Back when Stan really was the man

His sobriquet, 'The Iron Manager', was justly earned. He was intensely private, socially edgy, and he was dubbed 'The Passionate Puritan'

Who said this? "It is the immediate duty of our clubs to reduce the size of their competition so our players can compete on equal terms." And this? "The whole future of football in Britain depends on our ability to face the challenge from abroad and we cannot hope to do it successfully while we work our players beyond the bounds of reasonable endurance." And this? "Although I am in a minority I am sure we would be wise to have more games screened live. Television offers an opportunity not seen in all soccer's history, a whole new source of revenue, a vast sum which must make a considerable impact on the game." Who also argued for a two-month mid-winter break and more summer football?

Who said this? "It is the immediate duty of our clubs to reduce the size of their competition so our players can compete on equal terms." And this? "The whole future of football in Britain depends on our ability to face the challenge from abroad and we cannot hope to do it successfully while we work our players beyond the bounds of reasonable endurance." And this? "Although I am in a minority I am sure we would be wise to have more games screened live. Television offers an opportunity not seen in all soccer's history, a whole new source of revenue, a vast sum which must make a considerable impact on the game." Who also argued for a two-month mid-winter break and more summer football?

This week is as good a week as any to remember Stan Cullis, not only because he turned 86 last Wednesday, but also because of the publication of an excellent biography by Jim Holden of the Express, whose father Bill was football correspondent of the Daily Mirror when Cullis was in his pomp as manager of Wolves. Jim had the distinction of being signed by Cullis, whose eye for young footballing talent had sustained the club through its most glorious era, though the deal probably owed more to the robustness of the celebrations following Wolves' 3-0 victory over Blackburn in the 1960 FA Cup final than to any discernible sporting gifts in the boy, who was just three days old at the time. Jim has since earned a crust on his father's side of the divide, but has tied a neat loop in his own life by writing a well-balanced and thoroughly researched book on his father's old friend.

It was a tricky task, executed with a deft touch. Cullis was not a loveable man, nor did he court popularity. His sobriquet, "The Iron Manager", was justly earned because he inspired fear and demanded respect. He was intensely private, socially edgy, dubbed "The Passionate Puritan" by none other than John Arlott and was largely devoid of the charisma which made Busby, Shankly and Stein such instantly recognisable characters.

He was also, as Holden points out, unlucky. Match of the Day began the year that Cullis retired, so he was never subject to the scrutiny of the television cameras, though, as the quotes above indicate, he was well aware of their power. Yet, in his record and in his influence on the game - for better or worse, according to how you liked your football served - Cullis was as significant a figure in football in the Fifties as any manager of subsequent generations. Barely a day passed without a story about Cullis.

One of the best involves a friendly match against the Hungarian side Honved, which helped to pave the way for the European Cup. The context was important. The 6-3 defeat by the Hungarians at Wembley the year before had forced English football to take a good look at itself.

On a dank night in Wolverhampton, in November 1954, the rain illuminated by some of the earliest - and certainly the most expensive - floodlights in the League, Cullis's Wolves resolved to set the record straight against a Honved side which included Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis and four other members of that Hungarian team at Wembley. The match was televised and doubtless Wolves wore the silky, fluorescent, old gold shirts which Cullis favoured for floodlit matches.

Bryon Butler, then the football correspondent of the BBC, recalled those early nights at Molineux with a particular affection. "There was something special about the place on those dark, rainy nights. What was extraordinary was the attitude of the fans to foreign sides. There was a tremendous naïvety about it all, almost a feeling that these were men from the moon."

Though laying out his side in his usual way, to hit the wings early with long diagonal passes and to rely on superior fitness and pace, Cullis had another trick up his sleeve. On the morning of the match, with the rain already teeming down, he ordered the groundstaff to water and roll the pitch. One of the juniors delegated to the task was a 16-year-old Ron Atkinson. By the second half, the ground was starting to churn up like the Somme and Honved, 2-0 up at half-time, tired terribly as Wolves became stronger. "The mud just wore the Hungarians out," Atkinson recalled.

Geoffrey Green of The Times wrote that the crowd "surged, tossed and roared like a hurricane at sea, and called for the kill". Wolves came back to win 3-2. In the post-match euphoria Cullis announced that his team were the world champions and then, just to show what a special night it had been, paid for Bill Slater's taxi home to Birmingham. Cullis won three League titles and two FA Cups as a manager, but still regarded those magical European nights as the high point of his time at Molineux.

At the end, Wolves behaved disgracefully towards a man who had served them for 30 years as player and manager. After Cullis's terse dismissal in 1964, the chairman wrote a letter demanding the return of the keys to the club on headed notepaper with the name of "Stanley Cullis - Manager" crudely crossed out. Matt Busby was so shocked, he penned a letter dripping with emotion. "It has knocked me sick of human nature," he wrote. Another letter of sympathy came from a Prisoner 722, Wormwood Scrubs.

In the midst of a whole library of ghosted autobiographies, of which the latest and least tedious have been produced by David Ginola and Paolo di Canio, Cullis's unfashionable story deserves a hearing. I suspect that neither the Frenchman nor the Italian would have lasted long at Wolves under Cullis, but relationships were more feudal then. Cullis was a product of his age, the son of a Methodist and the youngest of 10 children, who was forbidden from attending the local grammar school by his father because the household needed another wage.

Yet no one whose thinking embraced the concept of mid-winter breaks, who anticipated so uncannily the financial implications of televised football and who pleaded so vehemently for a lightening of the players' workload could be accused of thinking only in the present. He is a colossal figure, Stan Cullis, and it is not before time that he has gained a biography worthy of his stature.

Stan Cullis, the Iron Manager, by Jim Holden. Breedon Books, £14.99

 

By shortening the route for next year, the organisers of the Tour de France have tacitly admitted that they too should be on trial in the courtroom in Lille where nine people standaccused of drug trafficking.

The Tour, cheerfully aided by journalists and photographers, has traded profitably on the suffering of the peloton, as the young Scot David Millar pointed out forcefully at the end of a ludicrous 243km seven-hour stage on last year's Tour. If they want riders to take drugs, Millar said, this is the best way to make them do it.

The message has finally been received. Le Tour has cut its route by 400km for 2001 to just under 3,600km. The longest stage is 226km and only eight of the 20 stages are more than 200km. It is not much and not enough, but it is a start. The main question is why the Tour organisers, while feigning shock and horror about the culture of drug-taking revealed inthe 1998 Tour, have been so slow to accept any responsibility.

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