by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
23 June 1948: Stan Cullis was appointed manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Stan Cullis was born in 1916 in Ellesmere Port to Wolverhampton born parents. He shone at football as a youngster but his father, a passionate Wolves fan, insisted that his son would only play for Wolves despite interest from other clubs. In the event he was spotted playing by a friend of the then Wolves manager Major Frank Buckley who quickly offered him terms. Cullis became a Wolves player in 1934, and made his debut on 16 February 1935 at Huddersfield. He became a first team regular shortly after and was soon to become captain a few days before his 20th birthday. Buckley had noted his potential as a captain from the moment he had joined the club, and in his autobiography, All for the Wolves, Cullis explained “Buckley spent many hours drilling me in the precious art of captaincy, telling me in no ambiguous terms that I was to be the boss on the field. No youngster of eighteen could ask for a better instructor than the major.”
As captain he led the team to second position in the League in 1938, 1939 and 1947. In 1939 Wolves came tantalisingly close to becoming the first team of the century to complete the double, but a spell of poor form towards the end of the season saw them fall away and finish runner ups in both competitions, the first team to do this particular double. They finished four points behind champions Everton in the league, and they also lost 4-1 to Portsmouth in the FA Cup Final, a game they were highly fancied to win.
Despite this disappointment Cullis was developing into a fine player. He was powerful in the air and tackle but had a keen brain and his distribution of the ball was first-rate. He would also go off on long dribbles into the opponents half, although he had an unfortunate running style that, with his arms akimbo, led to him being nicknamed Flipper. The Second World War robbed Cullis of the best years of what would have been undoubtedly a fine career. He had won an international call-up in 1937 making his debut on 23 October in a 5-1 win over Ireland. Because of the war he would only win 12 caps. He missed one game in 1938 because he announced that he would refuse to give a Nazi salute in a friendly against Germany, despite being requested to do so by the British ambassador to Germany, and so he was promptly dropped for this game. Reinstated he was made captain in the last game before the outbreak of war against Romania, with his appointment at the age of 22 making him England’s youngest ever captain.
Cullis had a reputation as a hard man but he was also one of great intelligence and it was during an England tour that he gave a glimpse of this. He managed to surprise the rest of the England team who were on a tour of Europe by not only responding to a challenge from his team mates to ask a French man directions in his own language, but proceeded to hold a lengthy conversation with the man in French.
During the War, like many footballers, he served in the army as a PT instructor both in Britain and in Italy. He also played a number of games for Wolves in war-time competitions as well as guesting for Aldershot, Fulham and Liverpool, and making 20 appearances for the war-time England side. When the war ended he briefly managed Fredrikstad of Norway during their summer league but returned to Wolves when football resumed for the 1946-47 season. Wolves again finished runners-up that season, losing the title after losing 2-1 at home to Liverpool on the last day of the season when a draw would have been enough. Liverpool’s last goal came when Alf Stubbins rounded Cullis before slotting home. Cullis had a chance to bring him down but he said afterwards that he did not want to be remembered as the captain who won his team the league by cheating.
At the end of the season after 171 appearances for Wolves and aged just 30, Cullis announced his decision to retire on medical grounds. Earlier in his career he had suffered a heavy concussion after being hit in the face by the ball, and at the time doctors had warned him about the dangers he faced from heading the old style heavy ball. When he then collapsed and was hospitalised for five days after a game against Middlesbrough in which he had been heading a ball made particularly heavy by the ice it had collected off a frozen pitch he decided that with the doctors again warning him about his health he would call it a day at the end of the season.
He became assistant manager of Wolves and when the incumbent manager Ted Vizard announced his retirement at the end of the 1947-48 season Cullis, now aged just 31 took over the reins. At the end of his first season in charge he became the youngest manager ever to win the FA Cup at Wembley as Wolves beat Leicester 3-1 to lift the club’s first trophy since 1908.
Cullis now took Wolves into the most successful period in the club’s history with a squad built around a core of locally born players. His managerial methods, deeply influenced by the theories of Charles Reep, a retired RAF wing commander whose elaborate theories of match analysis could be found in the pages of the News Chronicle, was played in a fast direct style with balls being delivered rapidly to the front players either through the centre or via the wings. For his tactics to succeed Cullis demanded wolves were fitter than all the other teams in the League, and his training regimes were revolutionary and intensive. Players were set targets to reach, and their performances in training were continually measured.
But, despite what the critics would say, they were more than a long ball team and had a side of individuals with considerable talent, such as captain Billy Wright, wingers Mullen and Hancocks, and forwards Pye and Broadbent. They won their first title under Cullis in 1954 with two more to follow in 1958 and 1959. They narrowly missed a hat-trick of titles and what would have been a remarkable double when they lost the 1959-60 league title to Burnley by one point. They did however beat Blackburn 3-0 in that season’s Cup Final (the one in which Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, now famously, broke his leg.)
Under Cullis Wolves also played a series of high-profile friendlies against the day’s top European clubs leading them to be crowned the “Champions of the World” by Cullis and the English media. Of particular note was a 1954 victory over a Honved side that included Puskas and had provided five of the players to the Hungarian national team that had thrashed England 7-1 earlier in the year. Molineux was packed to the rafters on the night in question as 55,000 watched under floodlights. The Hungarians took a two-goal lead within 15 minutes, but three second-half goals saw Wolves fight back to register a famous victory. Wolves also chalked up notable wins over leading Soviet clubs Moscow Dynamo and Moscow Spartak, and these friendlies were instrumental in the formation of the European Club competitions.
The start of the Sixties saw Wolves begin to slide from the great heights they had attained. They finished 3rd in 1961, fifth in 1962 and a slump to 16th saw the board getting worried, but It was still a great surprise when Cullis was sacked in September 1964. Even more surprising though was the manner in which he was treated by a club he had done so much for. A terse message had informed he was sacked followed by a note demanding he hand over his keys to the ground on headed notepaper with the printed words Stanley Cullis – Manager crudely scribbled out. Cullis, broken-hearted declared he would never work in football again despite an offer to manage Juventus. Matt Busby was so shocked, that he penned a letter expressing the opinion that Cullis’s treatment “has knocked me sick of human nature.”
Cullis did return to manage Birmingham, but apart from taking them to a FA Cup semi-final in 1968 he was unable to replicate the magic he had performed at Wolves, and those who knew him best felt that he had lost some of his love for the game. Eventually he retired for good in 1970.
Cullis died on 28 February 2001, aged 84. He will always be associated with Wolves and vice versa, and Bill Shankly was correct when he stated in his autobiography that Cullis “was 100 per cent Wolverhampton. His blood must have been of old gold. He would have died for Wolverhampton.” The Wolves fans of the time knew this and it made his treatment by the Wolves board harder to take. You will still find fans today of a certain age willing to rail against the decision and the manner it was carried out. The club only began to repair the rift with Cullis and give him the recognition he deserved in the mid-1990s when they named a stand after him, and held a testimonial match for him. They further honoured him with a statue at Molineux that was unveiled in 2003. He was told about the plans for this shortly before his death so he would have known that the he was finally getting the recognition that he so richly deserved.
Wolves legendary goalkeeper Bert Williams, who played over 400 times for Wolves in the 40s and 50s, recently bought up Cullis’s name in an interview. He was criticising the attitudes of the current players whose performances have seen Wolves relegated for a second successive season when he said simply “…Stan Cullis would never have allowed this to happen,” and the truth is Wolves have never again reached the same heights that Cullis led them to.