Gary Lineker has been the target of a massively hostile response following a tweet in which he voiced measured concern over the government’s new strategy on illegal immigration. Both the right-wing press and its army of perma-raged armchair warriors finally succeeded in their aim of, albeit only temporarily in the end, removing Lineker from his BBC football pundit’s role. However, Lineker isn’t the first sports person to be targeted because they voiced an opinion that didn’t coincide with that of the establishment.
Stan Cullis was an incredibly effective and influential Wolverhampton Wanderers player, later manager. Born in Cheshire in 1916, he started his footballing life at Ellesmere Port Boys’ club. His father was a keen Wolves fan, who said: “When I consider my boy good enough, he will join Wolverhampton Wanderers.” And he did. Stan became the archetypal Wolves man, seen by some pundits in the 1930s as “the greatest centre-half of today”.
One of the greatest footballers of his age
Cullis captained the team and was crucial in Wolves’ rise to the top of English football, from the late 1930s to 1960. He may also have instigated the European Cup, after a friendly with Hungarian team, Honved, remarking the Wolves were “Champions of the World” which sparked debate amongst European teams as to who really was the best on our continent, leading to the development of the first European Cup tournament.
Cullis first hit the headlines in 1937, as the signatory on a letter written by the Wolves’ players to the Football Association (FA) who had sent a warning to the Wolves’ management about “rough play”.
Players writing to the FA was seen as unprecedented. The players supported their manager, Major Frank Buckley, looking the FA square in the eye and writing “…you have been most unjust…” in defence of their management. The letter went on:
“… far from advocating the rough play we are accused of, Major Buckley is constantly reminding us of the importance of playing good, clean, honest football… we cannot allow this very unfair censure to pass by without some form of protest…”Nottingham Evening Post, 30 April 1937
Wolves in the 1930s were known as ‘Buckley’s Babes’. In the letter, the players pointed out that Buckley had no idea they were writing and sending it. Buckley taught Cullis to be the team’s firm ‘boss’ on the field and it’s likely he was behind the players’ letter to the FA.
Parallels with Lineker
Cullis clearly believed in doing the right thing, as well as good, clean football. On 14 May 1938, England travelled to Berlin to play Germany. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Conservative) was still in appeasement mode, and decreed that the England players should enact the Nazi salute, so as not to offend Germany.
The right didn’t want to upset the far right in any way. Poland was invaded the following year. Sparing ‘Mr Hitler’s’ feelings in 1938 was an irrelevance. Swastikas flew alongside the England flag during the game. Five months later, the Conservative prime minister returned, waving his little piece of paper like a white flag. Although several England players felt uncomfortable performing the salute, all went along with it – apart from Cullis.
Cullis refused to perform a nazi salute at the start of the game. When asked, he replied: “Count me out”. The only player to refuse, he was unceremoniously dropped from the squad. To put this in perspective, Cullis was, by this time, seen as the ‘pivot’ of the England team and was one of the most famous footballers in the UK and across Europe. He had 12 caps (although he played maybe 20 friendly international games during World War 2). The Germany game would have been his 13th.
During the war, he worked as a physical training instructor. There’s an account in the Dundee Courier, 12 February 1940, of a game played by the “Tommies” against footballers from the “French Army” (Result: 1-1). The teams included football players on active duty – Matt Busby from Liverpool, Denis Compton from Arsenal and Bert Sproston from Manchester City – the English team skippered, of course, by Cullis. The 30,000 crowd of soldiers were each given a card with the location of the nearest bomb shelter. Cullis, as captain, was the player approached for a quote after the game, when he said:
“The French is one of the best international teams we have met since 1937.” Maybe a pointed reference to playing Germany in Berlin in 1938. Or not playing, in Stan’s case.
In the August of 1944, Stan was reported by the press to be in Italy, “in charge of all sport at a rest camp” and he noted in an airgraph, that he was still playing football. In the Dundee Evening Telegraph, it was reported on 5 December 1945 “STAN CULLIS HOME” and apparently, straight back on the pitch, captaining Wolves.
Cullis the manager
Post-war, he played for one last season before retiring in 1948. In his final game, Wolves lost 2-1 to Liverpool. Cullis then embarked on his managerial career at Wolves’ home ground, Molineux.
In his very first season as manager, Wolves won the FA Cup – he was the youngest manager ever to bag the cup, which was then the most coveted prize in English football. Wolves won their first League title in 1954, and then again in 1957–58 and 1959–60. In the following season, in a result that reminds us of recent top-two fights in the Premiership, Wolves lost out by just one point, to Burnley. Cullis lifted the FA cup for one last time in 1960. There is a stand named after Stan at Molineux and his statue is outside. Cullis died on 27 February 2001.
Back to the present. On 8 March 2023, Gary Lineker tweeted: “Great to see the freedom of speech champions out in force this morning demanding silence from those with whom they disagree.” The BBC’s response was to remove him from his role as presenter on Match of the Day. He was only reinstated after public outcry and after many of his colleagues refused to go on air, in a gesture of solidarity.
And this is the current state of play. Those who scream from the rooftops about their own right to free speech are the first in line to silence dissenting views. The right, like Chamberlain, don’t want to offend the far right. Especially if they think there might be votes there. Those who make policies to appease the far right will have to prepare to be seen by posterity as shameful as Chamberlain and his Conservative Party.
Free speech does not only apply to the right, although we are seeing a worrying shift in their zeitgeist, now they are actively starting to take steps to silence the left (or the apolitical but rational).
Having fallen foul of right-wing outrage, Lineker stated that he intends to continue being a “voice for the voiceless” and, like Cullis before him, has no intention of being bridled by appeasers.
British Movietone’s match coverage for the Germany-England game here:
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