Graham Kelly: Snobbery that denied Cullis credit

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The Independent Football

The first blueprint for European club competition envisaged a league rather than the cup, which the clubs actually started.

Whereas most observers considered the 6-3 and 7-1 defeats suffered by England at the hands of the Hungarians in 1953 and 1954 the nadir of English football history, one proud Englishman, Stan Cullis, the manager of Wolves, believed that, with a combination of team spirit, superior fitness and tactics, foreign teams could be beaten, and through a succession of friendly matches set out to prove that Wolves could do it.

When the world was a smaller place in 1954, two matches in particular grabbed the nation's imagination. People gathered round their firesides as super-fit young men in specially designed luminous gold shirts flitted across the screens like fireflies to thrash Spartak Moscow 4-0 and beat the mighty Hungarian team, Honved, including Ferenc Puskas, 3-2, after being 2-0 down at half-time. After the Honved match, Cullis declared that Wolves must be the champions of the world and no-one who watched the enthralling encounter at home or who read the emotional accounts in the newspapers would have disagreed.

In Europe they weren't so sure. Gabriel Hanot, a former French international and editor of the sports daily L'Equipe canvassed for a European league, but when the English champions of 1955, Chelsea, were invited to participate in the European Cup, the Football League persuaded them to decline.

Reading a fascinating biography of Cullis published last year, The Iron Manager by Jim Holden (Breedon Books), I doubt whether Wolves would have refused. One friendly, against Athletic Bilbao, was cancelled when the players voted to strike in protest at the princely match fee of £2 (less tax). Here lay the origins of the current dispute.

When Wolves did get into Europe after winning the League in 1958 and 1959, they suffered a first round exit at the hands of a tough Schalke 04 outfit, then the second year reached the quarter final only to be overcome 9-2 on aggregate, chasing a deficit, by Barcelona.

I am ashamed that I didn't know a quarter about the remarkable man who, to his players and adversaries, was the iron manager but to friends in the game was a caring and trusted confidant whose integrity was truly legendary. For example, as he chased a Liverpool forward in his final match for Wolves in 1947, he eschewed committing a professional foul, for which in those days he would not have been sent off, and effectively conceded the League championship with one honourable act.

He was intense to the point almost of eccentricity, going home on one occasion when his son was waiting patiently in a tea-room, overlooking family birthdays, fulminating at "cowardly" players from the touchline. How strange it must seem now, when you can't walk down a high street without hearing profanities from school kids, that never a swear word came from his lips.

His days at Molineux ended in a bizarre dismissal, early in the 1964-65 season, with Wolves bottom of the First Division. The abolition of the maximum wage was changing the game and not all players wanted to listen. Cullis returned from a short illness to find the chairman wanted him to resign and to put out a spurious statement. Needless to say, he refused.

His shameful sacking shocked the football world. Among those who sent genuinely sad letters to Cullis were Stan Matthews and Matt Busby. After a spell in journalism, he managed Birmingham City for a few years, but left the game at the age of 54 in 1970.

Why was Cullis never given the accolades his feats deserved? He was an inspirational captain who went on to organise wartime football and win three championships and the FA Cup as manager for the club he served for over 30 years. He was a patriot and visionary, who pioneered live television and floodlights and advocated a smaller league before the Premiership was even dreamt of. Sure, he was accorded honorary membership of the Football Association, but his name did not sit easily alongside some of those who gave more thought to serving themselves than their game or their country.

Some believe there were social elements at work which denied the working class hero his due recognition, but perhaps the truth lies rather in football snobbery, a disdain for the "unsophisticated" style of play which brought him his success.

Certainly, it was exciting stuff, which those Fifties' Sportsview audiences loved. Sir Jack Hayward and Doug Ellis, to their eternal credit, organised a testimonial for Cullis which enabled him to make a sentimental return to Molineux in 1992 and live out his days in comfort until his death at the age of 84 last February.

I remember his team in colour, though the television was only a black-and-white set.