BY Vince Cooper

LITTLE could Stan Cullis or Joe Mercer know when they attended Ellesmere Port’s Cambridge Road school together that they would both go on to reach the very top in football, both on and off the field

Doing What Dad Said

Cullis and Mercer were chosen to represent Ellesmere Port boys against Chester in 1929 and the professional scouts were out in force. But the future for Cullis was already decided by the fact that his father was a passionate Wolves fan. “None of the scouts were allowed to talk to me,” Cullis, the youngest of 10 children said in his autobiography. “My father told them ‘when I consider my boy good enough, he will join Wolverhampton Wanderers’”.

It might seem odd to find ardent Wolves fans living in Ellesmere Port but in fact Mr Cullis and his family had been relocated there as part of the war effort by his employers the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company.

Stan had a trial at Bolton Wanderers as a youngster but failed to impress. Then in 1934, when he was 18 his dad, finally deciding that he was good enough for Wolves, wrote to the club requesting a trial. He impressed and the renowned Major Frank Buckley – known as the ‘martinet of Molineux’ – signed him after he had spent a week at the club.

During his first year while playing for the Wolves ‘A’ team, Buckley took him aside and said ‘Son, if you listen and do as you’re told I will make you captain of Wolves one day’.

Within a year he had made his first team debut, in two he was a regular and by the third he had fulfilled the captaincy prophecy. Cullis would later say that Buckley taught him; “to handle footballers with a rigorous authority and far more iron than velvet in your touch.”

Leading Wolves

Cullis led Wolves as they became the ‘nearly team’ in the years leading up to World War Two. Runners-up in the First Division in the 1937-38 season to Arsenal and in 1938-39 to Everton. They completed an unenviable double in the second season with defeat when hot favourites in the FA Cup Final to Portsmouth.

Wolves had coasted through the preliminaries, reaching Wembley by seeing off Bradford Park Avenue, Leicester City, Liverpool, Everton and Grimsby Town with 19 goals scored and only three conceded. But they appeared to freeze on the big day and succumbed to an experienced Pompey team.

Of his manager Cullis said: “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 18 could ask for a better instructor than the Major, who laid the foundations of the modern Wolves during his 16 years at Molineux”. They were foundations that he would benefit from – both as a player and a manager

Such was his progress that in the 1937-38 season Cullis -still only 20 – was called up by England for the first time and made his debut in the 5-1 win over Ireland in Belfast.

Strong both in the air and in the tackle, what set Cullis apart from most of his contemporaries was a composure on the ball and an ability to shrug off challenges as he carried it out from defence.

‘Count Me Out’

After that national team debut Cullis played in his country’s next three matches and was chosen for a fourth and appeared set for a long unbroken run – until his principles intervened.

In May 1938 during their end of season tour England travelled to Berlin to play Germany. Prior to the match, which was to be played in the presence of Rommel, Himmler and other dignitaries (Adolf Hitler was due to attend but pulled out at the last minute),  Sir Neville Henderson, the British ambassador to Germany informed FA Secretary Stanley Rous that the England players would be expected to give the Nazi salute before the game.

What happened next has often been the subject of speculation. What definitely happened was that when the players were informed the dressing room ‘erupted’ (according to Stanley Matthews in his autobiography) it was explained to them that due to the sensitivity of Anglo-German relations, giving the salute was an order and all, reluctantly, agreed. Some reports say that Cullis had already been left out for the match in favour of Huddersfield Town’s Alf Young. Others claim that the Wolves man simply said ‘count me out’ when asked to perform that salute and was subsequently dropped.

He was dropped from the team for his refusal but the selectors made it clear that the decision would not affect his international claims by choosing him against France before the end of the tour. Later that year played for the England team that beat the Rest of Europe 3-0 at Highbury in the FA’s 75th anniversary match.

Captain of England

He was made captain of his country (at 22 years old he was England’s youngest-ever at the time) for the game against Romania in Bucharest in May 1939. The team that day also included old friend Mercer and Tommy Lawton who later said that Cullis was; “The best centre-half I have met.

“He had the resilience of a concrete wall, the speed of a whippet and the footwork of a ballet dancer”.

FA XI v ARMY XI. Eddie Hapgood and Stan Cullis 

Lawton wasn’t the only one to sing his praises as a player, and leader. Wolves teammate Dick Dorsett, who lined up alongside captain Cullis in that Cup final defeat to Portsmouth in 1939 said of him: “ He was a centre half who was able to take an amazing grip of a game and inspire the men under him to act as he wanted them to. He bred a feeling of confidence that I found terrifically stimulating.

”I felt sorry for him when we lost in that final because if ever a man deserved the honour of a winners medal it was Stan Cullis”.

Like his former school friend and teammate Mercer, Cullis had his best footballing years taken away by World War Two. Also like Mercer he served his time as a Physical Training Instructor along with playing for Wolves, guesting for Aldershot, Gillingham, Fulham and Liverpool and appearing in 20 wartime internationals for his country. In one game he was hit in the face by a ball and spent five days in hospital with severe concussion, not the first time this had happened during his career. He was warned that by continuing to play he was risking his life and told to keep away from the game for at least six months.

Forced to Retire

After six-and-a-half years in the Army, including some time spent in Italy, Cullis returned to civilian life and carried on playing after the war ended but only for one more season. In the final game of the 1946-47 season Wolves took on Liverpool with the First Division title on the line. They lost 2-1 and Cullis decided, with regret, to retire. The decision was taken on the advice of doctors who continued to warn him that even heading a ball could cause serious injury or worse. He agreed that the risk to his health was too great and hung up his boots aged just 31.

When his career came to a close Stan had played 170 times for Wolves and gained 12 England caps. Both of these totals would have vastly increased had 7 years of organised football not been lost to World War Two,

After retiring Cullis took on the role of assistant manager at Molineux to Ted Vizard, and after serving a year’s apprenticeship under the Welshman took over as manager in June 1948.

A New Regime

Cullis, a tough disciplinarian who both demanded and gave 100% immediately installed a new training regime, and insisted that his side play a high-tempo game that would pressure opponents into mistakes. Each player was given individual fitness targets for running and jumping. In this he was truly innovative and his methods had an almost immediate impact.

In 1949, at the end of his first season in charge, and with the players he had inherited, Cullis led Wolves out at Wembley for the FA Cup final against Leicester City. His team ran out 3-1 winners with goals from Jesse Pye (2) and Sammy Smyth securing the club’s first major trophy since 1908.

Wolves finished runners-up to Portsmouth in the 1949-50 title race and then had a couple of disappointing campaigns as Cullis set about rebuilding his own team. Once he had got the right line-up together Wolves dominated English football.

They captured the Division One crown for the first time in 1953-54 and would win it twice more, as well as a second FA Cup, in the next eight seasons during which they never finished lower than sixth in the table.

And they also took on Europe, most famously Honved. In 1954, after the England national team had suffered two humbling defeats at the hands of Hungary, Wolves invited the Hungarian champions, who had provided seven of the team that thrashed the English, to Molineux for one of a series of prestigious floodlit friendlies.

‘Champions of the World’

A 55,000 crowd saw Wolves, wearing specially-designed fluorescent gold shirts, fall behind 2-0 early on. At half-time Cullis sent a number of the club’s apprentices, including Ron Atkinson, out to water the already wet pitch with the intention of slowing the Hungarians down. Johnny Hancocks pulled a goal back with a penalty early in the second half and then, surely benefitting from the Cullis training regime they finished the game strongly with a pair of late Roy Swinbourne goals securing a memorable 3-2 win.

After the game Cullis commented that his team were ‘Champions of the World’. That single comment sparked a Europe-wide debate on the merits of teams from various countries and indirectly resulted in the creation two years later of the European Cup.

After the excellent period throughout the 50s and at the turn of the next decade which included runs to the European Cup quarter final in 1960 and Cup Winners Cup semi in 1961 where they lost out to Rangers, Wolves started to struggle. In 1961-62 they finished 18th, although they bounced back to 5th the following year.

‘You Only Have One Life….’

In September 1964, after a 16th-place finish the previous season and a poor start to the new campaign, where he had missed five of the team’s first seven games due to illness, Cullis returned to the club to be told by new chairman John Ireland that he was sacked.

Cullis said: “I simply created a yardstick which people could criticise me against,” but the manner of the dismissal – he would say later that Ireland ‘so obviously enjoyed sacking me’ – and the shoddy way he was treated after giving 30 years to the club must have left a sour taste in the mouth of a man who had once said; “You only have one life and I gave mine to Wolves”.

After turning down the chance to manage Canadian team Toronto City, Cullis took some time out from the game before returning to manage Birmingham City but it certainly appeared that the spark had gone and, despite some success he retired in 1970.

Stan Cullis passed away peacefully in 2001 aged 84. He was honoured by Wolves for the 30 years of service he gave the club with the renaming of a stand and building of a statue at Molineux ensuring his name will forever be remembered at the famous stadium.

The Cambridge Road school in Ellesmere Port that both Cullis and Joe Mercer attended recently unveiled a plaque in honour of a great footballer, and a man prepared to stand by his beliefs, a true example.

Son Andrew, outgoing PFA chief Gordon Taylor and former Wolves great John Richards were among those who attended the ceremony with the school also hosting an exhibition honouring both Cullis and Mercer.

Ellesmere Port Mayor, councillor Lisa Denton said at the ceremony: “I’m really pleased that such an icon of football has been recognised.

“The plaque will remind us of his achievements and inspire the younger generation in Ellesmere Port”.

The defiance shown in 1938 in Berlin shows that the man once called ‘The Passionate Puritan’ surely deserves greater recognition throughout the game than just at the ground he called home.

Whilst touring clubs also decided not the perform the salute en masse  Stan Cullis made his stand as an individual and, as an outstanding player, manager and patriot he deserves to be remembered among the game’s elite.