European Football Comes Home - 

How Molineux became the spiritual home of European Football during the 1950s


For fans of some clubs, a Thursday night fixture in the first round of the Europa League is somewhat of a come down.  For Wolves however, it will be the first time they’ve appeared in the first-round proper of a European tournament for 39 years. Despite the rarity of European tie at Molineux however, the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers was the scene for a chain of events that gave birth to the very idea of a pan-European competition to decide just who is the continent’s best side.

The idea of a competition between sides from different European nations occurred as early as 1897 with the Mitropa Cup, competed for by sides from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and other central European nations such as Italy. During the inter-war years Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman had mooted the possibility of a Western European version of the Mitropa Cup, however his untimely death and the Second World War had shelved any attempt to progress with the matter. One of the major impediments to such a competition however had been that the FA had not permitted the use of floodlights until 1950s, without which such fixtures could not be accommodated.

The rise in television after the Queen’s coronation in 1953 had increased the demand for televised games, with the BBC televising floodlit friendlies, the first such game between Arsenal and Hibernian at Highbury in October 1952, this was followed by a London XI taking on a Berlin XI the following March also at Highbury, Spurs taking on Racing Club Paris in September 1953, as well as matches between Scottish side Falkirk and North East giants Newcastle and Middlesbrough. What had fuelled the British public’s fascination with British sides taking on overseas competition had been a meeting between the England national side with Olympic Football Champions Hungary in late November 1953. The Hungarians had been unbeaten for their previous twenty-four games. Outside of other home international sides, England had only lost a fixture on home soil to the Republic of Ireland just four years prior.  

Another aspect of this encounter had been the cold war and battles between and East and West, in particular the Communist bloc and the Capitalist ‘Free World’. In a sporting sense, this had been sparked by the British tour of the Moscow Dynamo side in late 1945, which famed author George Orwell described as “War minus the shooting” in an article called ‘The Sporting Spirit’ written for the Tribune. The tour kicked off with Dynamo facing an Arsenal side forced to play their home fixture at White Hart Lane as a result of bomb damage suffered to Highbury during the war. This controversial fixture was described in greater detail in this article for The Gooner Fanzine from February 2012. Other games from the Dynamo’s tour of 1945 had included a 10-1 hammering of Cardiff City at Ninian Park, as well as meeting with Chelsea and Rangers. England’s star forward of the period, Tommy Lawton had said of the Russians that: “They were a wonderful, incisive side, far more technically gifted than anything you’d come across in England”.

The England v Hungary fixture however had been the first time in which a live televisual audience would witness such an east meets west footballing encounter. The British sporting press had also built up the fixture as the ‘Match of the Century’. The fixture turned out to be somewhat of a rude awakening for the English game with the Three Lions on the receiving end of a 3-6 hammering. Even worse was to follow six months on with a rematch in Budapest with the Hungarians running out 7-1 winners.

The aura of the “Magnificent Magyars” had been punctured somewhat by defeat to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final in Switzerland, but along with way Hungary had managed an 8-3 win over the West Germans earlier in the tournament, a 9-0 win over South Korea a 4-2 victory against Brazil and a Semi Final win over Uruguay

In the final, the Hungarians took a two-goal lead, which the West Germans pulled back for a 3-2 win to achieve their first ever World Cup, in what came to be known as the ‘Miracle of Berne’.

The English press had sought somewhat of a redress for the pride of the English game with an upcoming televised friendly between English Champions Wolves and the reigning Champions of Hungary, Honved who had just won their fourth Hungarian league title on the bounce. First however, Wolves would meet a touring Moscow Spartak side at Molineux. Spartak however would first meet Arsenal at Highbury, with the second half of the game captured live on BBC television. Spartak managed a 2-1 victory over the Gunners. One week later however, in front of another live TV audience on the BBC the Wolves would restore English pride with a thumping 4-0 victory.

Twelve days before Christmas 1954 came the visit of Honved to Molineux.  Again, only the second half would be shown live by the BBC. Honved had taken a two goal first half lead. The watching British public however got to see Wolves claw back an exciting 3-2 victory with Honved suffering as a result of a pitch which became increasingly waterlogged as the match went on. Two days later, Chelsea played another Hungarian side - Red Banner – at Stamford Bridge. The BBC had televised the whole of the game, which kicked off during the afternoon.  Despite this, a crowd of 40,000 turned out for the game, which ended in a 2-2 draw.       

The biggest legacy of the Honved game had come directly as a result of the response of the British press to the result. Wolves were claimed as “Champions of the World”, which led to a reaction from newspapers across the continent and particularly French newspaper L’Equipe, which stated:

“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 and more original than a competition for national teams – should be launched”.

UEFA’s congress the following March saw the issue raised and a month later approval was received for the first European Cup competition to commence at the start of the following season. Chelsea had won the Football League championship in 1954/55, but was denied the opportunity to compete within the inaugural competition. Public demand to see English sides compete against top sides from the continent however failed to abate, with the launch of ITV in September 1955 seeing the new network following the BBC’s lead with further televised friendlies. The first of which had been Spurs v Vasas Budapest in early October of that year.

In early November 1955, Wolves again featured with a 2-1 victory over Moscow Dynamo. In the meantime, ITV experimented with live afternoon coverage of FA Cup replays commencing from January 1956, the first of which had been Arsenal’s replayed 3rd round tie with Bedford Town. This had lasted for just one season before being discontinued by ITV.

Real Madrid had won the inaugural European Cup in 1956 and Matt Busby’s Manchester United secured the League title and were unwilling to turn down the opportunity to perform on the European stage, thus becoming the first English side to perform in the competition in 1956/57. In the meantime, Spartak Moscow competed against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in late March with the Blues running out 2-0 winners with the 2nd half shown live on ITV, while United run ended with defeat to Real Madrid, with the home leg at Old Trafford breaking early TV audience records as the game had been covered live on the ITV network. Real retained their European crown that year, however suffered a 3-2 defeat to Wolves in a friendly televised on ITV the following October. Meanwhile, two weeks later Wolves’s Black Country rivals West Brom got in on the act with a televised floodlit friendly with CSDA Moscow which ended in a thrilling 6-5 victory at the Hawthorns.

As Wolves won back their League title in 1957/58, the Molineux side finally got their opportunity to compete in the European Cup competition which their endeavours a few years earlier had managed to go some way to inspire the creation of. Wolves ended up eliminated in the first round, however on retaining their title in 1958/59 reached the Quarter Final of the tournament, but suffered a 2-5 home defeat to Barcelona, the second half of which featured live on ITV.

The legacy of Wolves’s early televised encounters with foreign foe went someway to pave the way for football as a televised spectacle, as highlighted by Joe Lovejoy’s biography on George Best which states that these encounters gave footballing inspiration to a young Best who became a Wolves fan as a direct result. Best stated that: “to me they had to be the team because they were playing the glamour games against the foreigners”. Best’s childhood hero had been Wolves midfielder Peter Broadbent. However, moving into the sixties, the Wolves’ side became somewhat eclipsed by sides like the George Best inspired Man United, as well as the like of Liverpool, Leeds United and even Spurs winning domestic and European honours, as well as reaping the benefit of regular TV highlights shows such as Match of the Day.

Wolves dropped into the second tier by the mid-1960s, though did return by 1967. A much more moderate second wave of post-war success occurred during the 1970s, with Wolves winning the inaugural Texaco Cup which involved sides from Scotland and both sides of the Irish border with a victory over Hearts. Wolves also competed in the very first European final which involved two English sides in 1972. Wolves however were defeated 2-3 on aggregate to Spurs in the UEFA Cup Final. The Black Country side however secured the League Cup in 1973/74 with a 2-1 win over Man City at Wembley.

Wolves’s last major trophy came in 1979/80 by preventing Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side a third successive League Cup win with a goal from Andy Gray. The 1980s however would not be a great decade for Wolves have sunk to the fourth tier of English football due to three successive relegations between 1983 and 1986. One of the factors behind Wolves’s collapse had been wider economic turmoil affecting the West Midlands area. Wolves’s goal scoring hero in the 1980 League Cup final, Andy Gray, had laid the blame on the club building a new stand, stating in his autobiography that: “It was supposed to be the first phase of a redevelopment that would bring capacity up to 40,000 when it was complete. I’m not sure why anyone thought it was necessary because average gates at the time were more like 20,000”.    

Wolves had climbed their way back up to the second tier by the close of the 1980s, on the back of England striker Steve Bull’s goal scoring abilities. The club also enjoyed two spells in the Premiership in 2003/04 and between 2009-2012, but failed to finish higher than 15th on any occasion. The club’s exploits 2018/19 however propelled them to a 7th place finish and a first European qualification in nearly four decades, with renewed hope that the sleeping giants of the black country can revive the spirit of ’54 over sixty five years on.

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