Ever since Wolves sealed promotion to the Premier League in May, they have made it clear that their ambitions extend far beyond simply staying there.
“Our mission is to win the Premier League, not to survive in it,” managing director Laurie Dalrymple said in September. “This is no vanity project. It is a culture that is even more driven towards being the best, expecting nothing but success.”
It is easy to dismiss such statements out of hand, but with substantial financial backing from owners Fosun International and a useful connection with superagent Jorge Mendes, Wolves could become a genuine force in the top flight in the coming years. For now, though, the greatest period of the club’s history remains the 1950s, when the West Midlanders won three league titles and competed with the best Europe had to offer.
In the late 1930s Wolves came agonisingly close to winning the league for the first time, finishing second to Arsenal in 1938 and Everton the following campaign. Captain Stan Cullis, who would later lead Wolves to unprecedented success as manager, was a key part of that team, a solid centre-half who possessed a thunderous tackle and a powerful header.
However, Cullis’ playing career was disrupted by the outbreak of war. Just as Wolves appeared to be on the cusp of something special, their chance was taken away from them.
When Cullis returned from the conflict, in which he had served as a Physical Training Instructor, he resumed his role as club captain. In 1946/47 – the first season since fighting had broken out in 1939 – Wolves again seemed on the verge of the title. They were two points clear at the top on the final day of the campaign, only to finish third after being beaten 2-1 by Liverpool, who duly pipped them to the championship crown. Wolves had scored 98 goals – 38 of which had come from the prolific Dennis Westcott – but could not get over the line.
It seemed the biggest prize in English football might prove eternally elusive. Following the disappointment of the Liverpool defeat, Cullis confirmed his retirement at the age of 31; Wolves were hit hard by his absence, finishing a distant fifth the following year.
Cullis was back in 1948, this time as the club’s manager. During his playing career he was largely seen as a hardman who relied on brawn more than brain, but the truth was difference; strong and sturdy he may have been, but Cullis was also an intelligent reader of the game who went on to become a major success in the dugout.
It would, however, take time for the former defender to get his ideas across. After finishing second in 1950, Wolves fell away: the next two seasons saw them finish 14th and 16th. Sinking down the table to such an extent was a disappointment for the club’s fans, but glory was just around the corner – and they achieved it in the sweetest way possible.
Cullis’ team were unerringly proficient in front of goal in 1953/54. Their swift, attacking football saw them net 96 goals, a significant portion of which were scored by the prolific forward line of Johnny Hancocks, Roy Swinbourne and Wilshaw. West Bromwich Albion, the club’s fierce rivals, were beaten to the title by four points.
It was the beginning of a hugely successful decade for Cullis’ side. Throughout the 1950s, Wolves battled with Manchester United’s Busby Babes and established themselves as one of Europe’s top teams.
In the year of their first title, 1954, Wolves played the most high profile of a series of friendlies against European opposition, beating Hungarian champions Honved 3-2 at Molineux. This was a team which contained six of the players – including the legendary Ferenc Puskas – who had featured in Hungary’s humiliation of England a year earlier.
It was also a game which restored confidence in English football, and soon other clubs wanted to test themselves against their foreign rivals. Wolves’ felling of the mighty Honved, it transpired, was the catalyst for the beginning of the European Cup, which started a year later.
Domestically, Cullis’ side continued to compete for honours. There was a wait of four years until their next title, which came in 1957/58; by then, Wolves were at their irresistible best as an attacking force, with Peter Broadbent and Jimmy Murraywere plundering 96 goals between them over two seasons.
Another title was added to the trophy cabinet the following season, and again Wolves appeared unstoppable. For four consecutive campaigns they scored in excess of 100 goals. But it was not just the forward players who earned plaudits. Wide men Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen were an integral part of the sie, and defender Billy Wright, who played 541 games for the club in all competitions, was instrumental in each of the title-winning campaigns.
This was a team of club legends, a group of players who marked themselves indelibly into Wolves’ history. Any subsequent success has never quite matched the peak of the 1950s, but the memories remain.
Molineux is a place of history, of past glory, and there is currently a feeling brewing under the surface that Wolves can once again challenge at the very top of the English football pyramid. Replicating the achievements of Cullis and co., though, will surely prove a step too far.