by Tom Bason
If I was to ask which British team have had the greatest impact on the formative years of European competition, who would you say? Hibernian, the first British team to play in a continental tournament? Tottenham, the first British winners of a European trophy? Perhaps Celtic, whose Lisbon Lions of ’67 defeated Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale?
All of those clubs have strong claims, but just how much impact did they have on the tournament itself? To find the answer we need to travel back to the 1953/54 season in the English Division One, for it was in 1953 that Wolverhampton Wanderers first installed floodlights at Molineux.
A seemingly innocuous move, it could be argued that those very lights set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to Real Madrid being crowned FIFA’s Club of the Century and George Best becoming one of the greatest of all time.
Wolves were crowned English Division One Champions for the first time in their history in 1954, arch-rivals West Bromwich Albion being beaten into second place. A team including the likes of Dennis Wilshaw, Bert Williams, Ron Flowers, Johnny Hancocks and England captain Billy Wright were very much the best team in the country.
However, this was the pre-European Cup era and so Wolves had to find other ways to test themselves against Europe’s elite. Thanks to the newly installed floodlights, midweek games were now an option, and so a series of ‘floodlit friendlies’ were set up against Moscow Dynamo, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Honvéd.
Following a 3-1 victory over a South African XI in September 1953 to celebrate the new floodlights, Racing Club de Avellaneda, Argentinian champions in three of the previous five seasons were beaten 3-1, Maccabi Tel Aviv being summarily dispatched 10-0. Wolves followed this up with a 4-0 defeat of reigning Soviet champions Spartak Moscow.
These games were among the first to be shown live on the BBC and helped captivate a new generation of football fans including a young George Best watching in Northern Ireland:
“Mr Harrison only had a small black and white set and TV crews then probably only used one camera, as opposed to the hundred or so they have today. But when Wolves played sides like Moscow Spartak and Moscow Dynamo, it was as though they were playing against aliens. As far as we were concerned, the Russians were bogeymen, they could have come from another planet. And yet here they were playing against Wolves on television.”
Then, on a cold and wet day in December 1954 came the visit of Hungarian side Honvéd, a team which included five of the Hungarian team to have humiliated England 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 in Budapest, the Mighty Magyars.
One of these was a certain Ferenc Puskás, one of the greatest players ever to pull on a pair of football boots. Wolves captain Billy Wright had also captained England on those fateful nights, and this was certainly seen by the English media as a chance for English football to prove (however tenuously) that it was still the world’s global power.
This was a special match – Wolves wore satin shirts to show up in the floodlights and, in front of an attendance of 54,998, Honvéd quickly raced into a two goal lead; Kocsis and Machos with the goals as the Hungarians dominated the early stages.
Wolves fought to get back into it but couldn’t get near the great Hungarians, surely the Barcelona of their day. 2-0 down and outplayed at halftime, Wolves manager Stan Cullis needed a moment of inspiration and ordered his players to play long balls behind the Honvéd fullbacks.
With torrential rain having fallen in the days leading up to the game, and Cullis having the pitch watered pre kick-off, it wasn’t long before the conditions started to deteriorate. A controversial early second half penalty saw Johnny Hancocks halve the deficit, and it was game on.
With Honvéd’s passing game not doing them any favours in the mud, Wolves started to dominate. After Hancocks had hit the bar Wolves finally got their deserved equaliser; Ray Swinborne heading home a Dennis Wilshaw cross in the 76th minute. At this stage there was only going to be one winner, and minutes later Swinborne provided the winning goal to rapturous applause.
It may have been a famous Wolves victory, but its significance was overplayed in the English press the following day. ‘Hail Wolves, Champions of the World’ ran the Daily Mail headline. This did not go unnoticed in France. Gabriel Hanot, editor of L’Équipe and a long-time campaigner for an organised European competition responded:
“Before we declare that Wolverhampton Wanderers are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: A.C. 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 and more original than a competition for national teams — should be launched.”
Despite FIFA’s initial hesitance, Hanot was not to be denied, proposing for L’Équipe to organise the tournament if FIFA did not organise it. In March the following year, the newly formed UEFA were given control of the ‘European Champions Clubs Cup’ using the rules proposed by L’Équipe.
The first match took place later that year, Partizan Belgrade holding Sporting Lisbon to a 3-3 draw with Real Madrid going on to defeat Stade de Reims in the final to become the first European Champions, a title they would hold for five years, the start of the Real Madrid legend.
The FA were mistrusting of this new competition and refused Chelsea entry, leaving Scottish side Hibernian (who had previously finished fourth in the Scottish League) to become Britain’s first ever representatives in Europe. The following year though, Manchester United’s Busby Babes entered, losing in the semi-finals to Real Madrid as a long history of British success in the competition began.
It would take Wolves until 1958 to first taste competitive European football, losing 4-3 on aggregate to German Champions Schalke 04. However, in October 1957 Wolves again faced one of the leading lights of Europe in a midweek floodlight friendly; European Champions Real Madrid visiting the Football League Champions elect.
Madrid, featuring a line-up including such greats as Alfredo Di Stefano, Raymond Kopa and Jose Santamaria were firm favourites to beat a Wolves side missing the inspirational Billy Wright and duly took an early lead through Ramon Marsal. Wolves equalised just before halftime through Jimmy Murray who then secured a second half lead.
Madrid pushed hard for an equaliser, eventually getting it with Marsal grabbing his second, but it was Wolves who were victorious when Dennis Wilshaw scored a late winner. This match inspired Wolves to win their second Division One title, and repeated the success the following season.
Unfortunately, European glory would always elude Wolves whose came closest to a continental title in their 1973 UEFA Cup Final defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. What cannot be denied, however, is the impact that Wolves, and the Daily Mail, had on European club football.
Although there had been plenty of unofficial tournaments over the past 50 years, it was the defeat of Honvéd and the subsequent reaction and persistence of Gabriel Hanot that sparked UEFA in to life and has led to so many of those great European nights that we’ve enjoyed over the years.