Sun Oct 21, 1973 – Ireland 1 Poland 0
I started secondary school in Autumn 1973. For the next five seasons, I went to school in Whitehall, dodged leather straps, and played football; read Shoot!, Roy of the Rovers (who had left Tiger to front his own comic), and played football; conquered countries in Risk and Campaign, escaped from Colditz, and played football; watched Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Reggie Perrin and the Good Life, and played football; listened to Abba, Blondie, The Jam and the Boomtown Rats, and played football. On the wider socio-cultural debates of the mid to late seventies, I held the following policy positions: Tiswas not Swapshop, denim not tartan, Happy Days not the Waltons, slime not pet rocks, Tom Baker not Jon Pertwee, Chunky Yorkies not Caramel bars, Barry Sheene not Evel Knievel, Columbo not Kojak, Starsky not Hutch, punk not disco, and Abigail’s Party not Bouquet of Barbed Wire. But again, mostly, I played football.
I also developed a more sophisticated football identity crisis, based on a peculiarly Irish schizophrenia. I realised that English players were the football equivalent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I still supported Leeds, and their players were still my idols. But when they exchanged the sacred white shirt of Leeds for the reviled white shirt of England, they became the enemy for ninety minutes. In retrospect, my real problem was with the English media. They had an insufferable superiority complex, with defeats and even draws seen as monstrous impositions on the natural order of things. Clearly the Irish media would have been much more humble if we had been world champions.
In response, I developed a theory that England had never won the World Cup. Their 4-2 ‘victory’ over West Germany in 1966 included an astoundingly contentious goal. Geoff Hurst’s shot had struck the underside of the bar and clearly bounced on the goal-line, not behind it. When the Soviet linesman was later asked why he had confirmed it as a goal against Germany, he replied ‘Stalingrad.’ And yes, I know Hurst scored again with a spectacular last-minute shot that gave rise to the immortal commentary line: ‘Some people are on the pitch… they think it’s all over… it is now!’ But, if there were people on the pitch, the referee should have stopped the game. So it still ended 2-2 as far as I’m concerned.
My Leeds/England schizophrenia came to a head in October 1973. England had to beat Poland at Wembley to qualify for the next year’s World Cup. Their pundits were unendurably patronising, with Brian Clough calling Poland’s keeper a clown. I so wanted England out, but not in the way that it happened. Poland went ahead after a mistake by Leeds’ Norman Hunter, before England equalised in vain through a penalty by Leeds’ Alan Clarke. Okay, I know, I had never met either of them (at twelve, I had never met anyone from England, never mind from Leeds) but I was distraught that my idols’ World Cup dreams had ended so cruelly.
Four days later, before returning home, Poland came to Dublin to play Ireland in a friendly. This time my psyche was in harmony: Johnny Giles was now Ireland’s player-manager. He prepared thoroughly, inviting Leeds and England coach Les Cocker to Dublin, along with his notes on the Polish team from the game at Wembley. Dalymount was packed for my second ever live football game, which Ireland won thanks to a first-half goal by Miah Dennehy. It was then that it suddenly dawned on me (quite inaccurately, as it turned out) that Ireland were better than England at football. Neither of us were at the World Cup, but we had beaten Poland after England had failed to. And my childhood hero was running the show. This was as good as things got.