This article originally featured on our sister site Tale of Two Halves back in July 2018.
Good evening to one and all. I trust you’re all having a pleasant week. Smashing. Anyway, as much as I would like to stay here and exchange niceties with you, that’s not why I’m here. I’ve been tasked with kicking off a new weekly series called Game Changers. Essentially, it’s a long-form piece regarding a manager who changed the respective club that he managed. You could say, he changed the game. Hence the name! I’m sure that along the way there will be the usual suspects covered such as Sir Alex Ferguson and what have you, however, I’ve gone for a manager closer to home. Without a doubt, Wolves’ greatest manager of all time, Stan Cullis. In a wildly optimistic world, there is a chance that Nuno Espirito Santo could emulate the late, great Stan Cullis. This isn’t time for speculation, though, this is time for reflection.
A Brief Overview Of Stan’s Playing Career
Unfortunately, Stan’s prime footballing years were cut short by a little something called World War Two. Rather notably, during his playing career, he refused to perform the Nazi salute when England played Germany in Berlin. The only England player that defied Hitler. What a bloke Cullis was on the pitch. Success always eluded him, just. Two consecutive seasons prior to World War Two breaking out, Wolves and Cullis finished runners-up in Division One. So close. It was much the same after the Germans had been defeated, Wolves finished 3rd and that would mark the end of his playing career. You do have to wonder, what might have been had World War Two not happened? I guess we’ll never know.
In a year which is famous for Gandhi being murdered and the NHS being founded, it’s a significant date in the history of Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the summer of 1948, Stan Cullis was appointed manager of the Black Country club. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now, if I was to finish the article there, I wouldn’t be much of an opening batsman for the Game Changers, would I? Fear not, we are only just getting started…
One Season Played, One Trophy Won
It’s fair to say that going into Cullis’ debut managerial season, he was somewhat of an unknown quantity on the managerial front. That’s not to say he was without pedigree. He captained Wolves for a number of seasons and served as a PT during World War Two. Mess with Cullis at your peril. In Division One, Wolves finished twelve points behind champions Portsmouth and when you consider that it was two points for a win back then rather than three, that’s too much. The FA Cup, on the other hand, was a completely different kettle of fish…
Chesterfield made the relatively short trip to Molineux for the Third Round and were duly dispatched. Cullis’ army hit them for six. No sweat. Division One strugglers, Sheffield United were next on the Wolves hitlist. It wasn’t going to be as easy, though. Bramall Lane was the venue for this clash. Three goals and a clean sheet saw Wolves march on to round five. The opponents lying in wait? Liverpool. No bother, Scousers sent back to Liverpool with their collective tails between their legs. 3-1. Round Six. The shit at home. I’m not even going to bother writing their name. After scoring at least three goals per game in the three rounds which preceded this one, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a whitewash. Not quite. 1-0 to the good guys. James Mullen getting the only goal midway through the second half. United in the semis.
Leicester Left With Pye On Their Face
Hillsborough was the venue. United the opponents. Wolves being Wolves, we didn’t do things the easy way. It looked promising against the Red Devils when Sammy Smyth put us in the lead with the game only eleven minutes young. Another vintage Wolves performance on the cards? Not quite. Just twelve minutes later, Mitten drew United level. No other goals were scored which meant it was replay time. Goodison Park the venue on this occasion. As the tie entered the last five minutes, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the game was going to extra time. Sammy Smyth had other ideas, again. With 86 minutes on the clock, he sent Cullis’ side to the final.
30th of April. Wembley Stadium. 98,920 people in attendance. Thirteen is considered a somewhat unlucky number and that proved to be the case for Leicester in the final. Jesse Pye gave us the lead after thirteen minutes. Could we hold on for seventy-seven minutes? We could do better than that. Pye doubled his and Wolves’ tally with a smart strike three minutes before the interval. Turn and strike. Boom, 2-0. For reasons unknown, a lot of people say 2-0 is a dodgy scoreline. I’ve never really understood it, until now.
Smyth Makes It Three In Three
With the second half only two minutes old, Mal Griffiths made it 1-2. Panic stations. Not quite, not with Cullis in charge. Before Sammy Smyth put the game to bed, there was a moment of pandemonium. Chisholm did draw Leicester level. Fortunately for Wolves, it was ruled offside. I haven’t seen it but I’m 100% sure it was the right decision. Sammy Smyth was not to be prevented, though as he drove from the centre circle to put us 3-1 up. It was the third time the FA Cup had arrived at Molineux. What a feeling!
After Glory Came The Heartbreak
Spurred on by the FA Cup win, Cullis was optimistic that his dream of winning a title with Wolves would come true in the 1949-1950 season. To be fair, it started off well. A 100% record from the first six put us in the driving seat. We weren’t in the business of keeping clean sheets, though. Ultimately, that would come back to bite us on the arse later in the season… We first dropped points away at St Andrew’s when only an own goal from Dorman gave us a point. It wasn’t much, but we were still unbeaten and still on the right track. Mullen and Pye got the goals three days later away at Everton to get us back to winning ways.
After that, Huddersfield arrived at Molineux and they got a pasting to end all pastings. Pye got a treble, Forbes got two and Mullen & Smyth got one apiece. 7-1. Have some of that. A trip to Fratton Park was next on the menu. It’s important you remember this game. It finished 1-1, Pye got our goal. We’ll come back to that later. A narrow win at the Baseball Ground was followed by another Pye goal as we were held by them lot down the road. Even still, twelve games played, nine wins and three draws. It was all downhill from there…
Twelve Unbeaten To Eleven Without A Win
Yeah, you read that correctly. To have such a magnificent start which went the way it did is typical Wolves. What a catastrophic turn of events. It all began at Old Trafford. A 3-0 walloping. A week later, Chelsea came to the West Midlands. We didn’t lose as a brace from Smyth ensured we at least put another point on the board. Cullis was going to have to dig in deep. Our next game came on bonfire night. A Staffordshire derby against Stoke. Hancocks got our solitary goal as Stoke won the battle, who would win the war, though?
After that Stoke game, there was a rather mundane run of six games where we lost once and drew five. Not ideal if you want to be winning titles. A Christmas Eve trip to the North East didn’t prove to be full of the holiday spirit as Cullis’ side lost 2-0. The next result is a hard one to take. Despite Smyth and Swinbourne getting on the scoresheet, we lost to Villa 3-2 at Molineux. On Boxing Day. Fucking hell, talk about worst Christmas ever. We didn’t have time to whine about it as the return game came just a day later. I’m not sure whether that’s accurate as I’d imagine it would have been the 28th. Anyway! We bounced back at Villa Park. And then some. Swinbourne was at the double, Pye got one and Smith (not Smyth, apparently) got the other. 4-1. At Villa Park. Maybe Christmas wasn’t ruined after all. A New Year’s Eve drubbing of Blackpool gave 1949 a fitting finish as Hancock, Mullen and Pye gave Wolves the two points.
Could Cullis Successfully Defend The FA Cup?
Lowly Plymouth Argyle were the opposition in the FA Cup Third Round. It shouldn’t have even been a contest. Of course, Wolves made a meal of it. While we may have drawn 1-1 at Home Park, a good benchmark is to see that the shit drew 2-2 in Cardiff, as well. In the replay, we did our job and tonked the Green Army 3-0. Cardiff did a number on them lot at the Hawthorns and came away with a credible 1-0 win. Into the hat we went for round four. Two games in quick succession followed by a trip to Ayresome Park wasn’t ever going to prove fruitful. Cullis’ side lost 2-0 against Middlesbrough and then could only manage a 1-1 draw against Everton, Wilshaw getting the goal.
After that, it was FA Cup time again. Whereas we beat Sheffield United with relative ease in the FA Cup the season before, that wasn’t going to be the case this season, oh no. A 0-0 draw at Molineux meant a midweek jaunt to Sheffield. It was worth the journey. A seven-goal thriller saw Wolves progress to round five. But at what cost? Another defeat away from home. This time to Huddersfield. Back to the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup…
Blackpool were then the opponents in the cup. As was becoming a pattern, we drew the first game which forced a replay. We lost. I’m not 100% certain, but I’d imagine Cullis would have had one eye on the clash with Pompey which followed the replay. We beat Portsmouth, McLean the scorer.
The Final Stretch
Thirteen games remained. Pye got his first goal(s) in four games as he and Walker got a pair each as Derby were swept aside without any bother. Next up was those Albion bastards. A trip to the Hawthorns is never much fun on the best of days. I could tell you tales about my trips to Sandwell and perhaps I will on another day. On this occasion, Hancocks got our only goal of the game as we were held to a 1-1 draw. Catastrophe struck on the 11th of March as we capitulated at home to Sunderland, losing 1-3 with Smyth getting his first league goal of the calendar year. There were ten games left and we would only lose one of them.
First up, was a trip to Anfield. We came away with the spoils thanks to an immense performance from Bert Williams. In a cartoon by George Green, it says “Williams gave one of the finest displays of goalkeeping ever seen at Anfield” High praise, indeed. The cartoon then goes on to say “Williams was like the man on the flying trapeze” – Hancocks and Swinbourne got the goals as we won 2-0. Stoke were next up. We owed them one for earlier in the season when they beat us at their gaff. Hancocks and Swinbourne were again on the scoresheet as we picked up a narrow 2-1 win.
Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Walker
Our next four were all against teams in the North West. Turf Moor was the stadia which hosted our first game of the ‘Lancashire Quartet’ and in case you’re wondering, yes I have made that name up. The worst thing about this game was that it fell on April Fools Day. So, when Walker, who got the only goal of the game, phoned home after the game to tell his folks he got the winner, they wouldn’t have believed him. I’ve got a working theory. Bear with me. After the win versus Burnley, the red half of Manchester visited WV1. Once more, Walker got our only goal of the game, however, our opponents would score this time out. Not the ideal time of year to be dropping a point.
Back up to Lancashire we went. Maine Road and Manchester City were standing in our way. This would incidentally be the first of two matches against the Citizens in two days. For the third successive game, Walker scored our only goal. There was a problem this time. City scored two. We lost. This was big a problem with five games left and Cullis knew that. Fortunately, as mentioned, the quick turnaround meant we could quickly make amends. I reckon Walker must have finally convinced his family to come to this match after his scoring spree because he failed to find the net this time. Hancocks, Pye and Swinbourne had no such trouble as City were dispatched. 3-1.
Four Games To Go
Entering the final four, we are going to focus our attention on Wolves and Pompey. Wolves were on 46 points, Pompey 47. There were other teams in the mix, but we’ll keep the spotlight in Pompey and Wolves. So, considering how tight it is, what did Wolves go and do at Stamford Bridge? That’s right. Fuck all. Fired blanks. Williams had another good game so we didn’t lose, but with Pompey beating United at Old Trafford on the same day, the title was seemingly falling out of Cullis’ grasp once again. Three games left, Wolves were on 47 points, Pompey on 49. In that day and age, it was goal average that was looked at rather than goal difference if the two teams were tied on points at end of the campaign. Either way, Pompey basically had an extra point because of their superior goal average.
We needed Pompey to drop points twice in their final three games. 22nd of April saw us both at home. Pompey hosted the Scousers and thought about dropping points, nonetheless, they won 2-1 in the end. We had Arsenal to deal with and they still had a faint hope of winning the league. We put that to bed as Walker scored a brace and Pye got the other in a convincing 3-0 win. Still only two points in it. Two games left. We were once again in Lancashire as we entertained Bolton. And boy, was it an entertaining game! Only 14,886 witnessed a six-goal thriller as a Bolton side with nothing to play for played their part in a memorable encounter. Bolton scored two, we scored four. Hancocks, Mullen, Pye and Wright. It wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.
Portsmouth played their penultimate game of the season a few days after us due to Arsenal’s involvement in the FA Cup. Pompey knew that a win would all but seal the title. It would take a ridiculous final day goal swing and a loss for Portsmouth to chuck it away. All they had to was see off an Arsenal side who were buzzing after their FA Cup win against Liverpool. Pompey came up short in North London. Arsenal won 2-0. Wolves and Cullis still had a chance.
Going into the final day, us and Pompey were both locked on fifty-one points. We had a West Midlands derby against Birmingham, Pompey faced Blues’ rivals Aston Villa at Fratton Park. If we bettered Portsmouth’s result, we would be champions. If we matched it, we would need a goal swing that wasn’t going to happen. We needed Villa to do us a favour. The only issue with that is that Villa had nothing to play for. With Cullis in charge, we were always going to beat Blues, there are two ways about it. And we did give them a right thumping. Mullen & Pye both notched two while Swinbourne and Walker both got singles. 6-1. Over to you, Villa. Do you know something? I’d expect nothing less from Villa than a complete self-destruct mission to stick it to us. That’s exactly what happened. Pompey won 5-1. Devastatingly close.
Reflection On What Might Have Been
Remember the game at Fratton Park that we drew? If we had won that, we would have been champions. Remember the Boxing Day 3-2 defeat at Villa Park? If we had drawn that, we would have been champions. If we had managed some clean sheets in the first twelve games, we may well have been champions. I guess you can dream up as many ‘what if’ scenarios as you like, ultimately, Portsmouth deserved it. The important thing to do after coming so close is to ensure that you do everything in your power to win it the season after…
This is far from the end of this tale, check back on Tuesday for Part Two.