Wolves-Villa: A Deep-Rooted Rivalry

Rich Tapestry Of Dramatic Meetings

Trainer Jack Davies (right) with pre-war Wolves wing duo Jimmy Mullen (left) and Alan Steen.

Each have played FA Cup semi-finals at the other’s ground, they once met five times in the space of less than three months and, the small matter of 70 seasons ago, they were in opposition on Christmas Day and Boxing Day in front of a combined 100,000 spectators.

Yes, there is quite a history to Wolves v Villa to underpin the fact that it is the biggest West Midlands derby for now.

It was in the 1964-65 Molineux relegation season that the two clubs became highly familiar, League meetings on December 26 and March 22 falling either side of an FA Cup fifth-round epic that stretched to three games and three venues.

There was a time soon after the last war when it was common for them to meet twice over Christmas but we can highlight a clash even earlier than that as the catalyst for one of the most remarkable survival missions Wolves have ever accomplished.

In 1932-33, in the club’s first season back at the top level under the management of Major Frank Buckley, relegation seemed a near certainty as the mid-point of the campaign approached.

A Wolves team promoted as champions a few months earlier had struggled so badly that they won only three of their first 20 League games, drawing three of the others and losing 14.

The last of those defeats was by a crushing 5-1 margin away to Everton on Christmas Eve but the side went to title-chasing Villa two days later and won 3-1.

Although they lost the return derby at Molineux on the 27th, a revival had been launched. Buckley’s Babes beat Liverpool before the turn of the year and overpowered Portsmouth 5-2 and Huddersfield 6-4 in the next home League games after that.

There were still some alarming results, like the FA Cup 6-3 defeat against Derby at Molineux, but Wolves hauled themselves onwards and upwards in the First Division after taking only nine points from their first 20 fixtures.

Jack Davies, the Molineux backroom stalwart whose astonishing service was sufficient to prompt his grandson Merv Davies and friend Tim Gibbons to bring out a book about him in 2019, saw this unlikely escape of almost 90 years ago at close quarters.

He used the memory of it to try to raise Molineux morale at the mid-point of 1964-65 when depression over likely demotion was setting in again.

For the mid-March trip in 1933 to face the Arsenal side who would win that season’s title, Jack evidently recalled them playing three centre-halves, Jack Nelson, Reg Hollingworth and George Bellis. Nelson scored one of the goals in a highly unlikely 2-1 Highbury success.

He also cited flying wingers Cuthbert ‘Charlie’ Phillips and Billy Barraclough as key factors in the escape and Wolves picked up so well that their last 22 games brought them 26 points.

Their overall total of 35 included a precious 2-2 draw at Blackpool in the penultimate match, the Seasiders finishing bottom on 33 points with Bolton, who also took the drop. Wolves, knowing a last-day defeat could still see them relegated, wound up their programme by beating FA Cup winners Everton 4-2 at Molineux to close one place above the danger line in 20th.

Major Frank Buckley – inspirational Molineux figure.

In the first half of the season, they had lost to both Bolton and Blackpool as well as caving in 7-1 at home to Arsenal and, although they also beat the other Wanderers, they barely had a price of staying up at Christmas.

The next three seasons were not easy either, then Buckley’s Wolves clicked big time, finishing fifth in 1936-37 and second in each of the two years straight after that – the latter of those also being marked by becoming FA Cup runners-up.

*Two more pieces of trivia to round off as we continue the countdown to Saturday’s big derby……Wolves beat Villa in the 1960 FA Cup semi-final at The Hawthorns and drew 1-1 with them on the opening day of the Football League in September, 1888.

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