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Champions of the World! That was how Wolverhampton Wanderers were known for a while when they beat some of Europe’s best club sides in the mid-1950s. Of course, these were mostly in the pre-European Cup era, when foreign teams were as familiar to British audiences as Martians. But in the early floodlit days, there was something magical about Wolves’ encounters with Russian and Hungarian sides – mysterious teams from behind the Iron Curtain. It was Cold War football at its best!
My friend Stan
The driving force behind the great Wolves sides of the 1950s was Stan Cullis, who had played for the club either side of the second world war. Cullis became one of the youngest managers in history when he was put in charge at Molineux at the age of 31. He became the most successful manager in Wolves’ history.
Cullis placed huge emphasis on fitness and power. His approach was not always appreciated by other clubs, who saw the Cullis style as a sophisticated “kick and rush”. It certainly relied upon fitness, pace and aggression but it was not a case of kick it anywhere at all costs – the long balls encouraged by Cullis were played into space for onrushing wingers. This exploited the speed of players like Johnny Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen.
When Wolves beat teams like Honved and the press hailed Wolves as the best club side in the world, it was, to some extent, an act of desperation. English football was anxious to redeem itself after the two humiliations at the hands of the Hungarian national side. Wolves did not have a superior technique, as their record in Europe during this period eventually proved. Nevertheless, between 1953 and 1960, Wolves were one of the top sides in Britain, and it was largely down to Cullis.
Our friends across the English channel were not convinced, however. The French scoffed at the claim that Wolves were the best club side around and soon got to work on establishing a European competition to prove that theory. Within no time, the European Cup was launched, although Wolves could not enter as they were no longer Football League champions in 1955.
Cullis took over as manager in 1948 from the famed Major Frank Buckley. In his first season in charge, Wolves won the FA Cup, beating Leicester City in the final. In his second season, Wolves were only denied the championship by Portsmouth’s better goal average.
It wasn’t until 1953-54 that Wolves finally won the league for the first time. They finished four points clear of West Bromwich Albion, netting 96 goals in 42 games. This was a team that included the great Bert Williams in goal, half backs Bill Slater and Billy Wright and a free-scoring forward line comprising Hancocks, Dennis Wilshaw and Roy Swinbourne.
The race went to the final game, with Albion slipping up at Portsmouth while Wolves beat Tottenham with two Swinbourne goals to secure their first title.
In the aftermath of Munich
Wolves were unlucky not to regain their title in 1955, losing out to a workmanlike Chelsea side, but although they were always among the favourites, they had to wait until 1957-58 to win the championship again.
Between 1957 and 1960, there was little doubt that Wolves were the top side in England. But would they have been as revered if the Busby Babes hadn’t perished in the snow of Munich? It’s a possibility that Cullis and his well-drilled squad may not have enjoyed so much success. Certainly in 1957-58 and 1958-59 there would have been more opposition for the Football League title. We shall never know, but it is fair to assume that had United’s talented bunch lived, they may well have completed a hat-trick of titles in 1958. But it is worth noting that after United’s last game before flying to Munich, they were third in the table, six points behind leaders Wolves and when the two sides had met earlier in the campaign, Wolves won 3-1 at Molineux.
Wolves filled the void left by Duncan Edwards, Roger Berry, Tommy Taylor and co. and became the team to beat as Manchester United rebuilt their stricken squad. They lost just six league games in 1957-58 and ended up scoring 103 goals in 42 games as they won their second title. They finished five points clear of Preston North End.
The Wolves side had changed considerably from the 1954 team. Malcolm Finlayson had taken over from Williams in goal. Wolves and England stalwart Wright was still there, joined in the half-back line by Ron Flowers, and the goals came from Jimmy Murray, Norman Deeley and Peter Broadbent.
Wolves demonstrated in 1958-59 that their title win was no fluke. It was pretty much the same side and the same style of play. They won it by six points, scored over 100 goals once more and finished the campaign with a 13-game unbeaten run.
For the first time, they had the chance to play in Europe, but their European Cup run ended at the first hurdle, losing to Schalke of West Germany. In 1959-60, they had another attempt but after beating East Germans Vorwaerts and Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia, they were crushed 9-2 on aggregate by Barcelona. The doubting French smiled.
Wolves were denied a hat-trick of titles by just one point in 1959-60, with Burnley the unlikely champions. It also deprived Cullis of the “double” because Wolves went on to win the FA Cup in 1960. But the final against Blackburn Rovers, won 3-0 at Wembley, was not without controversy.
Blackburn claimed that Wolves were dirty and Cullis’ side were jeered at the end of the game by a large chunk of the crowd. Wolves were also showered with rubbish as they left the field of play. “We seem to be an unpopular side,” said Bill Slater, who skippered Wolves to victory.
Wolves had one more good campaign, but in 1961-62, they finished 18th and in 1965, were relegated to Division Two. Just a few weeks into 1964-65, Cullis was sacked, much to the disgust of Wolves fans and a section of the media. Wolves never had it so good again.
And how good were they?
A recent study has revealed that Wolves of the Cullis era was the third most successful club side of all time in England. Only Manchester United (1992-2002) and Liverpool (1979-89) bettered their record. This was a study by Dr Ian McHale of Salford Business School and chair of the Royal Statistical Society’s sports section. Wolves won 220 out of 420 league games in their golden decade, scoring 949 goals. Enough said, really.