The headline that prompted the European Cup

PHILIP BARKER on a Fleet Street 60th anniversary led to the creation of the biggest annual prize in football

Sixty years ago, Fleet Street – well, the Daily Mail – proclaimed an English football team “Champions of the World”. That, and similar headlines, got noticed across Europe. Within 12 months, the European Cup had begun.

This provocative headline appeared in the Daily MailIn December 1954, floodlit friendlies against what were usually described as “crack continentals” from the top European club teams were the very latest thing in England.

Wolverhampton Wanderers, as the English League champions, were in the vanguard of the trend. For the matches, they proudly announced four new signings: floodlight towers 146 feet high. Each carried 60 lights and had been supplied “after exacting tests with floodlights of different makes” by a local firm, the Revo Electric Company from Tipton.

They even had some of their famous Old Gold shirts specially manufactured in a shiny fabric, the better to shine under the lights. Wolves had already beaten Spartak Moscow and in December 1954 they took on the Hungarian army side, Honved.

What gave the contest more than a little extra spice was the fact that Hungary’s national team had inflicted two crushing defeats on England in the previous year: 6-3 at Wembley and then the 7-1 in Budapest. The inspiration of the “Magnificent Magyars” had been Ferenc Puskas. He was also captain of Honved and six of his team had been in the side that made England’s life was made a misery.

Likewise, the captain of the defeated England team, Billy Wright, was also the skipper at Wolves.

The statue at the modern Molineux of Stan Cullis, the Wolves manager in 1954. He denied ever claiming his side were world champions
The statue at the modern Molineux of Stan Cullis, the Wolves manager in 1954. He denied ever claiming his side were world champions

The crowd packed into Molineux and saw the Hungarians scored twice in the first half. Were they about to witness the fall of another bastion of English football?

The second half was televised live by the BBC, and Wolves came storming back. A penalty by Johnny Hancocks and two goals by Roy Swinbourne completed an amazing turnaround. It was a television producer’s dream. But things did not go quite so well on radio. The match commentary was reaching its climax when the commentators were quietly faded out by the duty announcer for a music programme: The Band Show with the Cyril Stapleton Orchestra.

The man with itchy fingers at Broadcasting House was forced to make an apology.

“This is a very repentant Adrian Waller saying I do realise I made a mistake in fading out the match. I know a great many listeners ‘phoned up,” he said.

Perhaps Waller did have an excuse. Best known for introducing Hancock’s Half-hour, he was probably unused to events that ran to 45 minutes.

The apology made front page news in Britain. But it was the back pages which provoked the Europeans.

Desmond Hackett wrote in the Daily Express that “Wolverhampton Wanderers became Wolverhampton Wondermen, club champions of Europe when they outfought and finally outplayed the star spangled Hungarians at Molineux.”

Bob Ferrier in the Daily Mirror called it “the Nelson Spirit” and Peter Wilson in the same paper was not one to spoil the story. “I may never live to see another greater thriller than this and if we see many more as thrilling, I may not live much longer anyway.”

Roy Peskett in the Daily Mail wrote, “it was a magnificent fighting display and showed that these Wolves can outlast any team from overseas”. But it was the headline above David Wynne Morgan’s piece in the same paper which caused real anger across Europe: HAIL WOLVES CHAMPIONS OF THE WORLD NOW.

“Salute Wolves for giving Britain her greatest football victory since the war,” he wrote. “Immediately after the match as Billy Wright led his mud covered heroes into the dressing room, Stan Cullis their manager said ‘there they are, the champions of the world’.”

The following day, the very same paper carried a denial from Cullis. “I have never said Wolves were World Champions simply because they have beaten Spartak and Honved.These are two very good clubs but our victory must not be taken out of perspective.”

Too late, the damage was done.

How the National Football Museum exhibits the role of Gabriel Hanot in the formation of the European Cup
How the National Football Museum exhibits the role of Gabriel Hanot in the formation of the European Cup

Gabriel Hanot, a veteran journalist at L’Equipe, was rather less impressed by Wolves’ performance. He had been an advocate of a European club competition for more than 20 years and now he seized his moment. “We must wait for Wolves to visit Moscow or Budapest before we proclaim their invincibility. There are other clubs of international prowess, notably Milan and Real Madrid,” he wrote.

L’Equipe launches the idea of a European Championship for clubs, the realisation of which would be newer and more sensational than a competition for national teams.”

Hanot went to see Sir Stanley Rous, then secretary of the Football Association. On the advice of Sir Stanley, L’Equipe then wrote to all the national associations. The most enthusiastic response came from the Spanish FA President, Juan Touzon. “This project appeals to me enormously,and to my friend Santiago Bernabeu, President of Real Madrid,” he said.

Hanot joined two senior colleagues at his paper, Jacques Goddet and Jacques Ferran, to take things further. The trio selected the 18 clubs which they thought most likely to win their respective championships and also to be receptive to the idea. They sent each a draft of the rules of the planned competition.

FIFA, the world body, and the newly founded UEFA were hesitant. Ferran tried to give things a push. An editorial in L’Equipe described UEFA as “young and timid”. The chosen 18 were invited to a meeting at the Ambassador Hotel in Paris. They even conducted a draw. Chelsea, the nominated English club, were paired with the Swedish club Djurgarden and Scotland’s Hibernians with Germany’s Rot Weiss Essen.

Even so, L’Equipe insisted, “We did not wish to carry out the christening of our baby, rather hand it over to the correct organising body.”

The Paris meeting had the desired effect. FIFA authorised the new competition in May 1955 with the proviso it be run under the jurisdiction of UEFA.

Chelsea, then managed by Ted Drake, were indeed League champions that year. They were invited to take part in the inaugural European competition, but when the Eurosceptic Football League expressed its disapproval, they opted out. “The league management committee felt the additional fixtures might prove difficult to fulfil,” was the excuse.

What would the Special One have said about that?



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