In the 1950s there was only one manager who matched Matt Busby’s achievements and that was Stan Cullis of Wolverhampton Wanderers who also led his club to three League championships - 1954, 1958 and 1959. Wolves finished in 2nd place in 1950, 1955 and 1960 and in 3rd place in 1949 and 1960 as well as winning the FA Cup in 1949 and 1960. Cullis was one of the game’s regimental sergeant majors, an autocrat whose confidence was bullet-proof and whose criticism, it was said, could strip paint at twenty paces. Cullis as a player had been an outstanding centre-half with Wolves and England, an expert craftsman with a touch that was almost delicate. Cullis the manager, however, was committed to pace and stamina. He insisted that the ball should be hoisted into the opposition penalty area with a minimum of delay and then kept there. Elaboration was a sin, the short pass a capital crime. He once said, “our forwards are not encouraged to parade their ability in ostentatious fashion”. Wolves’ methods were deeply influenced by the theories of Charles Reep, a retired RAF wing commander, who had worked as an accountant. In those pre-computer days, Reep’s elaborate theories of match analysis were expounded in the News Chronicle in an infinity of diagrams. The essence of the theory was that the ball should be propelled into the danger zones as quickly as possible, ideally with long passes. So the premium was on pace and power, rather than ball-play and an elaborate build-up. Some critics called it “kick and rush” but Wolves, under Cullis, enjoyed the best years in their history. No player was better equipped to make Cullis’s plan work on the field than Billy Wright who played First Division football for Wolves for 14 years, first at wing-half, then centre-half, and became the first man to win a hundred caps for England.
In November 1953 England lost 3-6 to Hungary at Wembley and English football was forced to admit it might not be the best in the world but a year later Wolves made their contribution to the argument in two magnificent floodlight games which must formally be described as “friendlies”. First they beat Moscow Spartak, the Russian champions, 4-0 and then they overcame Honved of Budapest 3-2 (the first game I ever saw on television). Honved had six of the Hungarian side, including Ferenc Puskas, which had beaten England at Wembley but Wolves in their distinctive strip of old gold and black, were unstoppable.
Afterwards, in a dressing room full of noise and emotion, Stan Cullis pointed at his players and said, “There they are, champions of the world”. The morning papers could hardly wait. Wolves were world champions and that was that. In that wonderful decade of the 1950s Stan Cullis demonstrated that football can adapt to any style and be successful if the players accept the principles the manager lays down on the practice field.
Back Row (L-R)
Ron Flowers, Bill Shorthouse, Eddie Stuart, Stan Cullis (manager), Bert Williams,
Joe Gardiner (trainer), Jimmy Mullen, Bill Slater, Roy Swinbourne
Front Row (L-R)
Peter Broadbent, Billy Wright, Johnny Hancocks, Denis Wilshaw