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What if... England had qualified in '74

It is October 1973, and England are playing Poland at Wembley in a crucial World Cup qualifier. The score is 1-1, and Sir Alf Ramsey's team, once emblematic of the Swinging Sixties, are crashing out of the competition. And then, with almost the last kick, the ball is whipped across the Polish goalmouth, and with virtually his first touch, the substitute Kevin Hector bundles it home. England are off to West Germany next summer, Sir Alf is on his way to becoming the Earl of Dagenham, and a nation looks forward to regaining the World Cup.

We all know what happened next. The images of that summer of 1974 are embedded in our collective memory, from Kevin Keegan's dramatic winning goal against the Germans in the final to the sight of Ted Heath, tanned and bubbling with delight, among the cheering, flare-wearing crowds during the team's parade through London. It is almost impossible now to imagine what might have happened if Hector had missed; impossible to imagine a world in which, stripped of the anticipation of World Cup glory, millions of Englishmen had nothing to look forward to during the winter of 1973-74 but power cuts, strikes and the three-day week.

Even at the time, there were some people who grumbled that Heath was making rather too much of the football, using it as a distraction from the miserable economic conditions of the day. And even then some said that the indefinable feel-good factor flowing from victory over Poland was the only thing that got Heath re-elected in February 1974. But that seems completely implausible. As historians today recognise, Heath won his huge landslide because people admired his guts in standing up to the unions - and because, deep down, despite all the carping, they shared his vision of Britain's European future.

Perhaps Heath himself wondered what might have happened if things had turned out differently. But after 1974 he had little time for daydreams. With the Labour Party smashed into rival factions, he won a third victory five years later, confirming his record-breaking place in history. By then, of course, "Heathism" was all the rage. The old jokes about the grumpy bachelor were forgotten, especially after the prime minister's sensational marriage to the actress Jane Seymour. And when he won the Admiral's Cup for a second time, becoming the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and conducted the London Symphony Orchestra (and, let us not forget, Noddy Holder) to Eurovision glory, few could deny that here was a genuine Renaissance Man.

There will always be those who say that Heath owed it all to the football. But as any reputable historian will tell you, it was inevitable all along.

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro