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When Wolves were conquering the football world

Wolverhampton | News | Published:

[figure caption="Match programmes from the Real Madrid game in 1957 and the Spartak Moscow game in 1954" title="south africa programme" align="right" id="808233"]Imagine a time before the UEFA Champions League, a time where clubs had no platform to face foreign opponents competitively.

Imagine a period of football where comparing who was the best team in the world threw up as many arguments as who is better – Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?

There was no trophy to decide who were the best in Europe, so when the great Honved side came to Wolverhampton to face English champions Wolves in 1954, there was an unofficial title on the line – the champions of the world.

Legendary manager Stan Cullis

But what had come before to instigate the meeting between these two great sides?

Wolves had previously played overseas teams from the early 1930s onwards, just before Stan Cullis joined the club.

In 1933 they went on a tour of France to play teams such as Marseille, Nice, Racing Club de Paris and Nimes.

The match in Nice turned into a rough house brawl, with Major Frank Buckley, the team's manager at the time, taking his team off the pitch and refusing to continue the game until extra men from the local gendarmerie were called on to assure order.

He later stated: "I have brought my team to play football, not to be slaughtered."

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Never the less, Nice visited Wolverhampton the next season.

Match programmes from the Real Madrid game in 1957 and the Spartak Moscow game in 1954

Buckley knew the match would sell tickets – perhaps the fans were hoping for revenge?

Cullis himself first played foreign opposition with Wolves when long-forgotten Pavi Kavatski Gradjanski from Yugoslavia visited Molineux, Wolves winning the match in front of 646 people on a foggy night.

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A newspaper cartoon from the time

This was a far cry from what was to come with the atmospheric nights of packed crowds watching under the floodlights when Honved and others visited in the 1950s.

More than 30,000 did attend Molineux in November 1946 to watch Wolves beat Swedish side Norrköping.

The floodlights arrived at the Molineux in September 1953, specifically ordered by Cullis – a visionary, as Buckley had been, who knew they represented an integral part of the future of football.

The towering pylons with powerful bulbs to light up dark nights required three miles of heavy duty cabling and cost £25,000,with Cullis personally supervising their installation.

Linesmen's flags were equipped with little electronic lights in their handles so the crowd could more easily spot offsides when called.

Special old gold shirts were also commissioned by Cullis for the Wolves team, made in a new silky, fluorescent material that glowed brightly in the dark. They made the players appear like darting fireflies racing around the pitch under the lights.

The players themselves found the shirts a nuisance because they would ride up their backs rather than hang down normally, but it all added to the magic and mystique of those midweek night matches.

Cullis remembered: "Those lights were something special. It was as if an electric fuse reached all the way round the ground."

It was just a couple of months after they were installed at Molineux that Hungary defeated England 6-3 at Wembley, causing an avalanche of recrimination and soul-searching.

Cullis' verdict on the performance of 'the Magical Magyars' was very different from most observers.

While many critics of England were waxing lyrical about the Hungarians' style of football, the Wolves boss noted the Three Lions' conquerors had scored three goals playing as a result of direct football – a style Cullis had championed. He had supporters in the press, including Charles Buchan – the former Arsenal and Sunderland star of the 1920s and 30s and editor of Charles Buchan's Football Monthly and Annuals.

Commenting on Wolves' defeat of Tottenham during the Championship-winning campaign of 1953-54, Buchan said in the News Chronicle a few weeks after the Hungary debacle: "Wolves restored my confidence in the British style of play in victory against Spurs.

Spartak Moscow goalkeeper Mikhail Yakobovich Piraev watches a shot from Wolverhampton Wanderers' Peter Broadbent, far right, sail over

"They were fast, direct and played to a plan every bit as good as the Hungarians at Wembley.

"Wolves matched the continentals in pace and ball control. Their defence particularly impressed me. It was the type of England we will need to win the World Cup.

"Close marking and quick tackling cut to ribbons the push and run methods of the Spurs forwards. I am certain too the direct wing play of Johnny Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen would set a problem to continental defenders. There is a great chance for England in the World Cup if it is carried out on the Wolves pattern."

England reached the quarter-finals of the 1954 World Cup, played in Switzerland.

They were beaten after extra-time by Belgium before defeating host nation Switzerland 2-0 with goals by Wolves pair Jimmy Mullen and Dennis Wilshaw.

Roy Swinbourne was on target against Spartak Moscow
Dennis Wilshaw also scored against the Russians

They then lost to holders Uruguay in the quarter-finals 4-2, a match in which Mullen had been replaced by the great Stanley Matthews. Hungary scored 27 goals in five matches in those finals, including four each against Brazil and Uruguay at the quarter and semi-final stages, before losing 3-2 to West Germany in the final – a team they had beaten 8-3 in the group stages. Crucially, star man Ferenc Puskás carried an injury throughout the final with the game played, as Cullis noted, in rainy and muddy conditions.

By the time Honved arrived at Molineux for the Monday, December 13, 1954, match, seven teams had played Wolves under the floodlights.

South Africa were defeated 3-1 by a team captained by Eddie Stuart in the inaugural match, played on September 30, 1953.

In October, Glasgow Celtic went down to a 2-0 defeat. Next up on March 10, 1954, Racing Club of Buenos Aires were defeated 3-1.

West Bromwich Albion were next to appear under the lights in a Charity Shield match, played on September 29, 1954, in front of 40,800 spectators. It ended 4-4. Next, First Vienna held their hosts to a 0-0 draw on October 13, 1954, before Maccabi Tel Aviv were trounced 10-0 in front of 26,901 on October 28. Moscow Spartak then visited on November 16 as the high profile precursor to the Honved fixture.

Between the inaugural match in September 1953 and the visit of Real Madrid on Thursday, October 17, 1957, Wolves played 16 floodlit friendlies against, with the exception of two, international opposition.

They recorded a whopping 14 victories and two draws in matches attracting national attention. After the Racing Club of Buenos Aires win, Wolves' style of play was praised by the national media as 'a joy to watch', particularly noting their pace, speed and spirit.

On a return fixture played against First Vienna, the Austrians' goalkeeper Kurt Schmied noted Wolves were the best team seen in Vienna since the war. Bryon Butler, long-serving football correspondent for the BBC, later recalled: "There was something special about Molineux on those dark, rainy nights.

"What was extraordinary was the attitude of the fans to foreign sides.

"There was a tremendous naiveté about it all, almost feeling that these were men from the moon rather than footballers from another neighbouring European country."

The Spartak match, scheduled for a Tuesday night, led Cullis, generally a strict observer of the Sabbath, to call the players in to work feverishly to prepare for the visit of a club regarded as the best Russian team of the time. In particular, they were thought to have a robust, highly-organised and efficient defence.

Billed by Pathe News as 'The Match of the Year', it was played on Tuesday, November 16, 1954. The match remained 0-0 until the 80th minute then the dam burst and the supremely fit Wolves team notched four goals in the final 10 minutes to sweep Wolves to an ultimately crushing victory. Diminutive winger Hancocks scored the first two goals, with Roy Swinbourne and Dennis Wilshaw adding the others.

Spartak goalkeeper Mikhail Yakobovich Piraev, a tiny figure with a magnificent dropping moustache, was described by a Pathe News commentator as 'the gloomy goalie', looking the picture of misery as he trooped off the pitch.

As the most high-profile fixture to date, the Spartak result was widely hailed as a triumph for English football values – an understandable if overt response to one home friendly victory, however dramatic the occasion. Legendary BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme recalled years later: "It was quite a foggy night at Molineux, which only added to the atmosphere and meant you could hardly see the other end of the pitch with the naked eye.

Praise – Kenneth Wolstenholme

"Our cameras were at the wrong end when Wolves were attacking in the first half.

"The score was 0-0 at half-time and then they scored four times at the right end of the pitch for us. It was pure luck on our part."

Footage shows Molineux packed to the rafters as fans stood shoulder to shoulder to watch their local heroes take on the might from Russia.

Through the fog on that night the shine of the golden shirts can be picked out as player after player piled forward to add more misery to Spartak. With every goal the sound of the South Bank, which had the privilege to see before their eyes the four-goal finale, got louder as Wanderers sealed one of their most historic victories.

It was not just the floodlights illuminating the Molineux pitch that night.

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