When Wolves Were the Best Team in the Land

Once upon a time, Wolverhampton Wanderers were one of the finest teams in England. As the post-war fifties turned into the swinging sixties, Molineux was awash with league triumphs and success.

In the space of just seven seasons, Stan Cullis managed the gold and black shirts to three league championships as well as a further two runners-up spots. In 1959/60, they were denied a record-equalling third league title in a row by the cruellest of margins, goal difference. They scored 21 more goals than top side Burnley, but having conceded just six more, they were still denied the title.

Stan Cullis Statue by Roger Kidd (CC BY-SA 2.0)

That win could have drawn them level with Huddersfield and Arsenal, two sides that boasted three consecutive league wins. Instead, the Wolves were left to console themselves with a prestigious trip to Wembley in the FA Cup final. 

On the opposing side were Blackburn Rovers, unfashionable and unfancied. Whilst Wolves had battled at the right end of the table, Blackburn had finished a modest seventeenth. They had made some waves in the cup though, dismissing local-rivals Burnley in a quarter-final replay before thumping seven past hapless Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-final.

Wolves, on the other hand, enjoyed a 1-0 win against rivals Aston Villa in a tight semi-final at the Hawthorns.

On a baking hot day in May 1960, Wolves lined up as red hot favourites. Whilst 58 years later, they sit at 80/1 in the current FA Cup betting, few could see Blackburn lifting the trophy after 90 minutes at the old Wembley.

The match was dubbed ‘the White Shirt Final’ because, long before replica shirts, fans wore their Sunday best to the cup final. The heat meant many supporters took off their jackets, leading to a sea of white shirts. The temperature dictated the pace of play too in a dour first half. Wolves did take a 40th-minute lead, Mick McGrath deflecting into his own net.

Dave Whelan by Dan Farrimond (CC BY 2.0)

Just before halftime, Blackburn full-back Dave Whelan broke his leg in a challenge with Norman Deeley. Whelan was stretchered off and, in the age before substitutes, his side battled on with ten men. He didn’t play football again, although he did build his JJB Sports company up and eventually win the FA Cup as an owner with Wigan.

In the second half, the numerical advantage saw that Wolves never lost control. Deeley shook off the effects of his clash with Whelan to score twice in a half they dominated. Upon the final whistle, captain Bill Slater collected the trophy as disappointed Blackburn striker Derek Dougan looked on. Dougan later joined Wolves for a knockdown £50,000 and helped them to a UEFA Cup semi-final and a League Cup win.

History hasn’t been kind to Wolves, as they became one of the only teams to play in all four divisions at the end of the 1980s, ironically at the same time as Burnley, but recent result have prompted fans to believe they might be back on the rise. 

They might well be, but they would have to achieve incredible heights if they were to ever match the swashbuckling side of the late 1950s.