It was the mid-1950s, and Wolverhampton Wanderers were enjoying the best spell of results in their long history. A founder member of the twelve-team Football League in 1888, Wolves had gone up and down the divisions, with only a couple of F.A. Cup trophies to show for themselves until the arrival of manager Stan Cullis, a man who not only turned Wolves into self-proclaimed Champions of the World, but also transformed the science of football management and inadvertently prompted the foundation of the European Cup.
Cullis, a former England international and physical training instructor in the Army, became manager of Wolves at the tender age of 31 in 1948. Within a year, Wolves had won the F.A. Cup again, and five years later won the league. Cullis was a key figure in the managerial revolution within English football that reflected the modernisation of industrial relations more generally in England. He brought hard-edged leadership but also a scientific approach, moulding homegrown talent into winning football based on a direct percentages style of play that stemmed from the statistical research of Charles Reep, who advocated long ball tactics.
Cullis’ approach was hardly a step forward for the art of the game. Whilst the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham were perfecting the art of pass-and-move, Cullis’ mantra was far more primitive: “Fast, direct attack” was his preferred phrase, the ball pumped forward on attack and defenders pressing hard on defense. Critics called it kick-and-rush.
Cullis paid no mind, and hired an athletics coach as he continued to focus on developing his team’s formidable pace and power. Cullis’ approach and Reep’s statistical work would later influence Charles Hughes, the FA’s Coaching Director who presided over the disastrously backward period of English football coaching two decades ago.
Yet there was also quality in his side. The team’s stars were the likes of wingers Johnny Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen who chased down the direct, searing passes, and the captain, stalwart defender Billy Wright, capped 105 times for England.
What no-one doubted was Cullis’ passion. When he died in 2001, the first line of his obituary in The Independent read, “If you kicked Stan Cullis in the heart, you’d only break your leg.”
Cullis’ and Wolves reputation for transforming European soccer stems from one night in December, 1954. Wolves had been playing a series of high-profile friendlies against top European teams under the newly installed floodlights, bringing some glamour to the Black Country. That night, they took on Honved from Hungary, who featured several players that had starred in the two shocking pummelings Hungary had given England over the previous eighteen months.
Wolves won a classic tie coming back from a two goal deficit to win 3-2. The second half was screened live on BBC television.
Afterwards, Cullis motioned to his team in front of the assembled press, and pronounced: “There they are, the champions of the world.” Many felt Wolves had restored English pride, though Honved were exhausted at the end of a long tour. English newspaper headlines the next day screamed “Hail Wolves – Champions of the World” and “Wolves the Great”.
This comment did not go unreported or unnoticed in European football circles. Indeed, it is credited as the catalyst for the establishment of the European Cup (today’s Champions League): in France, L’Equipe editor Gabriele Hinot said that Wolves should visit Moscow and Budapest “before proclaiming their invincibility”. L’Equpe quickly drew up a blueprint for a true European competition, which was adopted by UEFA the following year, leading to the European Cup’s establishment.
Wolves would never again reach such heights, their kick-and-rush tactics leading to poor results in the European Cup after their further domestic league titles in 1958 and 1959. After a run of bad form in 1964, Cullis was shockingly sacked in 1964, a decision still debated today around Molineux. It was the start of a downward spiral (besides a brief revival in the 70s) that saw Wolves drop to the bottom decision by the 1980s, and almost liquidated. Still, not many provincial clubs can claim to have once ruled the world.