1953/54 turned out to be a great season for Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club and their captain Billy Wright. However, for the national football team it was not so great. Beaten 6-3 in the Match of the Century at Wembley by Ferenc Puskás’ Mighty Magyars (their first ever defeat on ‘home soil’), they faced a return match on 23 May at the Népstadion (People’s Stadium) in Budapest on 23 May.
Wolves improved on their previous highly placed League finishes to win the First Division Championship (now Premier League title) for the first time in an otherwise already illustrious history. The whole of The Black Country population was ecstatic; Wolves finished top, and their neighbours and rivals, West Bromwich Albion, finished second, four points (then two wins) behind. However, The Baggies also won the FA Cup, making it a double for the close-knit area. Wolves’ first championship success increased the club’s growing reputation as a fast attacking and well-disciplined outfit.
May 1954 also saw another sporting milestone, in middle-distance track athletics. At Iffley stadium in Oxford on 6 May, medical student Roger Bannister became the first man to break the barrier of the four-minute-mile, setting a new world record of 3:59.4.
If Bannister was the fastest and fittest runner of his time, Stan Cullis’ Wolves were the fittest footballers of their generation; he had them running up and down the steep banking of the Spion-Kop on the South Bank of their stadium, Molineux. Wolves players were expected to be tremendous all-round athletes, and they were.
In the summer of 1954, Switzerland was set to stage the World Cup Finals and, fittingly, the English champions provided a number of players for the national team squad, with Billy Wright set to lead them as team captain. Towards the end of May, the flew to Budapest for the second leg of their friendly exchange with Hungary. Puskás met Billy Wright at the old Ferihegy Airport, which has a photograph of the England captain being presented with a bouquet by his Hungarian counterpart. The custom must have seemed strange to the lad from Ironbridge. They spent a week in Budapest, no doubt taking in some of its many tourist attractions.
On 23 May, ninety-two thousand fans filled the People’s Stadium (now known as the Puskás Ferenc Stadion) in the Hungarian capital to see if their heroes could the repeat the performance which had led to the demise of the (then) greatest team in world football in the previous winter in London. Later in life, Puskás himself told of the competition for tickets:
You see, to beat an England team is always very important. If it were possible, we could have sold five hundred thousand tickets, so many people wanted to get into the stadium. You could sell a ticket for at least ten times its face value. Some people were even offering their prize pigs for a ticket! That’s how big this game was…
The Hungarian fans were not disappointed, as the English lions went down like lambs, receiving a 7-1 drubbing, with Puskás bagging a brace of goals and Kocsis also scoring twice. In 2002, Puskás recalled:
But nobody talks about it (now)… It could easily have been ten or twelve if we hadn’t had so much fun… The English came to Budapest to win; that’s what they said . At the end they said, “There was nothing we could do… “
This was England’s worst ever defeat, and has not been matched since. After the match, the Hungarian press had great fun playing with words, coining the expression, The English came for one ‘seven’ (days, a ‘week’ in Magyar) and went with (or ‘for’) seven-one! The match took place only a fortnight before the opening of the World Cup finals, so the sensational Hungarians arrived in Switzerland as clear favourites to add to their status as Olympic Champions by winning the Jules Rimet trophy. Under coach Gusztáv Sebes, the Aranycsapat (Golden Team) were playing a new brand of quick-passing football that was taking everyone by surprise.
The Magical Magyars continued their spell-binding form by beating the Korean Republic 9-0, followed by an even more impressive 8-3 victory against West Germany. Billy Wright captained England in both their group matches: against Belgium, which they won 4-3 after extra time, Billy being the only Wolves player in that team, and against the hosts Switzerland, which they won 2-0, with Jimmy Mullen and Dennis Wilshaw joining their club captain and scoring a goal each, Mullen standing in for the legendary Nat Lofthouse at centre-forward.
Their goals put England through to a quarter-final with Uruguay, which they lost 4-2 to Uruguay. The South Americans, the reigning World Champions who had never been beaten in a FIFA World Cup match, then met the Hungarians, who had already beaten Brazil 4-2 in their quarter-final. The semi-final went into extra time and finished 4-2 to the Magyars, a great match but another physically-draining encounter. Puskás’ team finally ran out of steam against West Germany in the final, losing (disastrously) 3-2, surrendering a 2-0 lead. It was their first defeat in six years, eventually earning them the dubious title of the best team never to win the World Cup. Two years later, the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, and many of the team defected, including Puskás, who went to Real Madrid.