70s with what many considered deliberate brutality, turning gamesmanship into a martial art. Clough, who briefly succeeded Revie as the club’s manager, called them ‘the dirtiest and most cynical team in the country’, a judgement that was more accurate than his description of Tomaszewski.
In later years Revie was to reflect that his biggest mistake with England was not to instil the same values in the national side: ‘I should have forgotten all about trying to play more controlled attractive football and settled for a real bastard of a team.’ Given that he was also accused of trying to bribe opposing clubs to throw matches, it is perhaps just as well that he didn’t entirely succeed in remaking the team in his own image, though his stewardship was to prove controversial enough.
With Ramsey’s departure, a key cultural link with the glory days of Wilson’s first premiership was broken. Wilson himself, however, remained and, amidst the upheavals of 1974, that in itself was some achievement. By the end of the year, America, West Germany, France and Israel all had new leaders, following the exits of Richard Nixon, Willy Brandt, Georges Pompidou and Golda Meir respectively, while the Carnation Revolution in Portugal had seen a dictatorship overthrown in a bloodless coup, timed to start when the first notes of the Portuguese entry were heard in the always political Eurovision Song Contest...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2008