OKAY, here’s how we beat Poland: we pray for rain, of the kind that did for their golden generation. We cross our fingers for a repeat of the Okecie Airport Incident and another mutiny en route to Hampden on Thursday. And we hope against hope that Robert Lewandowski, the hottest striker on the planet right now, can be undone by a combination of beer, sex and complacency.
Or alternatively, we play the hottest striker in our pawky little corner of the globe, Leigh Griffiths, and see what happens on the night.
I’ll come back to Griffiths vs Stephen Fletcher shortly, but first that rain. I’ll come back to the sex later, too, for there was a time when the Poles didn’t boast megastar glamour and reflected the communist era – heads down and all working hard for the collective – although they were exciting to watch and could have won the 1974 World Cup.
“Golden generation” is a phrase both overused and misused. The Poland side who were Olympic champions in 1972 and then two years later went back to the old West Germany in search of the greatest prize, deserved it more than most. This was the side of Kazimierz Deyna, Grzegorz Lato and Robert Gadocha and of course not forgetting the other eight guys which restrictions of space do not permit me to list.
Lato, winner of the tournament’s Golden Boot, was one of football’s greatest baldies while Deyna, possessor of the kind of thick, immaculately parted hair which used to adorn shopping catalogues and knitting patterns, was the elegant midfielder tragically killed in a car crash in California.
In ’74 they saw off Argentina en route to the last four but, in the midst of a Frankfurt monsoon, wanted the semi-final against the hosts and eventual champs postponed. Despite all their lobbying – and Lato would go on to a second career in politics – the game went ahead on a waterlogged pitch which was an obvious impediment to the Poles’ speed.
The Okecie Airport Incident of 1980 was the team’s protest at the treatment of their goalkeeper, Jozef Mlynarczyk, left behind at a hotel after a night on the bevvy. Three months after the formation of Solidarity in the Gdansk shipyards, the country’s footballers made their own defiant stand, with Stanislaw Terlecki assuming the Lech Walesa role.
A midfielder and what Wikipedia terms a “stridently pro-west intellectual”, he returned to the hotel to collect the hungover goalie, but Terlecki and Zbigniew Boniek were condemned as “rabble-rousers” and handed the biggest bans. Boniek was reinstated in time to help Poland to another third place at the 1982 World Cup although Terlecki never played for his country again.
Poland fans will rue that both Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski never wore the white and red of the land of their birth, with the Polish FA being too slow to cap the former and actually rejecting the latter, but at least they have Lewandowski, the Bundesliga goal monster, whose double for Bayern Munich against Borussia Dortmund on Sunday means he’s scored 12 in four games and 19 for the season.
How to stop him on Thursday? The Tartan Army have been much amused by recent photographs of the striker at Munich’s Oktoberfest with a giant flagon of beer in his hands. But it is perhaps too much to hope that Lewandowski can be lured to, say, Edinburgh’s version of the event which starts the day before the game and end up in a state not dissimilar to Jozef Mlynarczyk.
Some of our more excitable newspapers have been intrigued by the insight into Lewandowski’s pre-match routine offered up by his wife Anna. Straight after he’d hit five against Wolfsburg, she posted the Instagram message: “Do not ask me what I gave my husband for breakfast today – it’s top-secret.” Anna also wrote, “Babe, these matches are beginning to get a bit boring”, but we’re probably deluding ourselves if we think the player will approach this crucial qualifier with anything approaching a ho-hum attitude.
Gordon Strachan was lamenting the lack of a Lewandowski the other day, the type who can “pick it up and go, bang, goal”. Scotland’s goals have to be collective efforts. “Everything has to be worked as a group,” said the Scotland manager, sounding a bit commie.
Nevertheless, we will, in all probability, have one man playing furthest forward and if we exclude the claims of Jordan Rhodes, which are more than decent, the fight is going to be between Fletcher and Griffiths.
Fletcher is the guy in possession of the striker’s berth; Griffiths the little menace buzzing on his shoulder. Both scored for their clubs at the weekend but their reactions could not have been more different.
Fletcher, who hadn’t scored in a while, sunk to his knees in grateful, almost tearful, thanks, as if after staggering across the desert he’d just located water. Griffiths, meanwhile, made a funny sign for the cameras before turning away, as cocky and unsmiling as ever, an expression which seemed to say: “Right, who’s next?”
Should that be Poland? He’s the man in form and the alertness and coolness demonstrated in scoring against Fenerbahce last week suggests that he can now do it on the biggest occasions, too.
Fletcher still has more experience of such situations but Griffiths has the form. Both have learned to head a ball since leaving Hibernian and anyone who still thinks Griffiths’ game is only about scoring goals – as if that was a bad thing – should check his free-kick delivery for Celtic’s first against Hamilton.
I know some are losing patience with Fletcher but, remembering his contribution in Warsaw, I’d play him – and Griffiths, too. Two strikers for one last chance.