Buckets of cold water, wet pitches and floodlights – How Wolverhampton Wanderers rescued English football and forged the European Cup in the Black Country.

wolves-v-honved

On a chastening November day at Wembley in 1953, any outdated and misguided ideas about English preeminence in the football world were cruelly banished by the cherry-shirted Magical Magyars of Hungary. Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Nandor Hideguti and their compatriots comprising a team that would go almost a decade with just a single defeat recorded against them – albeit in the World Cup Final of 1954 – delivered the sort of sobering wake up call akin to being doused with bucketful of cold water after a long and particularly intoxicating night on the tiles.   

In The Guardian, the following day, Pat Ward-Thomas described the game as “a severe lesson in the arts of Association Football” and “probably the finest exhibition of attacking play that has been seen in an international match in Britain.” Few would have demurred from such a view. Especially perhaps, England and Wolverhampton Wanderers skipper Billy Wright, who was described in The Times by Geoffrey Green as being like “a fire engine going to the wrong fire.” The problem being of course that the Hungarians were igniting so  many fires with their scorching play, and the England skipper simply had insufficient hoses at his disposal.

It was the first time that England had endured a home defeat by so-called ‘international’ opposition but, as the scoreline painfully illustrates, this was no ‘smash and grab’ visit. Rather, it was the sort of beating handed out by players of a different calibre, playing a system that the home team found beyond them and with a skill level seldom experienced in the domestic game. The ice cold water of the beating washed away any English delusions, but the national team stood up and shook itself off. There was a determination to convince everyone that things weren’t all that bad. Six months or so later, England visited Budapest for a return fixture, confident that things would be different this time. They were. The 7-1 defeat endured was even harsher, and the water in the bucket was even colder. There now seemed to be an inescapable conclusion that away form the shores of Britain, football had moved on, whilst the English game hadn’t been looking.

To be fair, the cosseted perception of England being atop the international game was considerably overstated even before the Hungarian humbling. A number of defeats to Scotland, Wales and Ireland had already inflicted picador-like thrusts. Then the Hungarian matador thrust the XXXXXXXX into the John Bull-esque arrogance. International defeats had probably only been delayed anyway by a refusal to participate in Fifa’s nascent World Cup tournaments. Even when they finally joined the international jamboree in 1950, England embarrassingly lost to the USA. Suffice to say then, that the state of English football towards the end of 1954 was in need of a boost. It would come from the industrial ‘Black Country’ area of the Midlands and the players donned in the old gold and black of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Those players would also kick start what would become the major club tournament in European football.

Whilst the national team was enduring a serious case of self-criticism, the Molineux club was celebrating the installation of their new floodlights with a series of high-profile friendly games against clubs from far and wide. Although rightly proud of their of their innovation – the club motto after all is ‘Out of darkness, cometh light’ – Wolves were not the first club to brighten home games in this way. Highbury had lights on one stand more than two decades earlier, whilst Southampton had The Dell all lit up from 1950.  Wolves however, also had the bright light of far-sighted Stan Cullis, and the legendary manager was wise to the attraction of glamorous fixtures to draw in crowds, finance and grow his players’ experiences at the same time.

Utilising the new floodlights, a series of evening games was scheduled. The first visitors being a South African Select team, followed by the likes of Celtic and Racing Club Avellando of Argentina, Spartak Moscow and Maccabi Tel Aviv. The only team to escape from Molineux without defeat were First Vienna who fought out a goalless draw. Everyone else succumbed to Cullis’ Old Gold Army, with Spartak particularly put to the sword and taking a ten goal pounding. It was a result that sent the Daily Herald into fits of Cold War celebration, by claiming the Russian team had been “hammered and sickled.” Hardly poetic, but it meshed with the mood of the day.

Wing half, Ron Flowers would later describe these games as, “special times.” Adding that, “It was a novelty, playing under lights.” The towering pylons and halogen bulbs had been installed in September 1953 at a cost of £25,000 after strong prompting by Cullis. “It was as if an electric fuse reached all the way round the ground,” the manger related afterwards. It certainly had produced some bright football. Then came the big test. On 13th December 1954, Honved came calling.

Wolves were champions of England, having won the title the previous season by four points ahead of Black Country rivals West Bromwich Albion. Honved had recently secured their fourth successive Hungarian championship. The Budapest side was replete with players fresh from the double humiliation of home skipper BIlly Wright and his England colleagues, with six of the side who gave England the runaround featuring. They would go on to secure a fifth title and in all likelihood many more, had the Russian invasion of Budapest not scattered their stars far and wide across Europe following an away fixture in Spain, as they sought to avoid returning to an occupied homeland

Puskas, Kocsis and CzIbor were present among a front five that also included Laszlo Budai and Ferenc Machos. The floodlights, combined with an intriguing confrontation between the champions of the two countries made the Wolves v Honved fixture a major attraction, and nearly 60,000 fans crammed into Molineux to see if their favourites could achieve what the national team had palpably failed to do. The game even captured the imagination of the stuffed-shirts of the BBC of the time, who deemed it sufficiently important to screen the second half live, at a time when only FA Cup Finals were regular live fare for broadcasting.

As the game started, if any home fans were hoping for a revival of English prestige and a reassertion of a place among the top nations of the football world, another bucketful of cold water seemed on the way early on. First, a Puskas free-kick was headed home by Kocsis, and before the quarter hour mark, the scorer then played a delightful through ball to Machos to put the visitors two clear and apparently in cruise control.

For a while, from that point, only last ditch defending and an outstanding display from Bert Williams between the sticks for the English champions maintained Wolves’ tenuous foothold in the game. Had the visitors netted again, it would be difficult to see how Wolves could have mounted any sort of comeback. As time wore on towards half time though, the eager Hungarian sallies seemed to dim, and what had been mere  dogged home defence began to turn into something a little more competitive.

“Wolverhampton gradually took command of the midfield play,” reported The Guardian relating the turn of events, but perhaps gilding the lily for home consumption somewhat, “but they could not find a clear path to goal.” Adding that “Still nothing went right for Wolverhampton in front of goal.” It was a point well illustrated just ahead of the break when a chance to reduce the arrears fell to Les Smith, but the full back sliced wide. At the break the two goal lead was still intact.

Being a West Midlands December evening, to no-ones great surprise, the pitch was heavy from recent rain, and here’s where the story develops into potential folklore. Stan Cullis was certainly a keen observer of the game and wily enough to set conditions in his favour whenever the opportunity presented itself. Honved’s spectacular start to the game had bedazzled Wolves, and Cullis thought he knew why. In their short-sleeved shirts and lightweight boots, their rapid movement made the more heavily-shirted and shod Wolves players appear cumbersome in comparison to the Hungarians’ mercurial play. As the heavy pitch took its toll however their initial sharpness become more blunted and Wolves had eased back into the contest.

During the half-time break Cullis had a number of his ground staff – including a 16 year-old Ron Atkinson – take watering-cans onto the pitch to keep the conditions favourable. The itinerant manager-in-the-making would later describe that, Honved, “…were 2-0 up in no time, playing delightful football. Wolves with their billowy shirts, long shorts and big heavy boots seemed so ponderous in comparison. Yet Honved slowly but surely began to get bogged down in the increasing mud and Wolves with their characteristic long-ball style gradually began to grind down the Hungarians … There is no doubt in my mind that, had Cullis not ordered me and my mates to water the pitch, Honved would have won by about 10-0.” Big Ron was never slow to claim a role in success stories.

Now, whether the ruse had any direct effect on the game, or merely served as a placebo to increase the home players’ confidence is unclear, but you have to wonder just how much water a few ground staff boys with watering-cans could deploy during the halftime break. Perhaps they should have used some of those buckets of cold water, or sequestered Billy Wright’s fire engine instead.

Whatever the case, the second half continued to show the increase in Wolves’ domination of the game as the Hungarians faded. Perhaps it was merely Wolves’ style and power that simply wore their opponents down. This was a team whose success had been built on fitness and a muscular approach..

Whatever the case, the second period saw Farago in the Honved goal forced to make two good saves before the home team’s efforts bore fruit. Diminutive winger Johnny Hancocks was clumsily pushed over on the edge of the penalty area, and the referee pointed to the spot. The winger converted to put the result back into the melting pot.

It seemed now that Wolves had Honved on the run, and the Hungarians were compelled to resort to some fairly desperate manoeuvres to keep their lead intact. A through ball aimed for Roy Swinbourne would surely have put the centre forward clear had centre half Gyula Lorant not blocked the ball with his hands when hopelessly beaten. With Wolves now rampant the Hungarian star players disappeared from the action. Puskas shunted himself out to the wing to escape the attentions of an inspired Billy Wright, who was marshalling the home team’s back line with poise and authority; extinguishing fires with aplomb.

An equaliser was surely on the way and with fifteen minutes to play, Swinbourne rose to head home a cross and send the crowd into raptures. Just sixty seconds later, the centre forward broke through the middle of an overworked Honved defence and clinically finished to set up a victory that would be trumpeted well beyond the borough of Wolverhampton, the Black Country or the shores of Britain. The pride of Hungary, their nation’s champions, the nucleus of the team that had twice torn England asunder, had been humbled by Wolves – after giving them a two goal start!

Despite any effect of the pitch watering, the result shouldn’t be taken as anything less than deserved. Yes, Honved dominated early on, and could have been further in front but for Bert Williams, but for the majority of the game Wolves had at least enjoyed parity, and for much of the encounter, had been the dominant force. The Guardian described the redeemed Wright as being a “tower of strength” lauding his efforts to curtail “occasional Honved thrusts down the middle and urging his men on to greater effort”.

The victory, coupled with the spanking of Spartak was just the tonic English football needed to lift its head again. The press of course went overboard. The Daily Express cited the result as evidence that the game in England remained “the genuine, original, unbeatable article … still the best of its kind in the world,” whilst The Daily Mirror contented itself by lauding the Molineux men as “Wolves the Great.” Somewhere along the line, and whilst researching this article, I’ve read conflicting accounts, some claiming Cullis said it, some saying it was initially a line in The Daily Mail, the epithet of ‘Champions of the World’ was prematurely hung around Wolves’ players’ necks. At best it was hyperbole, at worst jingoistic. But It brought a stinging rebuke from across the channel.

At the time, Gabriel Hanot, a one-time France international player, was editor of the prominent French sports newspaper, L’Equipe. After reading reports of both the game and reaction, he was moved to write: “Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: Milan and Real Madrid to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one – larger, more meaningful and more prestigious than the Mitropa Cup (a truncated tournament involving only eastern and central European teams played at the time) and more original than a competition for national teams – should be launched.”

Together with fellow journalist, Jacques Ferran, Hanot had recently visited South America and observed the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones, the precursor to the Copa Libertadores. They had been inspired to champion a similar competition in Europe, but efforts to get the idea taken seriously in the corridors of power had to date been largely fruitless. The publicity surrounding the Wolves victory over Honved however gave the whole scheme the impetus it needed. At a Uefa congress in 1955, a competition was proposed and the European Cup was born the following year.

Of course, as less than subtle ironies run, despite an English club being instrumental in the creation of the tournament, the FA pressured the 1955 champions, Chelsea, not to take up the invitation to compete, preferring to see their affiliated clubs stay above such trifling thIngs. Too late for Chelsea, but in time for Manchester United, the following year, the FA realised the error of their ways and allowed the Old Trafford club to compete in the 1956-57 tournament. Also perhaps ironically with Honved now denuded of their star players – some of which would feature prominently in the new competition for other teams – the Hungarian club never had the opportunity to shine in the early European Cup as they surely would have done.

Perhaps fittingly, Wolves did compete in the tournament their endeavours had helped to create. They were first round casualties in 1958-59, and the following year reached the quarter-final before suffering an aggregate 9-2 defeat at the hands of Barcelona.

To date, that was the last time Wolves appeared in the European Cup, but their exploits on a floodlit and wet December night in 1954, when they brought down the supposedly invincible Hungarians of Honved and fished the reputation of English football out of the mire, will forever be written in the annals of the competition, describing how the European Cup was forged in the Black Country.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘The Football Pink’ magazine).

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