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When Black Country kings ruled football

Wolverhampton | Sport | Published:

Wolves have just climbed out of the third tier, Villa are threatened by relegation, Albion have been underwhelming and who knows what will become of Lee Clark's Birmingham City?

But on this evening 60 years ago, this region's football stood at the very summit of the sport.

Today marks the anniversary of Albion's 1954 FA Cup triumph which brought to a climax what must be considered the finest season in the history of Black Country football.

That in the following years, both Villa and Blues would also reach the Wembley showpiece that dominated back then underlines the vibrant health of the region's game for the post-war generation of Midlanders.

But it was in these few square miles of hotly-contested turf between Molineux and The Hawthorns where, come the evening of May 1, 1954, English football had to concede supremacy.

Wolves, champions a week earlier, had deprived their neighbours of what would have been the 20th century's first double; for compensation, runners-up Albion had to content themselves with a 3-2 FA Cup triumph over Preston North End, another major force at the time.

But the dual triumph made the pair the kings of the era while writing an epic chapter to a rivalry that thrives to this day.

The surviving members of the thousands of Baggies fans who poured down to Wembley that day will be dwindling in numbers now but they surely cling to the memory of this period.

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This would be the start of Wolves' greatest years with a team that swept forward powerfully and quickly and thrilled to the wing play of Mullen and Hancocks.

Albion's rise to eminence with an older group of players which did not have the youthful back-up Stan Cullis had forseen at Molineux, would be more short-lived. But their team of '54 is no less fabled for that. Coached by the criminally under-regarded Vic Buckingham, they produced the kind of game with which Hungary had humiliated England the previous November.

"The Team of the Century" one commentator memorably labelled them and to this day they are still regarded as the club's finest.

With Wolves winning their first Championship, there would be one further echo of this collision of rivals and stylists the following September when they contested the Charity Shield.

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Boss Stan Cullis and his players with the championship trophy which Wolves won for the first time in 1954

As was the custom, the game was staged at the home of the league champions and thus 45,000 fans gathered at Molineux to see the fireworks.

And fireworks they got. Watching from the sidelines, a young member of the Wolves groundstaff had his imagination fired.

"I remember that game more than anything," says Ron Atkinson today. "I think at the time, it was generally accepted that Manchester United and Wolves were the strongest teams in England – but then along came this Albion side which got in between them, so to speak.

"That game was incredible. It finished 4-4" – Albion twice came back from two-goal deficits – "and it was so, so competitive. Charity Shield games we remember came to be regarded as a bit tame save for one or two exceptions. But not this one. There was no-one taking any prisoners.

"But they were two fantastic teams, it's as simple as that. We all just watched in wonder really."

Albion's FA Cup triumph would start a memorable summer for Britain in so many different ways. Five days after the final, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. A strange new work entitled "Lord of the Rings" appeared on book shelves for the first time and nine years after the end of the Second World War, rationing of meat was finally declared over.

And behind the outcome of this Wolves-Albion head-to-head 60 years ago, lie all manner of curiosities and even conspiracy theories. Most famously and most obviously the contentious second derby, at The Hawthorns, a week after Albion had beaten Port Vale at a packed Villa Park in the semi-final.

Back then, representative football took priority and having largely ignored the 66-goal partnership between Ronnie Allen and Johnnie Nicholls, the FA's selection panel suddenly picked both for a Scotland-England game at Hampden on the same day Albion would be facing Wolves.

The gold and black would be without Billy Wright and Jimmy Mullen for the same reason but absence of the two forwards was deemed a greater loss in most circles. Was there mischief to this? The Albion corner will always believe the influential Wright recommended the Allen-Nicholls call-ups to balance out his own team's handicap. Wolves won the game 1-0 but the reverberations continued for many a year.

Bert Williams pounces on the ball as Wolves beat West Brom 1-0

The outstanding 'playmaker' Ray Barlow had to play up front and having scored a couple against Wolves the previous season, legend has it that Wolves defender Bill Shorthouse gave him a blunt warning before kick off: "You won't be scoring two today, mate."

Whether by accident or design, Barlow took a meaty challenge from Shorthouse and limped out to passenger status on the wing. When, some years later, Allen took over as Wolves manager one of his first acts was to call in youth coach Shorthouse and give him his cards: "I'll not have ****ing cheats working for me," Allen is supposed to have told him.

Yes, the rivalry was intense but so were the friendships. Barlow and Roy Swinbourne became particularly great buddies; Nicholls, a Wolverhampton lad who knew many of the Molineux squad from his formative days, would famously drop by after Albion training to exchange banter.

Separately, Albion and Wolves went toe-to-toe as fiercely as ever to dispute the biggest club trophies football had to offer back then.But together, on this night 60 years ago, they reigned supreme.

Will we ever see its like again? Sadly, I very much doubt it.

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