Wolverhampton Wanderers are back in the big time and, really, the only surprise is that it has taken this long to get here. For the past two years, Wolves have explicitly worked towards promotion and the end product on the pitch is a team decorated with a handful of luxuries, one that will prove a welcome addition to the top flight. However, moans and groans concerning their relationship with the super-agent Jorge Mendes have not only become tiresome but linger like a bad smell. For Wolves, it is only the tangible scent of the Premier League that matters.
Fosun International, the Chinese conglomerate that assumed control of the club in July 2016, has been criticised for bankrolling promotion. Wolves have been thrust under the magnifying glass with regards to their recruitment, particularly their relationship with Mendes. His Gestifute agency is part-owned by a Fosun subsidiary, with the first of his portfolio of clients being the club’s manager, Nuno Espírito Santo. The Leeds United owner, Andrea Radrizzani, publicly questioned the link, while on Friday Premier League clubs reportedly raised the issue at their quarterly shareholders’ meeting. Supporters, however, have seen the funny side and at Villa Park in March, masks bearing Mendes’s face were confiscated at the away turnstiles.
It is true Mendes’s clients, namely Rúben Neves, a £15.8m signing, and Diogo Jota, the Atlético Madrid loanee who joins permanently this summer for another eight-figure sum, have scattered stardust but Espírito Santo has also found a way to amalgamate the jigsaw pieces. Wolves’ seemingly rapid progress has not been the 60-second makeover sometimes painted. Both Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert failed to deliver such harmony and, while Wolves have undoubtedly continued to strengthen, Espírito Santo must take credit. The Portuguese is a diligent man-manager, a grounded character, nonplussed by personal accolades and equally reluctant to indulge in hyperbole. Every now and then, his passion spills over, as in Cardiff on 6 April. After all, Wolves are not the only team to throw money at it; Middlesbrough and Derby have spent millions in search of promotion, yet one or perhaps both will miss out this time around.
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“The manager is extremely good at making sure we are focused come game day,” John Ruddy, the Wolves goalkeeper, says. “He is very set in the way he wants us to do things, it is always about us. It is not about us adapting to another team and I think that is reassuring as players. We know how we want to play; we know what we are good at doing.
“It’s all right spending the money but if you’re not bringing in the right personalities and mentalities then it doesn’t matter. If they are not working in unison then you are never going to succeed. We have got a great group. There was a lot of change in the summer and the lads that have come in, including myself, have adapted to a really good dressing room. That is testament to the lads that were already here and the manager as well.”
The supremely elegant Neves oozes class and has stimulated the midfield, orbiting the centre circle, arcing passes as he goes and, on six occasions this season, coming up with the truly spectacular, as at Molineux against Derby on Wednesday evening. Like Jota, there are exclusive options to buy four more loanees, including the striker Léo Bonatini and defender Willy Boly. The latter has impressed as part of Espírito Santo’s preferred three-man defence – a system he has stuck to – alongside the captain, Conor Coady, and Ryan Bennett. Coady, a fixture in midfield and then a deputising right-back in his first seasons in the Black Country has excelled in the sweeper role, tidying up and wiping the floor with countless Championship forwards. In fact, it’s the money not spent which highlights Wolves’ perfect pick’n’mix. They could have signed 210 Matt Dohertys for the price of Neves, given the £75,000 fee for the former. The right wing-back has flourished in Espírito Santo’s system and, on the left, Barry Douglas, a £1m goal-maker from the Turkish club Konyaspor has become a priceless commodity. They have provided Wolves with the platform to play.
Ruddy says: “This squad is just another level. The players that we have brought in, the Rúben Neveses, the Jotas, the Bonas [Bonatini], the Willy Bolys, you could name every single player that we have brought in. They have been exceptional. But it goes back to their determination and mentalities. Their will to improve is infectious and that is what has got us where we are.”
As much as Wolves’ squad is talented, from August they face a different test. This season, a wobble has comprised four games without a win – the rest has been business as usual. Unsurprisingly, they have scored the most goals in the division, from all areas, yet increasing firepower seems sensible, even if Benik Afobe makes his loan move permanent, as expected. Espírito Santo has been happy quietly to blood youngsters too, including Bright Enobakhare and Morgan Gibbs-White, who joined the club aged eight.
It may have been meant figuratively but when Jeff Shi, the club’s executive chairman, said Wolves were building not a house but rather a manor last month, it was a reflection of the hierarchy’s lofty ambitions – a peek into the future – as well a nod to how far they have come. It is a contrast to the club that went stale at the tail end of Steve Morgan’s reign. Tens of millions in investment has translated into a 10-year plan, with European football mooted as a realistic target. But, just by reaching the Premier League, pride has been restored in a club that not so long ago were floundering, and tumbling into League One. Wolves’ crest is glistening in the spotlight once more.
Ryan Sessegnon enjoys success at EFL Awards
Ryan Sessegnon swept the board at the EFL Awards after a stunning season with Fulham.
The 17-year-old attacking left-back has followed up his success with England at last summer’s European Under-19 Championship by scoring 14 goals to date in the Cottagers’ promotion push.
His efforts were rewarded on Saturday when he became the first player from outside the top flight to be nominated for the PFA young player of the season award, so it was no surprise that he should be among the big winners at the Football League’s gala evening.
But the scope of his success was still noteworthy as, in addition to being named in the team of the season and the club-developed XI, he was named as the Championship’s player of the season, young player of the season and apprentice of the year. PA