Before there was the Champions League there was the European Cup, and before there was the European Cup, there were the floodlit friendlies.
In the early 1950s, clubs across Europe began installing floodlights at their stadiums, allowing matches to be played not only on Saturday afternoons, as had been traditional, but also on midweek evenings. They proved an effective way of making money, crowds flocked to see the glamorous foreign sides who were invited, while television, freed from the restrictions covering league games, could broadcast the matches.
One of them, a game between Wolverhampton Wanderers and the Hungarian side Honved, played 60 years ago on Saturday, was to have far-reaching consequences. Wolves was one of the best English sides in the two decades following World War II.
Managed by Stan Cullis, a devoutly religious, profoundly moral man – he had effectively handed the 1947 league title to Liverpool by refusing to commit what we would today term a professional foul and bring down Albert Stubbins when he was clean through in the decisive game – Wolves played a brisk, muscular football that seemed to encapsulate all that was best in the British game. Wolves installed floodlights at Molineux in the summer of 1953, and officially turned them on for a game against a South Africa national side that September.
Argentinian side Racing Club was beaten 3-1, a game in which “Wolverhampton Wanderers efficiently demonstrated that English soccer played with speed and spirit is still world class,” according to Desmond Hackett in The Express.
Wolves then beat Dinamo Moscow 2-1 and Spartak 4-0, but the most memorable match, without question, was the meeting with Honved on December 13, 1954. Hungarian football had come to occupy a special place in the psyche of English football.
In November the previous year, Hungary had become the first continental European side to beat England in England, shattering all myths of English superiority with a 6-3 victory at Wembley. The following May, Hungary hammered England 7-1 in Budapest, still England’s worst defeat ever. Hungary inspired fear and awe, and that Honved side included six players who had appeared at Wembley a year earlier, most notably Ferenc Puskas and Jozsef Bozsik.
On the morning of the game, Cullis, remembering how Hungary had struggled in the mud in the World Cup final against West Germany that summer, sent out three apprentices – one of them a 16-year-old Ron Atkinson, who would go on to manager Manchester United – to water the pitch.
“We thought he was out of his mind,” Atkinson said. “It was December and it had been raining incessantly for four days.”
Honved struck twice in the opening quarter-hour, but the conditions soon began to take their toll.
“Honved gradually got bogged down,” Atkinson went on. “Their tricks got stuck in the mud.”
Cullis determined to bring the mud into play as little as possible and at halftime ordered his players to hit more long passes, to get the ball forward quickly to try to catch out the Honved fullbacks, whom he felt were playing too square. Four minutes into the second half, Wolves got the lifeline it needed as Johnny Hancocks converted a penalty.
“Bit by bit Wolves began to tighten the screws…” wrote Geoffrey Green in The Times. “They seemed to double in number and swarm everywhere. The pitch, more and more churned up, resembled thick glue. And the Molineux crowd surged, tossed and roared like a hurricane at sea, and called for the kill.”
With 14 minutes remaining, Dennis Wilshaw, who had almost been ruled out through injury after crashing his bike on the way to the game, crossed for Roy Swinbourne to head an equalizer. Within 90 seconds the same pair had combined for the winner. After a year of misery, English football reveled in the victory.
“I may never live to see a greater thriller than this,” wrote columnist Peter Wilson in the Daily Mirror. “And if I see many more as thrilling I may not live much longer anyway.”
The great former Sunderland and Arsenal forward Charlie Buchan saluted the affirmation of the English style in the News Chronicle. The Daily Mail captured the sense of ecstasy as it ran the headline, “Hail Wolves, Champions of the World."
There were doubters, foremost among them the journalist Willy Meisl, the brother of the former Austria coach Hugo Meisl, who had fled to England before the war to escape anti-Semitism at home. He spent most of the 1950s trying to reconcile his Anglophilia with his exasperation at the English failure to appreciate football happening overseas, and pointed out that only a few days earlier Honved had also lost to Crvena Zvezda, who at the time were seventh in the Yugoslav league, well adrift of the leaders Partizan.
“No one called Partizan champions of the world,” he said. “Dare I also remark in passing that quagmires are not usually considered the best pitches on which world championships ought to be decided, not even neutral quagmires.”
But the greatest consequence of that Daily Mail headline was to rile Gabriel Hanot, the former France international who had become editor of L’Equipe. So outrageous did he find the claim that he decided to set up a pan-continental competition to disprove it.
He discussed the idea with UEFA and, less than nine months later, on Sept. 4, 1955, the first European Cup got underway in Lisbon as Sporting drew 3-3 with Partizan. Out of the mud of Molineux, an overexcitable headline and the indignation of a Frenchman grew the world's most prestigious club tournament.