Only once have Wolverhampton Wanderers visited Russia – and their trip to the home of the current World Cup finals left them with a lifetime full of memories.
It wasn’t the results that were special; it was the window it provided on a culture that was then very alien, the warmth of the welcome and the magnitude of two games that most of us would nevertheless regard as friendlies.
Those too young to have known the 1950s lift-off in fixtures played between clubs from different countries or to have appreciated the sheer brilliance of Stan Cullis’s sides can only marvel at the interest in this early-August 1955 excursion behind the Iron Curtain.
Thankfully, yards of news columns and sizeable chunks of air time were devoted to the ‘Volki’ (as Wolves were known over there), so the gaps in our knowledge can be addressed.
Even before the Express & Star correspondent Phil Morgan touched down in Moscow, there was a detailed insight for the paper’s army of readers.
A Reuter report that appeared on August 4 revealed that one radio station had devoted 30 minutes to Wolves’ trip and described the club’s arrival as the talk of the city.
A four-point deficit on Chelsea had denied Cullis’s men a successful defence of their League Championship crown in 1954-55 and they had already defeated the might of Moscow Dynamo and Spartak under the Molineux floodlights.
What made their task harder here, though, as well as giving up their formidable home advantage, was the fact the domestic Russian campaign was around its mid-point while players in England were only part way down the road on their slog for pre-season fitness.
Dynamo were top of the table at the time and had just beaten Dynamo of Tbilisi Georgia 6-2 and Kiev Dynamo 4-1. Their goal columns after 17 League games read 44 for, 13 against.
They had won 13 of those 17 games, including six victories in a row. They were the oldest club in their homeland – founded in 1923, only six years after the Russian Revolution – and weren’t an unknown quantity in Britain. They had visited these shores in 1945 and beaten Arsenal and Cardiff and drawn with Chelsea and Rangers.
Both 1955 games against Wolves were in Moscow’s biggest venue, the Dynamo Stadium, which had a whopping 60,000 seats and 20,000 standing places. The games were also beamed live to a colossal estimated audience of 6m.
The Munich tragedy made it commonplace for a while for teams to undertake such journeys in two groups. For an excursion some two and a half years earlier, Wolves nevertheless set off on two planes out of London, one piece of surviving footage containing the line ‘Handle them carefully, pilot….those boys are insured for nearly a quarter of a million pounds’ from a plummy TV commentator.
Plane number one carried very much the first team and had two stops in Scandinavia en route. The second left England on August 4 and contained the back-up men, Nigel Sims, George Showell, Joe Baillie, Bobby Thomson, Colin Booth and Tommy McDonald. Thomson, 18 and on his first trip abroad, said. “This is a great moment for me.”
On a refuelling stop in Copenhagen, there was a good-luck wish from a local football official who Wolves had met on their tour of Denmark the previous year. One hop further on, training was held in brilliant sunshine on a pitch alongside Helsinki’s national stadium. The work-out was supervised for the first-choice players by athletics coach Frank Morris and watched by new director John Ireland.
After the two Soviet aircraft had landed on Russian tarmac, there were flashbulbs and speeches – and a bouquet for each player.
The games were on a Sunday and Wednesday and Cullis did not delay the announcement of his line-up for the opening one: Williams, Stuart, Shorthouse, Slater, Wright, Flowers, Smith, Broadbent, Swinbourne, Wilshaw, Mullen. Johnny Hancocks, whose fear of flying was well known and accepted, was the only absentee from the Spartak game at Wolverhampton.
Moscow was experiencing a heatwave and Cullis barred his players from sightseeing before the first game, although a trip for them to see the metro was arranged.
With them was one other director, James Marshall, and Wolverhampton Mayor Frank Mansell, who had reportedly arrived with MP John Baird from Prague.
The Russians were full of praise for Wolves despite the 3-0 defeat. Some of the English press – even one or two who had confidently predicted an away win – were not as generous in their write-ups.
For the follow-up against Dynamo, Wolves named McDonald instead of Jimmy Mullen and the reaction to the 3-2 defeat was much more favourable, with Dennis Wilshaw in particular complimented after his two goals made him the first Briton to score in the country.
The temptation all these decades on would be to look on it as a goodwill tour but Cullis was possessed of such competitive instinct that he immediately proposed a decider between Wolves and Spartak after one win apiece.
And, good tourist that he was, the Iron Manager appeared to relish the group trips to The Kremlin and Red Square that were sandwiched between the two prestige games.
For those close to Billy Wright, who also visited Moscow in 1958 as an England player, there was one other interesting observation……he was said by Phil ‘Commentator’ Morgan to have been ‘one of the leading lights’ during a singalong on a luxury river cruise.