Gary O’Neil is deservedly back in conversation for manager of the season

<span>Gary O’Neil has transformed <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Wolves;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Wolves</a> from a struggling team to one enjoying Premier League life.</span><span>Photograph: Manjit Narotra/ProSports/Shutterstock</span>

When Gary O’Neil was approaching the back end of his playing career he juggled performing in the Premier League with making birdies on the back nine as a scratch golfer. In 2012, he had come up short in his attempt to make the cut for the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes, one of Tiger Woods’s favourite courses, and former teammates recall O’Neil flicking through golf magazines in pursuit of perfection, scouring pages for tips to put into practice at the London Club, in Kent, his local at the time. In his spare time he competed in professional tournaments and grew obsessed with the Masters.

It all speaks to his determination to achieve in whatever he does. Last summer O’Neil was sacked by Bournemouth, 37 games into his first job, despite retaining the club’s top-flight status and, while that decision stung, he arrived at Wolves hungry to prove himself as an elite coach at a club where Julen Lopetegui had lost the appetite for the challenge. Now, for the second time in 12 or so months, O’Neil is deservedly in the conversation for the manager of the season, with Wolves a point off seventh before visiting Newcastle on Saturday. Then there is the prospect of a Wembley semi-final, if they overcome Coventry in the FA Cup. What was supposed to be a miserable season is shaping up rather nicely.

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It is worth remembering Wolves sealed O’Neil’s appointment little more than 48 hours before the season began, five days before their first game at Manchester United. Wolves supporters could be forgiven for wondering how they would have fared with a pre-season under O’Neil. The signs were there at Old Trafford, even if they departed empty-handed after a superb, punchy display. It was a sapping start – compounded by a Carabao Cup defeat at Ipswich in which they squandered a two-goal lead – but since bouncing back by beating Manchester City there have been few bumps in the road. If anything, the main frustration is the series of VAR decisions that have cost them points, with the referees’ body, Professional Game Match Officials Ltd, conceding errors were made in games against United, Newcastle and Fulham.

Wolves thought they were on to something special when they first spoke to O’Neil. They were wowed by the detail in a presentation he gave across a three-hour interview when he outlined his work at Bournemouth, the homework he routinely does on opponents, his favoured style, how it could evolve and highlighted a core of Wolves players he felt confident he could improve. For Wolves’ sporting director, Matt Hobbs, who canvassed opinion from Liverpool’s former sporting director Michael Edwards and others familiar with O’Neil’s work with the club’s under-23s in his first coaching role, it became a question of how quickly he could get the deal done.

The 40-year-old O’Neil, a quiet, studious personality, acknowledges he is not a household name like Lopetegui and understood why a swell of supporters perceived him to be an underwhelming appointment. It is fair to say he has won them over. His celebrations after their Black Country derby win at West Brom in the FA Cup in January may have got lost amid the shameful violence but O’Neil and the Wolves fans shared a special moment.

He fist-pumped three times towards the away fans and last month he did so at Chelsea after an impressive 4-2 win when sheepishly ushered forward by the captain, Max Kilman, and Mario Lemina, a reliable marshal in midfield. The fists were out again in midweek after Wolves beat Brighton to secure a place in the last eight of the Cup. “I don’t [enjoy it], if I’m honest but the fans seem to,” he said. “And now I am sort of forced to do it.”

It is a sign of Wolves’ sharp progress. O’Neil’s appearance on Monday Night Football last October seemed a game-changer in terms of making those beyond their Compton Park training base sit up and take notice, but he made a big impression on his squad from day one. Players were struck by his meticulous approach and felt empowered to deliver his gameplans. Wolves’ “One Pack” motto – which the more cynical will denounce as an empty marketing slogan – feels apt. “There is no frustration in the dressing room,” Lemina says. “We all know we are going to have our time to play. We are all part of the pack.”

Perhaps that is O’Neil’s greatest feat, galvanising a group that had watched as teammates were picked off last summer and had effectively been told by Lopetegui they were in for a relegation scrap. Rúben Neves, Matheus Nunes, Nathan Collins and Raúl Jiménez were among those to depart to balance the books and ensure Wolves were not at risk of breaching profit and sustainability rules. Those high-profile exits seemed alarming but it allowed others to come out of their shells or to the fore within a dynamic, vibrant squad.

The continued emergence of Pedro Neto, one of the league’s outstanding players this campaign, João Gomes, a dogged midfielder who has proved an inspired £15m signing, and Matheus Cunha, finally liberated from the £44m price tag, has been striking, while Hwang Hee-chan and Rayan Aït-Nouri have been revitalised. Lemina and Craig Dawson have excelled since signing little more than a year ago but the most discernible impact is in the final third: the league’s lowest scorers last season now carry a devastating cutting edge; they have scored 40 goals this campaign, nine more than last season.

O’Neil would be the first to credit others, and his staff have been influential, including his assistant, Tim Jenkins, with whom he worked at Liverpool and Bournemouth, and first-team coaches Ian Burchnall, the former Östersund and Notts County manager, and Shaun Derry, the former Crystal Palace midfielder. O’Neil and his staff have worked tirelessly on establishing a solid defensive structure, on which to build attacks. After a late defeat by Liverpool in September, O’Neil spoke of players “going off to do their own things because that is just the way they have been playing for an awful long time”, after José Sá wellied a kick straight to Andy Robertson, who scored seconds later. O’Neil’s message to his players before they beat City detailed how much work is required to topple the best. “If it looks like a tactics board, we have a real chance,” he said.

The leader of the pack has little time for putting practice these days. “You feel there is always something you can do to help your chances of a result on a Saturday, which is the most important thing,” O’Neil said last year. “I always swore that I would find a way to be ‘Gary the manager’ and when I get home just be ‘dad and husband’. My wife will probably tell you I’ve not quite nailed that yet … They [the family] understand this isn’t really a job. It’s sort of life. Unless it’s to help Wolves get three points at the weekend, I don’t spend much time on it.”