Dennis Wilshaw will be inducted into Wolves Hall of Fame at this year’s FPA Annual Dinner on April 28th. As part of a series of extended feature articles looking at the 2023 inductees, here are the words of Steve Gordos, a member of the Hall of Fame committee.
Dennis Wilshaw has a unique place in football – he is the only player to score four goals in a full international between England and Scotland. His historic achievement came at Wembley in April, 1955, when England triumphed 7-2 in football’s oldest international fixture. A year earlier he had finished as top scorer with 26 goals when Wolves became champions of England for the first time. Yet he was only a part-time professional, having made teaching his main career.
Like all natural goalscorers, Dennis might appear to be having a quiet game yet score a couple of goals. It was a knack of being in the right place at the right time which cannot be taught. He scored 10 goals in 12 appearances for his country and ought to have been a regular choice – but the England team were in those days chosen by a selection committee wont to make changes from game to game.
Born in Stoke on March 11, 1926, Dennis came to the attention of Wolves during the war and, at the age of 17, made his debut against Albion at the Hawthorns in September, 1943. Albion won 4-1. A week later he scored his first goal for Wolves when they lost the return with the Baggies 3-2. In 1943-4 he played eleven games, scoring four goals. He also played two games in 1944-5. He was sent out on loan to Walsall by manager Ted Vizard in 1946.
With the Saddlers, Dennis again showed his talent for goalscoring. He scored four goals in eight games in 1945-6 and when League football resumed after the war, he had a full season at Fellows Park and finished it as top scorer with 18 goals from 35 League games, playing at inside-left and then on the left wing. The following season 36 games, nearly all on the left wing, brought Dennis eight goals. He had played only three games (1 goal) when new Wolves boss Stan Cullis recalled him from his loan in September 1948.
Dennis made a sensational First Division debut, when he deputised for Jimmy Mullen on the left wing and scored a hat-trick in Wolves’ 3-0 win over Newcastle United at Molineux in March 1949. Dennis was then promptly dropped as Mullen was the first choice and had helped Wolves to reach the semi-final of the FA Cup. After Wolves had negotiated Manchester United in the semi-final at the second attempt, Dennis was called on to deputise for centre-forward Jesse Pye. He grabbed his chance and scored seven goals in six games. There was an outside chance he would be chosen for the final but Cullis kept faith with Pye and that faith was justified as Pye scored twice in the 3-1 win over Leicester City at Wembley. However, Dennis’s season was not over. His displays for Wolves brought him an England B cap and he scored two goals in a 4-0 win over Finland in May, 1949. He was then an unused sub for the full England side who beat France 3-1 in Paris. From Walsall to England in nine months!
It was in 1952-3 that Dennis established himself in the Wolves team. Jack Taylor, an England B international, had been bought from Luton but had scored just once in the opening nine games. When he was injured, Dennis deputised, though he played inside-left, Peter Broadbent switching to Taylor’s position of inside right. Dennis scored in a 2-1 win at Chelsea and his goal at Stamford Bridge, the equaliser, was typical of the kind he would often score for club and country. He beat two defenders then raced clear to beat the out-rushing goalkeeper. A week later, on the day of Bill Slater’s debut, Dennis scored twice as champions Manchester United were beaten 6-2 at Molineux. Both goals were headers. Dennis had come to stay.
During the title-winning 1953-54 campaign, Dennis had a similar experience to his First Division debut. His fine displays for Wolves earned him his first cap, against Wales on October 10, 1953, after original selection Harold Hassall had to withdraw through injury. Dennis, who was 27, scored twice in a 4-1 win at Ninian Park, Cardiff, only to be omitted from the side for the next England game. Blackpool’s Stan Mortensen got the vote to face the Rest of Europe in the game to celebrate the FA’s 90th anniversary. However, at the end of the season Dennis was named in the squad for the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland. He scored a stunning individual goal in a 2-0 win over the host nation. Clubmate Jimmy Mullen who partnered him on the left wing, scored the other goal. Dennis’s moment of magic ensured he also played in the following match, the 4-2 quarter-final defeat at the hands of Uruguay.
Dennis’s greatest day at international level came the following April. A Stanley Matthews-inspired side put seven goals past the Scots on the day 18-year-old Duncan Edwards won his first cap. Dennis’s historic four-goal feat provided few cuttings for his scrapbook – there was a newspaper strike in England at the time. Dennis told Charles Harrold in the Sports Argus a week later that when he began his football career ten years earlier he had three great ambitions – he wanted to win a ‘good’ medal, gain an England cap and play at Wembley. The first of those wishes came true with the game against Wales, when his proud dad Tom, a haulage contractor, was present at Ninian Park to see it. His father died not long afterwards. By the end of the season there was a medal for Dennis as Wolves had become champions. A year later came the final leg of his ambition – a game at Wembley.
As a youngster, Dennis had sat on his father’s shoulders at the Victoria Ground watching his Stoke City heroes, Matthews and Freddie Steele. “I secretly hoped that one day I might be able to play in the same team as Stan and that was a dream that came true in the World Cup against Uruguay. But last Saturday was even better for it was Matthews who had a foot in every goal of the hat-trick I completed towards the end of the game.” There was no chance of Dennis getting too big for his boots after his Wembley triumph. His next game of football after facing the Scots was playing for the Hanley Grammar School staff side in their annual match against the boys and it certainly brought him back down to earth – the boys won 10-1.
Dennis left Wolves for Stoke City in 1957 and had a few good years with them until injury ended his career. He later became a sports psychologist.
As a youngster at secondary school in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, he played rugby but he preferred football and was able to play it by joining the team in his village – Packmoor. Dennis recalled: “I was playing for the village team Packmoor, a mining village where I was born. We beat Michelin in the North Staffs League 16-0 and I got ten, not knowing there was a Wolves scout watching. I think it was a guy from Crewe. A week later I was in Wolves first team against West Brom, Major Buckley was always experimenting with young talent. I was a centre-forward with the village team but he played me at inside-left.
“When the war ended I suppose there was no room for me so they loaned me out to Walsall and Harry Hibbs (former Birmingham and England goalkeeper) who was manager at Fellows Park, turned me into an inside-left. They then signed Doug Lishman, who later moved to Arsenal, and Harry had the brainwave of playing me at outside-left. So when I went back to Wolves it was as a reserve winger.
“One of the first things Stan Cullis did when he took over as manager was to bring me back from Walsall. Many’s the time he wished he hadn’t! At Walsall I’d applied to Loughborough College, one of the top PE colleges at the time, and got accepted. Stan never liked the fact that I was doing something other than football. I could guarantee to have a row with him every month. But all through, I had a great respect for him. Although I was dropped after making my debut it was no surprise. It was difficult to break into Wolves’ team in those days. A little later Stan played me at inside-forward. It was a gamble on his part but I stayed there.”
During the 1950s Dennis taught at Hanley High School, the school he attended as a youngster. He kept himself fit and only trained with his Molineux teammates during holiday times. “That did not suit Stan,” recalled Dennis, “and he would play some tricks, like not playing me at the start of the season, saying I was not fit until September came. Funny though, he thought I was fit enough to go on our pre-season tour to Russia in 1955.”
He admitted the situation was not easy. “I would never give up teaching for full-time football.” Dennis taught PE and mathematics but was later put in charge of sport in Stoke-on-Trent. “It was an experiment and I was responsible for all schools and youth clubs. We had never had a smell of the ESFA (English Schools Football Association) Trophy before but, happily, we won it twice during my time.” He later went to Keele University as Stoke were introducing a counselling service and it was from there he moved into psychology. He became a lecturer in psychology at Alsager College and was eventually made head of the Social and Community Studies department.
“1954 was an incredible year for me,” said Dennis. “I scored more goals than anybody else for Wolves that season, we won the title, and I played for England – but it was a mixture of joy and tragedy, because I lost my father.” Tom Wilshaw died aged 56 in January 1954. Though ill, he had seen his son win his first international cap. “He had been everything to me,” said Dennis. “He loved football, though he was never any good at it himself. When I lost him, it was the end of the world for me, but he had lived to see my first international. He went to Wales and saw that match even though he was in pain. Nothing would keep him away.”
The season after the title win, Dennis figured in the historic floodlit wins over Russian giants Spartak and Hungarian maestros Honved. In October 1957 it was Dennis, lobbing home a Mullen cross, who scored the winning goal when Wolves beat European Cup holders Real Madrid 3-2 under the Molineux lights. When he left the club, he had scored 113 goals in 219 games. He scored over 40 goals in four seasons with Stoke.
Dennis always spoke highly of the men who, along with him, brought so much success to Molineux. “I have the deepest respect for every player I played with. I had it then and I have it now. They were tremendous characters, tremendous guys, and damn good players. Every chance I have to meet up again with them I’ll take.”