In Focus: Wolverhampton Wanderers on the prowl at HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens

Niall Ennis celebrates with teammates Dion Sanderson and Austin Samuels. Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

Few clubs can claim to have scaled such dizzy heights and suffered such lamentable lows as much as Wolverhampton Wanderers. 

One of the 12 founder members of the Football League in 1888, Wolves, as they are universally known, are one of the most historic and successful clubs in the United Kingdom. 

They are currently undergoing a huge resurgence thanks to the investment of owners Fosun International, a Chinese investment company, and Portuguese head coach Nuno Espirito Santo. 

But for those of a certain age, Wolves are merely returning to the top table that they occupied for many years before falling from grace. 

They and Manchester United dominated English football in the 1950s, and it was Wolves, managed by Stan Cullis, that can lay claim to building the foundations for the European Cup, now UEFA Champions League. 

It is one of several proud ‘firsts’ they can boast. They were the first team to have a football chant written about them, by composer Edward Elgar about player Billy Malpass in 1893, they were the first team to win all four English divisions, they had the first player to win 100 international caps in captain Billy Wright, and they were the first team to score 7,000 league goals, while the South Bank terrace at their Molineux ground was once the biggest ‘end’ behind a goal in English football, holding 30,000 on its own. 

Mirroring the city’s motto ‘Out Of Darkness Cometh Light’, their kit is distinct and unique too – gold shirts and black shorts. 

But for the intervention of the Second World War, Wolves might have become the dominant force in English football earlier than they did, after finishing runners-up in the league in 1938 and 1939, the year they also reached the FA Cup final. 

Wolverhampton Wanderers Academy at Jack Hayward Training Ground. Photo by Sam Bagnall/Wolverhampton Wanderers FC

It was during the 1950s that Wolves established their greatness, with England internationals such as Bert Williams, Wright, Eddie Clamp, Bill Slater, Ron Flowers, Johnny Hancocks, Peter Broadbent and Jimmy Mullen forming a powerful team that played fast, direct, attacking football. 

Wright, the club’s greatest player, captained his country 90 times, still an England record, in his 105 caps. 

The measure of Wolves’ standing was shown by them providing England’s entire half back line during the 1958 World Cup – Wright, Slater and Clamp – while from 1938 to 1963, 148 consecutive England internationals featured at least one Wolves player. 

Cullis, who had been the club’s youngest captain at 19 and England’s youngest skipper at 22, was behind the most successful period in the club’s history. 

His Wolves team were champions of England three times in the 50s, also winning the FA Cup in 1949 and 1960, when they went within a whisker of becoming the first English team of the 20th century to win the double, finishing a point behind Burnley. From 1948 to 1960 they also finished runners-up three times, and from 1946 to 1963, they finished outside the top six just three times. 

Along the way they set two goalscoring records which still stand; the biggest away win in the top flight, 9-1 at Cardiff City in September 1955, and scoring 100 goals or more in four consecutive seasons from 1958-61. 

And Homegrown players provided the backbone of Cullis’s teams. Mark Crook, a former winger who played for them in the 1930s, started a club for junior footballers in 1948 in the village of Wath-on-Dearne in south Yorkshire, calling the team Wath Wanderers. 

Wath became a nursery club to Wolves and several players who went on to achieve greatness in gold and black were recruited from there, including Flowers and Roy Swinbourne, plus later, Peter Knowles, Steve Daley, Alan Sunderland and Martin Patching. 

Wolverhampton Wanderers academy manager Rob Edwards. 

Along with their success at first-team level, Wolves were FA Youth Cup finalists in 1953, 1954 and 1962 and won it in 1958, the year every one of their teams won its league. 

Scott Sellars, the current Wolves academy director, believes the club are trying to emulate its glorious past by producing their own players again. 

At 19 and already a World Cup winner with England Under-17s, midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White is a trailblazer for that and, with more than 50 senior appearances under his belt, is seen an example for others to follow. 

“I know the history here and in my experience, if you can get the right young players in and the right quality, there is definitely a benefit to that,” said Sellars. 

“Young players who have come through the system care more about the club because they have been involved with it from a young age, so you see a difference in the way they approach playing for the team.” 

For his unequivocal position as Wolves’ greatest manager, Cullis real legacy to not just Wolves, but the game itself, was as a visionary. 

Cullis saw the huge possibilities football, with the added attraction of floodlights – then a new invention – offered live television. 

Wolves became one of the first clubs to install lights in 1953, and Cullis invited some of Europe’s best teams to Molineux for a series of floodlit friendlies. 

Wolverhampton Wanderers U-23 versues Oxford United U-23 at Molineux. Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

But there was little friendly about the fixtures; there was a matter of national pride at stake and the matches captured the imagination of the nation. 

Never was that more the case than the visit of Honved, the Hungarian champions, on December 11, 1954. 

Hungary had become the first team to beat England at Wembley the previous year, winning 6-3 in a performance that made English football look light years behind the ‘Magical Magyars’. 

Six of that Hungary team that beat Englanwere in Honved’s side againstWolves, and they boasted seven Hungary internationals in all. 

Despite trailing 2-0 at half-time, Wolves, in their gold satin shirts dazzling under the lights, produced a truly memorable fightback in the second half to win 3-2. 

In an era when the only live, televised football was the FA Cup final, the second half was broadcast live on the BBC and a nation, including a schoolboy by the name of George Best, who started following Wolves’ fortunes as a direct result of this match with Broadbent his favourite player, sat bewitched staring at the grainy, black and white pictures. 

The Daily Mail, a British national daily newspaper, duly claimed Wolves ‘Champions Of The World’ the following day, and so the challenge was set. 

It was to prove a turning point for football, and from those beginnings, the European Cup was born. 

Sadou Diallo and  Niall Ennis. 

At first, the English authorities resisted and forbid their clubs entry to this new competition, meaning Wolves, champions in 1954, were unable to join in. 

But Matt Busby, the manager of Manchester United and Wolves’ big rivals of the 50s, shared the vision of his friend Cullis and wanted to test his team against the best in the continent, and in 1956 he defied the governing body to lead United as Britain’s first team in the competition. 

Cullis continued to invite the cream of Europe to Molineux and they famously beat European Cup holders Real Madrid 3-2 in October 1957. 

Two months later, Wolves were invited to the Bernabeu for a rematch and drew 2-2. 

Crack Russian teams Moscow Dynamo, featuring Lev Yashin, regarded as one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers, and Spartak, also left Molineux beaten. 

Winning the League again in 1958 and 1959, Wolves finally made it into the European Cup, only to be beaten in the first round by German outfit Schalke 04, 4-3 over two legs, then the following year in the second round 9-2 on aggregate by Barcelona. 

In 1960, they became the first English team to compete in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, reaching the semi-finals, where they lost 3-1 on aggregate to Scottish club Rangers. 

But within just five years, the seemingly unthinkable happened and Wolves were relegated, after 33 years in the top flight. 

Cameron Thompson of Fulham and Elliot Watt of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

It took Wolves two years to win promotion, in 1967, but better times were around the corner. 

That summer, playing as the Los Angeles Wolves, they won the North American Soccer Championship, beating Aberdeen 6-5 in the final after finishing top of the Western Division. 

Wolves finished fourth in 1970-71, which qualified them to play in the first UEFA Cup in 1971-72 and they went all the way to the final, overcoming Juventus in the quarter-finals. 

In the semi-finals they were paired with Hungarian side Ferencvaros, and drew 2-2 away before a 2-1 win at home, with goalkeeper Phil Parkes saving a penalty in both games. 

Sadly for Wolves, they could not match that form in the final against fellow English team Tottenham Hotspur, losing 2-1 at Molineux before a 1-1 draw away. 

Undeterred, Wolves remained a force in the early 1970s, winning the League Cup in 1974. 

Surprisingly, they were relegated in 1976 but bounced back at the first attempt as champions, and, after the appointment of the flamboyant John Barnwell in 1978, a bright new era beckoned, along with an ambitious plan to redevelop Molineux. 

Emlyn Hughes was signed from Liverpool and Andy Gray arrived from Aston Villa for a European record £1.469m, funded with the money from Daley’s £1.44m transfer to Manchester City three days earlier, and the League Cup was won again in 1980. 

Niall Ennis of Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrates after scoring a goal.

But interest payments on a loan for the new stand crippled the club, and in 1982, Wolves were declared bankrupt. 

They were saved at the 11th hour by a consortium fronted by their former striker Derek Dougan and won promotion at the first attempt. 

But it proved to be a false dawn, and barely 30 years after their golden era, Wolves fell all the way to the Fourth Division after three consecutive relegations. 

They went bust again in 1986 only to be rescued in a complicated deal involving the local council, building firm Gallaghers and supermarket chain Asda. 

Just when all hope seemed lost, a new hero emerged to drag the club up by its bootlaces. 

The signing of Steve Bull, a raw, crew-cutted striker recruited from rivals West Bromwich Albion, proved to be a masterstroke by manager Graham Turner. 

‘Bully’ became the first player in English League football to score 50 goals in consecutive seasons as Wolves topped the Fourth Division in 1987-88 then the Third in 1988-89. 

A new owner, Wolverhampton-born multi millionaire Sir Jack Hayward, bought the club for £2.1m in 1990 and hopes were high for a resurgence. 

adou Diallo of Wolverhampton Wanderers runs with the ball under pressure from Dejon Noel-Williams of Oxford United. Photo by Alex Burstow/Getty Images

Hayward funded the much-needed redevelopment of Molineux on three sides from 1992-94. 

Wolves have always prided themselves in bringing through players from their youth system, and three emerged in the late 1990s – goalkeeper Matt Murray, centre back Joleon Lescott and striker Robbie Keane. 

Sadly Murray was forced to retire in 2010 following a series of serious knee injuries, and, with the club languishing in the second tier, Keane and later Lescott were sold to fulfil their ambitions in the top flight. 

Despite pumping in millions for new players, promotion proved elusive until Dave Jones’ side, with high-profile signings such as former Manchester United players Denis Irwin and Paul Ince, won the play-offs in 2003 to end a 19-year exile from the top flight. 

The next time Wolves were promoted, in 2009, they lasted three years in the Premier League, but with manager Mick McCarthy sacked in February 2012, a turbulent period followed with successive relegations to League One. 

Wolves bounced back as champions in 2013-14, but they were a mid-table Championship team when Fosun paid owner Steve Morgan £30m for the club in 2016. 

Yet the transformation that has followed has been remarkable, with huge investment that has seen the club’s transfer record broken four times and hopes that the club could be on the brink of another golden era. 

Fosun’s close links to super-agent Jorge Mendes and the appointment of Nuno has attracted exciting Portuguese players such as Ruben Neves, Ivan CavaleiroHelder Costa and Diogo Jota. 

Wolverhampton Wanderers team huddle before kick off.

The quartet helped Wolves win the Championship title in 2018, and, with the arrival of fellow Portuguese players Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho and Mexican forward Raul Jimenez among others last summer and the team established in the Premier League, the future looks brighter than for many years. 

Despite the investment, Wolves are determined to continue their tradition of bringing through their own players. 

Fosun want to grow Wolves into a global brand, and the club will play in mainland China for the first time this summer when their Under-18s take part in a tournament, while also making their HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens debut.  

“With the profile of the club growing, it’s an ideal way to further showcase our name and the ownership see Asia as a really important place to go,” Sellars added. 

Fosun are an investment company so they don’t want to be spending millions of pounds every year on players. 

“They are asking us to bring through our own players to play in the first team, and bringing through Morgan Gibbs-White saves the club a lot of money, so it’s a win-win situation. 

“Morgan is exceptional and a very high quality player. But I don’t want to be talking about him in 10 years’ time. He is the standard we have set and we have to continue that. 

“To be a first-team player at Wolves, you’ve got to be as good as world class players, but we accept that challenge. We might not get 24 to that level, but if we can get one through every year that would be good. We have seen players such as Ryan Giles, Max Kilman and Niall Ennis getting through so there are players being pushed into that squad. 

“The first-team squad is only small, so if there are any injuries or suspensions, they can’t go into the transfer market, so there is a chance for these boys.”