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Sir Matt Busby.

In the company of Wolves

Back in the 1950s, that epochal era in which Sir Matt Busby rolled out a football manifesto still lovingly referred to by the United faithful, Saturday's opponents were a major threat to our quest for honours.

Of the top-flight titles contested between 1949 and 1959, United and Wolves shared six – three apiece – and finished runners-up on two occasions each. In only one of those 10 seasons did both clubs finish outside the top two; an achievement all the more remarkable in an age where the concept of a 'big four, five or six' was merely a glint in a marketing man's eye – if the notion of a marketing man had even been considered then.

Such were the relative strengths of the game's elite, that if United and Wolves didn't get you, Portsmouth, West Bromwich Albion or Burnley probably would.

George Best in action against Wolves.
George Best takes on the Wolves defence.

United crossed paths with Wolves relentlessly in that glorious first post-War decade. The Red flag may have been planted by Busby's bright young things when we became English football's first continental club ambassadors in the 1956/57 season, but it was the old gold of Wolves, with their pioneering floodlit friendlies in the early part of the decade that helped usher in the European Cup, principally the dramatic 1954 victory over Hungarian giants Honved.

A live television audience – including an entranced Belfast lad by the name of George Best – had already watched, spellbound, as Wolves thrashed Spartak Moscow 4-0 the previous month.

Now, against a Honved containing 'Galloping Major' Ferenc Puskas, Josef Bozsik and Sandor Kocsis, among half the 'Mighty Magyars' that humiliated England at Wembley a year earlier, Stan Cullis's team overturned a 2-0 half-time deficit to dramatically triumph 3-2. Wolves apprentice Ron Atkinson had helped water an already sodden pitch on the morning of the game, the better for Wolves' athleticism to take its toll.

The Daily Mail gleefully banged the patriot's drum. “Hail Wolves, Champions of the world!” screamed the headline. As a result, French journalist Gabriel Hanot, editor of L'Equipe, who'd long since mooted his idea for a competition comprising the cream of Europe, summoned his resolve for a fresh attempt – this time it was a goer.

But perhaps the most intriguing connection – and one from which our respective post-war successes sprung – is the relationship forged between wartime pals Busby and Cullis, whose legacy remains as strong as his United contemporary. It's a tale of similar outlooks, albeit markedly differing approaches. Just as Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure carried echoes of Sir Matt's principles, so Cullis's spell as Wolves supremo between 1948 and 1964 closely mirrors the reign of his pre-war forbear, and former Red, Major Frank Buckley. Buckley, a strong disciplinarian and fitness obsessive, born in the Trafford suburb of Urmston in 1882, played just three games for United, finding – as did most of his opponents – Charlie Roberts an immovable force at centre-half. But it was as a manager that he really left his mark on his local club, albeit indirectly.

Forced to sell to balance the books, in mid-March of the 1938/39 campaign, the last full season before war broke out, Buckley fielded not one, but two teenagers against United. It was revolutionary stuff. Debutant Alun Steen, who scored in a 3-0 success, remains the club's youngest goalscorer, aged 16 years 269 days; in a wartime friendly with West Bromwich Albion in September 1942, Buckley fielded Cameron Buchanan, aged just 14 years and 57 days.

The term 'Buckley's Babes' was coined – a catchy, alliterative phrase that would be revived on a rather wider basis in these environs around 15 years later. Buckley made Cullis his captain shortly before war broke out and, as Peter Creed, secretary of Wolves' Former Players Association and a friend of Cullis, explains, his wartime billeting with Busby in Italy was hugely significant for both in the peace that followed. “They were great friends; he always used to speak wonderfully well of Sir Matt,” he says. “Stationed together in the same billet, morning, noon and night, what on earth would they talk about? Stan would have told him all about the Buckley Babes. Now what did he do when he went to United?”

It's said playfully, but the point is not lost. Buckley's template impressed Cullis and Busby, but how the two applied their principles in the post-war years couldn't have been more different. Busby's football was cerebral, cultured, his avuncular nature expressed in patient build-up play, but to equally devastating effect: in the first of United's five consecutive FA Youth Cup wins, Wolves were thrashed 7-1 in the first leg at Old Trafford, and 9-3 overall.

Stan Cullis.
Former Wolves managerial legend Stan Cullis in the dressing room.
Cullis, a strict disciplinarian, was a stickler for the direct approach, as his fabled half-back Ron Flowers recalls from his Stafford home. “Stan was his own man,” he chuckles. “It was simple stuff that he wanted, nothing fancy, and, let's face it, he had results – who can argue with that?

He got a statistician working on every game and we scored more than 100 goals in two or three seasons.” In 1953/54, the first of their three title-winning campaigns, a season in between Busby's first and second titles, Wolves powered home 96 goals in the league alone: Cullis's tactics had paid handsome dividend.

“Over 90 per cent of the goals were scored with three or less passes,” Flowers recalls. “It was pretty direct, but it wasn't just a case of ‘bang, bang, bang'. It can't be if you've got a couple of flyers on the wing: we had ball players, too.”

It was undoubtedly an endeavor of huge athletic prowess: Cullis' men were fit as fleas, which helped when you often had to play in six inches of mud. Flowers – an attacking midfielder in today's parlance – was a staple of all those games, scoring against United in February of 1955, a game played on a midweek afternoon in the absence of floodlights. Wolves won both league games that term 4-2.

But clashes between the sides were tough to call – Wolves edged the 20 league meetings during the decade by 10 to eight, with two draws. Before it, they had knocked Busby's holders out of the 1949 FA Cup semi-final in a replay, on the way to Wembley success over Leicester City.

Stan Cullis and Ron Flowers.
Stan Cullis and Ron Flowers discuss matters during Wolves' golden period.

“All I've got is wonderful memories,” Flowers reflects. “A lot of the players were mates. Because there were Under-23 internationals as well, you played with other players. In the RAF, you'd come up and play with and against a lot of the players in the Army. We'd play them twice a year in those days – it was like being team-mates.”

“It was an exciting time, but I couldn't step in the clouds too much. I played for England and the Wolves, but I was in the forces, doing national service in the RAF, so one day I'd be playing, the next too busy to think about it. But it's nice to reflect on your part in it. I've no regrets at all.”

Flowers – the oldest member of England's 1966 World Cup squad (he finally received his medal in 2009) – has fond memories of his battles with United during those years, particularly of Duncan Edwards – Dudley-born, filched from under Cullis's nose and “the ideal man” – and Busby's skipper, Roger Byrne.

“They were nice fellas,” he reflects. “I roomed with Roger on one of the England trips, and I sat up late with him one night asking him questions, because we were both interested in physiotherapy. I think it might have been about two in the morning before we went to sleep! A lot of players had the future in mind; they realised the good life wouldn't last after football – what had you got?”

That tale in itself is a poignant reminder that nothing, however good, lasts forever. Both sets of fans know that better than most, for entirely different reasons.

This article first appeared in United Review, the official matchday programme.

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