Wolves began the current Premier League campaign this season with high expectations. They were back in the top flight for the first time since 2012 with a group of talented players to call upon, and the assumption was that they would challenge for a place in the top half.
Nuno Espiritio Santo’s men have struggled of late after a fine start, but this is far from the zenith of their existence in English football’s top flight. Wolves are a club with great history, a club who, in the 1950s, won three league titles and competed with Europe’s best.
In the late 1930s, Wolves had come agonisingly close to winning their first title. They finished runners-up twice in a row, first to Arsenal and then to Everton. The club’s captain, Stan Cullis, who would later lead Wolves to unprecedented success as manager, was a key part of the team, a resolute centre-half with a thunderous tackle and a powerful header.
Yet his career – as with many of his team-mates’ – was disrupted by the outbreak of war. It had seemed Wolves were on the cusp of something special, but they were forced to endure years of near-misses and occasional drops to the lower reaches of the table.
When Cullis returned from the war, in which he had served as a Physical Training Instructor, he resumed his role as club captain. In the 1946/47 season, the first since the war began in 1939, Wolves again appeared on the verge of the title. They were top on the final day, two points ahead of Liverpool, only to finish third after being beaten 2-1 by the Reds. Wolves had scored 98 goals – 38 of which had come from the prolific Dennis Westcott – but could not get over the line.
It seemed the biggest prize of all might prove eternally elusive. Cullis, following the disappointment of the Liverpool defeat, confirmed his retirement at the age of just 31. And the following season Wolves slipped to fifth place.
In 1948, though, Cullis was appointed as the club’s manager. He had earned a reputation during his playing career as something of a hard man, all brawn and no brain. But that was far from the truth. He was an intelligent tactician, capable of galvanising a group of players and building an impressively efficient team.
It would take time, though. Wolves were runners-up again in 1949/50 and then fell away: the next two seasons brought 14th- and 16th-place finishes.
Finally, in 1953/54, Wolves were victorious. It was made even sweeter by the way they had done it: fierce rivals West Bromwich Albion had been beaten to the title by four points.
Cullis’ team were unerringly proficient in front of goal. Their swift, attacking football brought a return of 96 goals, a significant portion of which were scored by the prolific front three of Johnny Hancocks, Roy Swinbourne and Dennis Wilshaw.
It was the beginning of a hugely successful decade for Cullis’ Wolves. Throughout the 1950s, they battled with Manchester United’s Busby Babes and established themselves as one of Europe’s top teams.
In the year of their first title, 1954, Wolves played the most high profile of a series of friendlies against European opponents, beating Hungarian champions Honved 3-2 at Molineux. This was a team that contained six of the players who had featured in Hungary’s humiliation of England a year earlier, including the great Ferenc Puskas.
It was also a game which restored confidence in English football, and Wolves were labelled the best team on the continent. Other clubs soon wanted to test themselves against their foreign rivals. Wolves’ felling of the mighty Honved, it transpired, was the catalyst for the beginning of the European Cup, which started a year later.
Domestically, Cullis’ side continued to challenge. There was a wait of four years until their next title, which came in 1957/58; by then, Wolves were at their unstoppable best as an attacking force. Peter Broadbent and Jimmy Murray were a formidable duo, plundering 96 goals between them over two seasons.
Another title was added to the trophy cabinet the following season, and again Wolves appeared unstoppable. For four consecutive seasons they scored in excess of 100 goals. But it was not just the forward players who earned plaudits. Wingers Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen were a key part of the team, and defender Billy Wright, who made 541 appearances over 20 years at the club, was instrumental in each of the title-winning campaigns.
This was a team of club legends, a group of players who marked themselves indelibly into Wolves history. Things have not been quite so good since the heady heights of the 1950s, but the memories remain.
Molineux is a place of history, of past glory, and there is currently a feeling brewing under the surface that Wolves can once again challenge at the very top of the English football pyramid in the coming years. Replicating the achievements of Cullis and co., though, might just be a step too far.
(Callum Rice-Coates of thesetpieces.com).
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