Wolves In Europe: Part One
Cullis’s Men Struggled To Reproduce Home Front Heroics
It’s 30 years this autumn since Wolves last played in major European competition. To commemorate the fact, Express & Star guest writer John Lalley steps forward again for Wolves Heroes to detail the club’s history in organised Continental competition.
The low-key Molineux friendly against Athletico Bilbao that preceded Wolves’ 2010-2011 campaign will not linger long in the memory.
The contrast in interest and anticipation could hardly be greater to the response to the inaugural fixtures against foreign opposition back in the 1950s, when Molineux became the epicentre of British football.
The nation was intrigued by the ‘floodlit friendlies’ instigated in 1953. Wolves, whether by accident or design, assumed the mantle to restore the pride of fans at large who were flabbergasted by the 6-3 destruction inflicted on England by the Puskas-inspired Hungarians at Wembley earlier that year.
‘Friendlies’ is surely the wrong word. The games became epic encounters, ultra-competitive, the 1954 clash with Honved – this time with Puskas in club colours – passing into history as the most famous match ever to grace the Molineux turf.
The culmination followed three years later when the incomparable Real Madrid were beaten under our famous lights.
By then, the entrenched Europhobic stance of the football authorities in this country was at least starting to recognise the desirability of competitive football against Continental opposition.
Having originally set their face against England entering the World Cup, the jingoistic folly was repeated at club level. Chelsea, after beating Wolves to the Championship in 1954-55, were denied entry into the European Cup after pressure from the Football League.
But visionary managers such as Stan Cullis and his Manchester counterpart Matt Busby knew that this myopic policy could not be sustained. They both possessed a burning desire to see their clubs tested in the European arena.
When proper European competition at last began to hold sway, the ‘floodlit friendlies’ had run their course and Wolves’ record lay proudly intact – no foreign team had left these shores having beaten them.
Summing up this unprecedented period in the club’s history, former captain Eddie Stuart claimed with typical enthusiasm: “We weren’t just the best team in the country, we were the best team in the world!”
They were possibly words of exaggeration but it was not a standpoint that could be dismissed totally out of hand. When Wolves visited Glasgow in October, 1959, and beat the hosts in the first floodlit match at Celtic Park, the Hoops’ legendary chairman Bob Kelly wrote in the match programme: “I rate the English champions as the most accomplished side in Europe. In many ways, they are a much greater attraction than any Continental side. Their record against foreign opposition is unblemished.”
It was quite a tribute from a Scot! Perhaps Stuart was not so far wide of the mark. Yet, just eight years later, it was Celtic, not Wolves, who became the first British club to lift the European Cup. While they were creating history in Lisbon, Wolves were desperately seeking to win promotion back to the First Division. How times had changed.
Wolves duly entered a European competition for the first time in 1958-59. Such was the calibre of their playing staff, they had won the Championship despite the departure of some truly wonderful players; men who had starred in the floodlit fixtures which so stirred the pulses.
In the interim, the likes of Bert Williams, Bill Shorthouse, Roy Swinbourne, Dennis Wilshaw and Johnny Hancocks had left the club. This stunning array of talent would soon be joined by Billy Wright and Jimmy Mullen, who were about to play out their respective final seasons at Molineux.
And what an inauspicious start Wolves made in Europe. They stumbled to an aggregate defeat at the very first hurdle against Schalke 04.
In the first leg at Molineux, the visitors led 1-0 at half-time but a couple of splendid headers from Peter Broadbent ensured that Wolves remained unbeaten on home soil against foreign opposition.
Then, just two minutes from time, the West German side fashioned an equaliser from winger Koslowski and left Wolves facing an uphill task in the second leg in Gelsenkirchen.
There, Wolves were two down at the interval before Derbyshire-born reserve striker Alan Jackson – in for the out-of-form Jimmy Murray – reduced the arrears.
Jackson appeared in only four League matches for the club, scoring once against Burnley before leaving to play his football at Bury. But he has the distinction of being one of only five Wolves players who have scored goals in the most prestigious competition in European football.
He did not even have the satisfaction of seeing his name in the match programme for the game at Molineux. Defender George Showell was on the team sheet at no 9 as an emergency striker in Murray’s absence.
All told, it was a bitter anti-climax but, on the home front, Wolves were magnificently undeterred. It was business as usual as the Championship was retained in consummate style with 110 goals scored to ensure another crack alongside Europe’s elite in the following season.
This time, Wolves were destined to reach the quarter-finals, only for a humiliation of epic proportions to lie in store; a seismic defeat that not only graphically signalled their deficiencies on the European stage, but a mauling that prefaced the club’s decline and saw their dominance of the domestic game come to an end.
An FA Cup triumph at Wembley would provide glorious compensation at the season’s end but, for Wolves, the writing was on the wall. The club gradually yet inexorably began to stagnate and coming to terms with such a painful reality was a desperately difficult process.
Wolves started the tournament in the preliminary round and returned to Germany, this time to the Eastern sector to face ASK Vorwaerts in Berlin.
Broadbent fired them in front inside quarter of an hour but almost immediately the initiative was lost and the Germans overcame the deficit to claim a 2-1 first-leg advantage.
The return was played in front of an expectant crowd of over 55,000, who saw a dominant home team clinch an aggregate victory with goals from Broadbent and Bobby Mason. Vorwaerts were fortunate to have kept the tie so close and escape without further damage.
Interestingly, the match programme stated with much justification: “In Wolverhampton – and in Manchester – we realise perhaps more than in most parts of England the importance of the European Cup competition.” Sadly for one of the two pioneering English clubs, future comparisons could hardly be starker.
Wolves had just another couple of ties in this competition and, since their elimination in March, 1960, have never graced it since. In contrast, our closest rivals from Old Trafford emulated Celtic by lifting the trophy for the first time in 1968 and, during the last 50 years, have woven their name into the very fabric of the competition, with Wolves forced to watch, open-mouthed with envy.
And poignant it was that Wolves’ next European Cup opponents were Red Star Belgrade. It was returning from the same venue the previous year that United’s charter flight diverted to Munich with such appalling consequences.
Any spirit of kinship was singularly lacking, however, as Wolves returned home delighted with a 1-1 draw courtesy of a goal from Norman Deeley. The match itself was a brutal affair played in front of 62,000 hostile Yugoslavs and the programme for the return was in censorious mood.
“This time, we shall have the crowd on our side and, unless you have heard the shrill whistles of the Continental crowds, you will not probably understand what that means,” it asserted in somewhat haughty tones.
“The crowd at the Partizan Stadium were at their most shrill, we imagine, for they kept it up almost throughout the entire game. The time has come we feel when the more realistic and no less commanding English roar can be brought into use in the interests of club and country.”
This admonishing lecture, interspersed with three examples of the Royal ‘we,’ was clearly intent on putting ‘Johnny Foreigner’ in his place. Yes, give our visitors from overseas a courteous welcome but let them never forget that to be born English is the greatest good fortune that can be bestowed on an individual!
And, as for being ‘shrill’ – we simply don’t do that sort of thing here! This long-entrenched insularity, this rigid certainty that the English way was the only way was about to be catastrophically exposed as a hopelessly flawed concept.
Wolves and English football were about to hit planet earth with a resounding bump but, for the moment, the writer of ‘Notes by Wanderer’ must have felt vindicated as Wolves tore into a timid Red Star, demolishing them 3-0 in front of a vociferous but certainly not ‘shrill’ Molineux audience of 55,000.
Then the trouble really started – in the stylish shape of C.F. Barcelona. Ruthlessly exploiting Wolves’ dated and outmoded style of all-out attack, they hit the English champions on the break so effectively that the tie was effectively settled there and then at the Gran Estadio.
The 4-0 deficit was painfully illustrative of the shift in power of Continental football. It was, in short, a rout and the best Wolves could hope for was to retain their unbeaten floodlit home record.
But a mighty second helping of humiliation was around the corner for Cullis’s team. Wolves and their proud record were systematically dismantled before another, this time disbelieving attendance of 55,000-plus.
Sandor Kocsis, who missed the first leg, returned to Molineux with a vengeance. He had been part of the beaten Honved team in Wolverhampton six years previously and this time helped himself to two goals before the interval after suffering a dislocation of his shoulder.
It was so painful that he fainted in the dressing room at half-time before being fortified by an injection which allowed him to return to the action and add another couple of goals for a personal tally of four in a 5-2 win.
For Wolves, the game was well and truly up and the Barcelona coach Helenio Herrera basked in the aggregate annihilation of 9-2 to deliver this parting shot: “You in England are playing now in the style we Continentals used many years ago with much physical strength, but no method, no technique.”
It was a damning indictment that added insult to injury but it was a wholly accurate and considered professional assessment.
In the following season, with no European Cup to stir the imagination, Wolves had the consolation of becoming England’s first representative in the inaugural European Cup Winners Cup. But only ten teams entered and Wolves merely had to win one tie to book a place in the semi-final.
Interest was luke-warm. After losing 2-0 in Vienna to FK Austria when, by conservative estimates, Wolves hit the woodwork five times, only 31,000 turned up at Molineux for the second leg.
John Kirkham deputised for the indisposed Ron Flowers and scored a couple in a 5-0 blitz that was every bit as easy as the score indicates.
Clearly, though, this was not the big stage that Wolves had been so used to performing on and the fact there was a seven-week gap between the two legs seemed indicative that this competition was hardly a priority.
The Molineux match programme hardly gave a ringing endorsement: “In recent seasons, there has been so much new on offer at Molineux that there seems little fresh to be offered. Nevertheless, we have found something thanks to the Cup final victory in May.
“That gave us the right of entry into the new Cup of European Cup Winners and tonight we have the honour of introducing the new competition to Wolverhampton.
“There are the sceptics who feel the new cup has not much chance against the competition provided by the now fabulous European Cup but there has to be a beginning and, as we were taught at school, large oaks from little acorns grow. Tonight, therefore, we may be watching the start of something big.”
The semi-final was memorable because of Wolves’ opponents, Glasgow Rangers. It was to be the first Anglo-Scottish meeting in European competition and Rangers were hell-bent on avenging the hideous 9-3 drubbing England had inflicted on Scotland at Wembley only days previously.
I can still picture the grainy black and white images of the Ibrox clash as the BBC covered the game. Wolves were heading for a not insurmountable 1-0 deficit when, late on, Eddie Clamp was fatally caught in possession and allowed Ralph Brand to double the home team’s advantage.
Staggeringly, almost 80,000 fans attended in Glasgow, with just 45,000 at Molineux three weeks later – 10,000 fewer than for each of the three European Cup games on the ground in the previous season.
The gate was boosted, too, by a huge influx of Scots, with a minority intent on mayhem. Rangers led at half-time and deservedly reached the final despite an equaliser from Broadbent.
I remember leaving the North Bank that night clutching my father’s hand tightly. At the exit, he wished a Rangers fan all the best for the final. The Scot responded magnanimously; some scenes had been ugly but most Rangers fans were not looking for trouble.
And, on that anti-climactic note, Wolves and competitive European football went their separate ways for the best part of 11 years until Academica Coimbra arrived in town for a first-round UEFA Cup tie.
In the meantime, with Wolves in serious decline, a feeble attempt was made in December, 1962, to recreate the dramatic events of eight years previously when a pale shadow of a Honved team returned to Molineux.
Despite the obvious comparisons and the best efforts of a sparse crowd to rekindle an atmosphere that no longer existed, a turgid floodlit travesty of a match fell flat on its face as two teams hopelessly overshadowed by their supreme predecessors played out a 1-1 draw. Some memories are best treasured by being left well alone.
Next time: Goal-filled travels with Bill McGarry.