Champions of the world: Wolves and the Stan Cullis era

Champions of the world: Wolves and the Stan Cullis era

FLOODLIT NIGHTS at Molineux hold a special place in the pantheon of European football. In the early 1950s, international friendlies between the leading clubs from around Europe became a regular occurrence. These matches were taken extremely seriously by those involved as, in the absence of any major European club competition at the time, this was the only way that the continent’s elite could measure themselves against one another.

Capitalising on the recent addition of floodlights to their ground, Wolverhampton Wanderers and their manager Stan Cullis arranged a series of high-profile night matches against opponents from around the world including Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Maccabi Tel-Aviv. The most famous of these prestigious ties took place on 13 December 1954, when Wolves faced the daunting task of taking on Hungarian champions Honvéd.

Honvéd were widely regarded as being the greatest club side in the world at the time, and their squad featured six members of the Hungarian national team that had famously dismantled England on two separate occasions over the past 13 months. The likes of Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Jožef Božik headed to the West Midlands hoping to show off their skills to the smug English public.

Upon their arrival, however, they were welcomed by the vociferous roar of 55,000 supporters and a quagmire of a pitch. At first, this did not seem to have any effect on the Hungarians’ intricate passing and intoxicating wing play as they surged into a two-goal lead. First, Kocsis opened the scoring with a powerful header from a Puskás free-kick before Ferenc Machos raced past the Wolves defence to double the scoreline. Cullis’s men struggled to stay in the game and if it wasn’t for their goalkeeper, Bert Williams, pulling off a series of inspired saves, Wolves would have been even further behind.

It took until the second half for Wolves’ fortunes to change, admittedly thanks to some underhand tactics from their manager. At half-time, the cunning Cullis sent a number of his staff out to water an already sodden pitch. One of the men instructed to do so was a young Ron Atkinson, who was an apprentice at the club at the time. Years later Atkinson remarked, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had Cullis not ordered me and my mates to water the pitch, Honvéd would have won by about 10-0.”

The boggy Molineux surface seemed to have a detrimental effect on the Hungarian side and, almost immediately, Johnny Hancocks pulled a goal back for Wolves from the penalty spot. Two late goals in three minutes from Roy Swinbourne then turned the game on its head to secure a famous victory.

The game was regarded as such an important event that the BBC had decided to broadcast the second half on television, which was highly unusual at the time. In fact, watching at home in Belfast was an eight-year-old George Best, who, after witnessing the special second half comeback, was inspired to become a Wolves supporter.

However, to the disappointment of many neutrals tuning in, Puskás did very little all night and was forced to play out on the left wing in a desperate search for space. This was partly down to the imperious defensive work of the Wolves rearguard, of whom Billy Wright was particularly majestic. The Guardian’s report of the game referred to him as “a tower of strength”, which was some redemption for Wright after his performance in England’s famous 6-3 defeat to Hungary 13 months earlier, where one attempt at preventing a Hungarian goal had been described as “like a fire engine going to the wrong fire”.

Read  |  Sándor Kocsis: the quiet Hungarian who was as good as Puskás

After the game Cullis proclaimed that his side were “champions of the world”. The following day’s newspaper headlines echoed his words around the nation, with Wolves’ performance held aloft as evidence that the English way of football was still the best way.

The European media were not so convinced by the claims of the boastful English, with French journalist Gabriel Hanot writing in L’Equipe: “Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: Milan and Real Madrid to name but two.”

And so it was: the following season the European Cup came about.

Ironically, Cullis and his team would not participate in the first edition of the competition after finishing First Division runners-up behind Chelsea, who themselves would be prevented from competing due to the stubbornness of the English FA, who saw the tournament as a distraction to domestic football. However, Wolves would go on to play in the European Cup twice, the first of which was in 1958-59 when they were disappointingly knocked out in the first round by Schalke 04. The following year, Wolves would lose 9-2 on aggregate to Barcelona in the quarter-final, prompting Cullis’s side to give a guard of honour to their opponents as they left the Molineux pitch.

Wolves never did officially become European champions. Nevertheless, they can lay claim to having a major influence on both domestic and European football during the 1950s in what was by far the most successful period in the club’s history.

Following on from the success of the Honvéd game, Wolves went on to host friendlies against the great Lev Yashin’s Dynamo Moscow and Alfredo Di Stéfano’s Real Madrid, in which they triumphed 3-2 over the European champions.

The manager at the time was Cullis, a former Wolves captain, who had also captained England on 10 occasions. As a player, Cullis was powerful in the air and robust in the tackle. His entire playing career had been spent at Molineux but the Second World War would deprive him of his best years and he would only go on to make 171 appearances for the club during a 13-year playing career.

The outbreak of war, in which Cullis served as a Physical Training Instructor, halted the careers of many of the greatest European players of that generation and would ultimately deny Cullis the opportunity to build on the 12 full international caps he had won for his country.

Cullis had originally joined the club in 1934 after a trial at Bolton Wanderers and would go on to make his debut the following year before becoming club captain within a few years. Under his captaincy, Wolves would finish First Division runners-up in both 1938 and 1939 before the onset of war would go on to devastate the continent.

Once the war was over, Cullis returned to the West Midlands to resume his footballing career. After the disappointments of coming so close in the late 1930s, the Ellesmere Port-born defender was presented with a golden opportunity to guide Wolves to their first ever league championship in 1946/-47 as they headed into their final game against Liverpool two points ahead of their opponents at the First Division summit.

Cullis wolvesStan Cullis

However, it was not to be for Cullis as a late Liverpool winner secured a 2-1 victory and meant that the championship trophy would be heading back to Merseyside. It would prove to be doubly disappointing for Cullis as Liverpool’s winning goal had come when Albert Stubbins, whose later claim to fame would be that he featured on the cover of the The Beatles iconic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, rounded him on his way to slotting home.

Wolves supporters were despondent and despaired that their captain had not taken the opportunity to bring down the Liverpool forward. When asked by the press pack afterwards why he had not done so, he stated that he had no desire to be remembered as a captain who had won his team the league through cheating.

The Liverpool game would turn out to be Cullis’s final game in a Wolves shirt as injury forced him to hang up his boots at the age of 31. Following a short spell as assistant, he was appointed manager of his beloved Wolves in 1948. During his playing days he had developed a reputation for being something of a hard man, but at the same time he possessed an extremely sharp footballing brain. It was this quality that led to his appointment; he did not disappoint, becoming the youngest ever manager to lift the FA Cup during his first season in charge. This was the club’s first trophy since 1908.

It did not take long for Wolves supporters to believe in the managerial ability of their hero, who appeared to be doing a fine job of building on the foundations that his former manager Major Frank Buckley had put in place.

The 1949-50 season saw Wolves challenging for the title yet again, with Cullis seeking to make amends for that Liverpool defeat by leading his troops to glory. Yet again they were thwarted, this time missing out on goal average to Portsmouth. Wolves would then be forced to wait a few years before challenging for the title again following two lacklustre campaigns at the beginning of the 1950s, in which they finished 14th and 16th.

There was an improvement in 1952-53, when Wolves finished third before Cullis finally got his hands on that elusive first league title, pipping fierce rivals West Bromwich Albion to it in 1954. The success was a huge breakthrough for the club and a sweet triumph for their manager after the near misses he had experienced as a player. His side had scored an impressive 96 goals over the course of the season, mainly thanks to the lethal attacking trio of Hancocks (24 goals), Swinbourne (24 goals) and Dennis Wilshaw (26 goals).

The following years were by far the most successful in Wolves’ history, with Cullis’s side going toe-to-toe with Manchester United’s Busby Babes at the top of English football as both teams won three titles each during the 1950s.

After the success of ’54, though, it would be four years before Wolves won their next title, which came in 1958 and was swiftly followed by another the following season. This time Wolves would have the goalscoring prowess of Peter Broadbent and Jimmy Murray to thank, with the pair managing a staggering 96 goals between them over the two campaigns.

flowers wolvesRon Flowers

Wolves would miss out on retaining their title in 1959-60 after finishing one point behind eventual champions Burnley. However they did get their hands on some silverware, beating Blackburn Rovers in that year’s FA Cup final after the Lancashire side had been reduced to 10 men when Dave Whelan famously broke his leg. It was a bittersweet ending to a thoroughly successful decade in the West Midlands, coming so close to completing the first double of the 20th century. That honour would instead go to Tottenham Hotspur the following season.

Between 1958 and 1960, Wolves also became the first team to pass the 100-goal mark in three consecutive seasons. Although Murray and Broadbent – who Sir Alex Ferguson and George Best would both later claim were their favourite players growing up – contributed immensely to this achievement, goals flowed from throughout the side thanks to the direct playing style that Cullis encouraged.

This style was heavily influenced by the theories of Charles Reep, an analyst who is often credited with being the original proponent of the long-ball style of play. Reep theorised that the ball should be propelled into danger zones as quickly as possible, ideally with long passes. Wingers were very important to the way Cullis’s team played, with the talented Jimmy Mullen and Johnny Hancocks providing the ammunition for the Wolves frontline.

Cullis’s philosophy appeared to encapsulate the virtues of English football and Wolves’ success in playing this way against the likes of Honvéd brought back confidence to the nation following the humiliation of the Hungary defeat, which had been their first on home soil.

Such tactics did little to endear Wolves to the footballing purists though, with Cullis regularly criticised for the negative football that many perceived his side to play. What people could not dispute was that he was a formidable leader and was using his strategy to devastating effect.

For all that he had achieved over the past decade, Cullis owed a lot of his success to the foundations established by Buckley. Cullis had built on his former coach’s principles of strict discipline, giving your all in training, as well as the overloading attacking style, commonly referred to as long-ball that was already in place. Cullis’s team took this further by playing the percentages game, which was built around quick distribution from the defence out to Mullen and Hancocks, who would fire crosses into the area.

For all of Wolves’ potency going forward during this golden era, it was the team’s centre-back and captain Billy Wright who was regarded as the bedrock of much of the success. Wright was a local lad, hailing from just down the road in Ironbridge. Although there were initially doubts about his height when he joined the club in 1938, he became an indispensable part of Wolves’ success during the late 1940s and 50s, lifting the FA Cup in 1949 as well as the league championship in 1954, 1958 and 1959. On an individual level, Wright’s performances were rewarded when he finished runner-up to Alfredo Di Stéfano as European Footballer of the Year in 1957.

Today he is regarded by many as the greatest player ever to wear the old gold shirt. However, Wright was not always blessed with immense talent and it was said that “his ability to control and pass a ball were distinctly mediocre”, but what he did possess was one of the finest footballing brains of his time. His ability to read and break up play with intelligent interceptions by remaining one step ahead of his opponents was second to none and was the foundation upon which Wolves’ success was built.

wright wolvesThe incomparable Billy Wright

After Cullis had retired from playing, it was in fact Wright who would succeed him as the club’s captain, a role he would continue in until his retirement in 1959. Wright was a colossus and it is surely no coincidence that following his retirement the success dried up for the West Midlands club, with the 1958-59 title being the last time they won England’s top division. Like all of the great leaders, Wright preferred to lead by example, summing up his approach with the quote: “Captaincy is the art of leadership, not dictatorship.”

Wright went on to make 541 appearances for the club over a 20-year spell, in which, amazingly, he was never cautioned or sent off once. In many ways, he was the model sportsman, who was revered throughout the game, and like his mentor Cullis, was fiercely loyal and dedicated to Wolves. In essence, Billy Wright represented everything the ordinary football fan expected of their heroes, whilst remaining modest throughout all of his success.

By the time the 1960s had arrived, Wolves were beginning to struggle. Cullis, a strict disciplinarian throughout his managerial career, was beginning to feel the effects of increased player power, following the abolition of the maximum wage, and would eventually lose the dressing room he had once commanded.

There was the excitement of reaching a European Cup Winner’s Cup semi-final in 1961, in which Wolves lost to Glasgow Rangers, but the silverware was drying up. Only two years after winning their last league title, Wolves finished as low as 18th in the First Division, and in 1964 Cullis’s ignominious departure was confirmed with Wolves fighting against relegation.

It had been a dramatic fall from grace for the man. Enraged at how he had been treated by the club, he vowed never to work in football again, even turning down an offer from Juventus. After a short spell as a sales rep, Cullis did return to manage Birmingham City to limited success but eventually retired from the game in 1970.

In 2001, aged 84, the most successful manager in Wolves’ history passed away, and the tributes were plentiful. Molineux’s newly rebuilt North Bank Stand was already named after the great man and the club later erected a statue in his honour. Engraved on the statue’s plinth is Cullis’s most famous quote: “You only get one life and I gave mine to Wolves”.

Looking back on his time at the club, Cullis recalled that his fondest memories were of those special nights, where his team’s silky, fluorescent old gold shirts, that he himself had specially commissioned, glowed in the night as his players darted up and down the Molineux pitch like fireflies, in competition with the best that Europe had to offer.

Today, the European Cup is a money-making global behemoth that has provided a platform for some of the most talented footballers in history and left us with some truly incredible memories. It is strange to think that we owe our thanks for this to a club who have mostly languished in the upper echelons of the Championship and lower end of the Premier League for the best part of four decades.

Stan Cullis and his Wolves side were amongst the pioneers of European club competition and those famous floodlit nights at Molineux are enshrined within the traditions of European football’s long, illustrious history. Such halcyon days may well be in the past now for Wolves supporters but a trip to Molineux shows that the club have not, and will not, forget the days when the boys in old gold were among the most famous in world football.

By Tom George  @tommmgeorge

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