Jan Tomaszewski: A man haunted for ever after being called a clown

Brian Clough's throwaway remark and his saves for Poland against England in October 1973 are legendary, but what happened to the goalkeeper after that famous night?

If only the rest of Jan Tomaszewski's life could have been as straight-forward. Forty years ago, at Wembley, the Polish goalkeeper denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup with arguably the most wonderfully eccentric goalkeeping display ever seen at the stadium.

Poland needed a draw and somehow they got a draw. No one knew quite how he had done it. "He hurled himself arms, knees and bumps-a-daisy all over his penalty area like a slackly strung marionette," wrote Frank Keating in the Guardian. "And all with a half-taunting, half-surprised smile which made one think this might be his first-ever game."

It is sometimes said that one match can define a career. In the case of Tomaszewski it was not so much his career but his whole life. True, it was a fine performance but it would not have lasted as long in the memory unless Brian Clough had not called him "a circus clown in gloves" in the ITV studio before the game. One man's throwaway comment, changing another man's life for ever.

But let us start at the beginning. Tomaszewski was born in Wroclaw, in 1948, his parents having been expelled from Vilnius during the second world war, and once said: "I knew I was a wonder child. My mother kept telling me there was no chance for the dirty child like me to become a decent man."

Still, he carved out a successful football career, making it through all the Poland youth teams before, suddenly, he was thrust into the limelight. It did not go well. In 1971 Poland were playing the mighty West Germany and the first‑choice goalkeeper, Jan Gomola, was injured and the second choice, Piotr Czaja, fell ill so Tomaszewski was asked whether he could fill in. The young man did not hesitate, but Poland lost 3-1 and Tomaszewski was heavily criticised. "Half the nation wanted to hang me, the other half wanted to throw me out of the country," he said.

Two years later, by the time Poland came to Wembley for that decisive World Cup qualifier, he was still haunted by his debut and questioned by the nation.

Against England, Tomaszewski was supposedly Poland's weak link. But then neither England nor Clough knew what the Poland coach, Kazimierz Gorski, had told his team before the game: "You can play football for 20 years and play 1,000 times for the national team and nobody will remember you. But tonight, in one game, you have the chance to put your names in the history books."

The match started dreadfully for Tomaszewski. After three minutes he collected a straightforward England free-kick only to put the ball down on the floor to start a quick counterattack for Poland. But he soon realised that Allan Clarke was about to get to the ball first. Haplessly, he threw himself on the floor and smothered the ball just before England's No10 got there. To make matters worse, he was trodden on by Clarke and broke a bone in one of his fingers. Tomaszewski was in agony, chucking the ball out towards his left-back just to get rid of it.

But from then on he just grew and grew and he had turned into an unbeatable object, as large as the goal itself.

The following day the Sun ran the headline "The End of the World", but for Tomaszewski and his team-mates it was the complete opposite. "[Overnight] the ugly duckling became a swan," Tomaszewski told FourFourTwo recently. "We suddenly thought: 'We can do this', and from then on we would always take strength from that moment. Anyone bold enough to survive the ordeal of Wembley – fans, atmosphere and expectation – can survive anything. How did the pressure of the World Cup semi-final compare to Wembley? Like driving a Skoda after a Mercedes."

After the draw against England the Polish players partied together with some of the country's war veterans who had remained in the UK after the second world war – everyone apart from Tomaszewski, who lay in bed with his broken finger. "It woke me up all the time," he recalled.

Tomaszewski once reflected on the Polish side's success at the 1974 World Cup, where they finished third, saying: "Cigarettes and wine were the key to success in 1974. The coach, Gorski, was like father to us. He knew that we needed to get the stress out of our systems so we sat until two or three in the morning drinking beer in the sauna. There was too much to take in from the tournament, we were in shock."

Tomek, as he is known in his home country, was at his absolute peak in that tournament. He became the first goalkeeper to save two penalties in the same World Cup finals and was outstanding in several of Poland's seven matches, including the 1-0 win over Brazil in the third-place play-off.

He never scaled such heights again, though. In the Olympic final against East Germany two years later he conceded two early goals before asking to come off. It was not the only time that had happened. Grzegorz Lato once said: "I remember when my Stal Mielec beat his Lodz side 7-0 back in 1973, he conceded two goals in the first quarter of an hour and he just left without trace. No one knew where he had gone."

The rest of Tomaszewski's Poland career was a torrid ride. By 1978 Poland had a new head coach, Jacek Gmoch, and the pair simply did not get on. Things did not go well at that year's World Cup and by the time Antoni Piechniczek took over the national team and put Tomaszewski on the bench for a crucial World Cup qualifier against East Germany in 1981 the writing was on the wall.

He carried on playing club football for another three years – having finally been allowed to move abroad at the age of 30 to play for Beerschot in Belgium and Hércules in Spain, but then, suddenly, it was all over.

The transformation from player to non-player is always a difficult one. Even more so, perhaps, for an eccentric, larger-than-life goalkeeper with a reputation to live up to. In 1993, he said of Wembley: "That match was my football Oscar. It was the moment I started to be this Tomaszewski."

He worked for a building firm and wrote a book called Why I Have Not Become a World Champion, but it was difficult for him to stay out of the public eye. He tried to become national team coach for the 1986 World Cup but failed and had a short coaching stint with Widzew Lodz. It did not quite work out. What remained? Politics and punditry.

Because he was this Tomaszewski, he had to do it his way. But what had worked on the pitch did not necessarily work off it. He stood out, but often in the wrong way. He once told his former team-mate Stanislaw Gzil: "If 10 people say the thing is white, I tell them that it is black. Only then they will remember you."

The problem is that if someone says controversial things all the time the effect is soon diminished. Tomaszewski became a priceless asset for the private media, but a liability for the state-owned television station.

Sadly Tomaszewski's incessant desire to be provocative means that we still do not know what he really thinks. There is a running joke among journalists in Warsaw: "Five minutes to deadline, don't panic, phone Tomaszewski." But we never know if he means what he says or if he just says it to make the headlines. What is for sure, though, is that he has become a rent-a-quote pundit, and not necessarily in a good way.

He has had a running feud with the Polish FA for most of the past 10 years. When his former team-mate Lato was in charge of the FA but failed to get a coveted post at Uefa, Tomaszewski said: "Fortunately, he wasn't chosen because he would have put our country to shame. Lato is a simpleton, he knows only two tongues. His own and the one in his shoes."

In another, more sinister comment he said about the Polish FA: "When a brothel is not doing well, you don't paint the walls but change the girls."

He tried to take several people to court – including the national coach, Franciszek Smuda – but often lost. When he was finally kicked out of the Polish FA, before Euro 2012, he said: "I won't be supporting this pile of shite. This is not Poland's national team [referring to the amount of nationalised players in the team]. I'll be supporting Germany, they have some young, promising players." It was quite a statement in Poland.

A more recent, lamentable tirade came when talking about homosexuals in football. "Football is a team sport. We need to trust each other," he said. "It's unimaginable that any of my colleagues during my career were gay. I'd walk out of a changing room in that case, or ask them to get changed somewhere else ... Football is a man's game, and I can't imagine walking into a sauna with a gay after a match."

It is, in some ways, sad to see a legendary player become hapless after his career. Clough's dismissal of Tomaszewski changed the goalkeeper's life but perhaps we should remember him as a goalkeeper and try to forget about the rest. When asked about Tomaszewski, Gorski just used to smile and say: "Well, above all, Tomek was a goalkeeper … and they are sometimes a bit different."

Maciej Slominski

The GuardianTramp

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