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Born: Wednesday 25 October 1916, Ellesmere Port, England
Died: Wednesday 28 February 2001, Malvern, England (aged 84)
Position: Centre Half/Manager
But for the Second World War, Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Stan Cullis would surely have become one of the few figures in English football to achieve great success as both a player and manager. Aged 22 and captain of club and country when the war began, he missed out on most of his playing career but went on to manage Wolves to the most successful period in their history and also helped to pave the way for the beginning of European club football.
Born in Ellesmere Port on the River Mersey on 25 October 1916, where like most young boys his first experiences of football involved playing in the streets with his friends. Several Football League clubs watched him as a schoolboy, but his father was a keen Wolves fan and was determined that his son should move to Wolverhampton. Both Wolves and Bolton Wanderers were interested in him and on his father's advice Cullis talked to the Midlands club first. He signed for Wolves in 1934 and by the following February had broken into the first team at the age of 18.
It took a couple of years for him to become a regular starter, but by the 1936-37 season he was established as first choice centre-half and captained the team for the first time while still a teenager having been marked out as a natural leader from the moment he signed. An out-and-out defender who rarely ventured over the half-way line, Cullis was strong and powerful and an excellent header of the ball, but also had great speed on the ground.
He made his England debut in a 5-1 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast in the autumn of 1937 and almost led his team to their first ever league title when Wolves lost their final game to finish second, just a point behind Arsenal. They were runners-up again a year later, this time to Everton and also reached the FA Cup final, but despite being hot favourites were surprisingly beaten 4-1 by Portsmouth. On 24 May 1939, Cullis captained England for the first time at the age of 22, the youngest ever at that time, but that would prove to be his last official cap as war broke out just months later.
Like a number of footballers, Cullis became an army physical training instructor during the war and served in both Britain and Italy, as well as playing 20 unofficial internationals for England, 10 of those as captain. Both before and during the war, he suffered bad concussions during games and was warned by doctors that further head injuries could potentially prove fatal. Cullis played on for just one more season when league football resumed and again came close to a league title success, but as in 1938 Wolves lost their last game when a win would have clinched the championship.
In that final game, against Liverpool, Cullis had the chance to bring down Albert Stubbins as he raced through to score the winner but let his opponent go on. When criticised for not making a foul, he maintained that he would rather lose than be remembered as a player who had won the league by cheating. After that match, Cullis retired at 31 and having turned down the chance to manage Hull City, became assistant manager at Wolves before being promoted to manager a year later.
A strict disciplinarian, Cullis set about toughening his team up with rigorous training methods including assault courses and strict targets for speed and jumping. His style of play was fast and direct, making great use of wingers Johnny Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen. In his first season in charge, he led the club to a first major honour in 41 years as Wolves beat Second Division Leicester City in the FA Cup final. However it was the league title, which the club had never won, which Cullis really wanted and it finally came in 1954 when a strong finish to the season overhauled fierce rivals West Bromwich Albion.
Through the 1950s, Cullis led his team into a series of unprecedented floodlit friendly matches against top European sides. One of these, in December 1954, was against a Honvéd side containing many of the great Hungarian players who had twice humiliated England over the previous two years. Trailing 2-0 at half-time, Cullis inspired his team to a second half fightback and a 3-2 victory which restored a great deal of pride to English football. Also beating Real Madrid and Spartak Moscow, the press hailed Cullis' team as the finest in the world, an assertion which led to the development of proper European club competitions.
For three years, Wolves missed out on the league title but won it back with a superb season in 1957-58, leading the table from late September onwards. They retained the title twelve months later, however when Cullis led his team into the European Cup they were unable to repeat the successes of their home friendlies of several years earlier, falling in the last 16 at the first attempt and the quarter-finals in 1960, losing 9-2 on aggregate to Barcelona.
Domestically, Cullis' team still had few equals and despite the retirement of captain Billy Wright they came within one point of a hat-trick of league titles in 1960, narrowly missing out to Burnley. Having been chasing a league and cup double, Cullis earned his fifth major trophy when his team recovered to beat Blackburn Rovers 3-0 in the FA Cup final. However, entering the 1960s he found his great team beginning to age and Wolves began to struggle.
After finishing 16th in 1963-64, a poor start to the following season saw Cullis sacked suddenly in September 1964, first learning of the decision when he was asked to return his keys to the ground. Fans were appalled by his dismissal and Wolves were relegated at the end of that season. Disillusioned, Cullis turned down the job of managing Juventus and spent a year away from football. When he did return to management, it was at Wolves' local rivals Birmingham City, who he took to an FA Cup semi-final, but was unable to replicate his earlier successes.
Cullis left Birmingham in 1970 and retired from management. In his retirement he joined a travel agency in the town of Malvern, as well as working in the photography business. Having become a widower, he spent his final years in a nursing home before his death in February 2001 at the age of 84. At Wolves' Molineux ground their great former player and manager is remember by a stand named in his honour.
References (all accessed 21 February 2012):
- Published on Tuesday, 21 February 2012 23:52