“Wembley Way beckons for the Wolves!”
It’s was on a dreary day at Wembley just over thirty-nine years ago that Wolverhampton Wanderers last lifted a major trophy in English football. Like Andy Gray, the winning goalscorer against Nottingham Forest in that League Cup final, most of the Old Gold supporters that witnessed that victory are likely to either be emerging from a mid-life crisis, or will have motorbikes rusting in the garage and distant memories of extra-marital affairs. In the near four decades since the European Cup holders were edged out under the Twin Towers, Wolves fans have had little to shout about.
For those of a certain vintage, the golden period at Molineux came in the late-seventies. A period of near-dominance in the 1950s had disappeared with black and white television, but after two decades of flitting between mid-table mediocrity and relegation candidates John Barnwell’s side, spearheaded by the exciting Scottish striker Gray and captained by former Liverpool legend Emlyn Hughes, looked to be bringing the good times back to the Black Country.
It proved a false dawn. By 1986, Wolves had suffered back-to-back-to-back relegations, and found themselves in Division Four. Thanks to the emergence of Steve Bull, who would go on to smash goalscoring records at the club, the Old Gold were back in the second tier by the start of the 90s, but it would take a further fourteen years before their first taste of the Premier League. Even then it was brief, relegated at the first attempt in 2004, and manfully battling against relegation for two seasons before succumbing in 2012. For any Wolverhampton Wanderers fan under the age of thirty, there’s been a dearth of major success.
That all looks set to change, however. Though the tenure of Fosun International, who secured their takeover of the club from Steve Morgan with a £45m in 2016, hardly got off to the ideal start, their contacts and ambition are now paying dividends, and Molineux has quickly become one of the most exciting grounds to visit in the country. Replacing the safe-and-steady Kenny Jackett with the eccentric Walter Zenga upon their arrival was a big gamble that didn’t pay off, with the club lingering outside the bottom three by the time Chairman Jeff Shi took action in October 2016 and replaced the former Italian international with Paul Lambert. While the dour Scot was able to steer the club away from the relegation zone, it quickly became clear to the new owners that he was not the man to take Wolves to the next level. At the end of the 2016/17 season, Lambert was jettisoned in favour of FC Porto manager Nuno Espirito Santo, in what was becoming a Portuguese revolution in the West Midlands.
Armed with a sizeable transfer budget and aided by superagent Jorge Mendes, Nuno set to work transforming Wolves from a plodding midtable Championship side to runaway winners of the second division. The £15.8m acquisition of Ruben Neves, touted as a future star for the Portugal national team, added guile and class to the midfield, while the loan signings of Diogo Jota and Leo Bonatini gave the side a cutting edge, scoring 29 of Wolves’ 82 goals in the Championship, as the side secured the league title a full nine points ahead of second-place Cardiff City.
Tipped not only to survive but thrive in the top flight, Wolves have exceeded even the most optimistic of fan expectations. After some shrewd business in the transfer market, including the staggering acquisitions of European Championship winners Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho for a combined £5m, tentative steps were taken in the Old Gold’s opening two games, before a creditable draw against Champions Manchester City kicked started the promoted side’s season. Though a six game winless run at the end of Autumn saw Nuno’s side drop into the bottom half of the table, Wolves have bounced back and are well on course for their highest league finish since that 1979/80 season.
For many, the key to Wolves’ success has been the club’s relationship with Mendes. Fosun International’s association with the Portuguese superagent began shortly before their takeover of the club, with subsidiaries of the company purchasing shares in Mendes’ Gestifute Talent Agency. Jeff Shi and his colleagues soon took advantage of their new business partner’s contacts, bringing Helder Costa, Ivan Cavaliero and full-back Silvio to the club from the more glamorous climes of Benfica, Monaco and Atletico Madrid. That Nuno himself was convinced to swap one of Europe’s heavyweights in Porto for a side in the English second division perhaps says more about Mendes’ powers of negotiation than the pull of Wolverhampton, while the pair undoubtedly worked together to bring Neves and Jota to the West Midlands. With Rui Patricio and Moutinho bringing the total number of Mendes’ clients on the books at Molineux up to seven, and the superagent allegedly being heavily involved in the loan signing of top scorer Raul Jiminez, his influence on recruitment at Wolves shows no sign of abating. With players as special as those he’s helped bring to Wolves, you’d struggle to find a supporter that would want it to.
But to overstate Mendes’ influence is to denigrate the incredible job Nuno has done since arriving at the club, along with the vast improvements made by the players he inherited. Preferring a fluid 3-2-3-2 that’s strength is in quick turnovers and counter-attacking, the Portuguese coach has earned a reputation for loyalty to his players, beginning the Premier League season by naming the same starting XI nine times on the spin. Given Nuno’s loyalty to his first choice XI, its unsurprising to see that Wolves rank 20th for players used in the Premier League this season, with a squad of just nineteen taking part in the top flight. For the manager, a smaller squad is the key to bigger achievements, “If it’s the same players, over and over again, training together, passing the ball to each other, timing their runs, all these small details that can help so a deep knowledge of your teammates it really helps with the tasks he has to do.”
Though flecked with the stardust of Neves, Moutinho and Jiminez, Wolves fans have perhaps been most impressed by the manner in which the defensive unit in particular has taken to the top flight. Jonny Castro Otto, the flying left wing-back, has been one of the underrated signings of the season, while Willy Boly’s no-nonsense approach to defending has translated from the more physical Championship to the supposedly artful Premier League.
It’s the trio of Matt Doherty, Conor Coady and Ryan Bennett that have progressed the most under Nuno’s tutelage, however. Irish wing-back Doherty has been with the club since signing as an 18 year old in 2010, and had carved out a niche under Jackett as a no-frills full-back. Steadily he’s become more integral to Wolves’ attack, and his return of six goals and four assists in all competitions this season has elevated him to a key member of the squad. In the FA Cup alone, Doherty ranks as one of the most creative players in this season’s competition, creating eleven chances in five games. Coady, meanwhile, arrived from Huddersfield Town in 2014 to little fanfare, but has cemented his place in Nuno’s back-three with a string of accomplished performances. Ranked sixth in this season’s FA Cup for completed passes with 245, the Liverpool-born centre-back has become a bedrock of Wolves’ defence, provoking Molineux regulars to call for an inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s squad. Alongside Coady and Boly, former Norwich City stopper Bennett is left to sweep up, and has proven himself a solid purchase behind the glitz and glamour of Mendes’ musketeers.
While fostering togetherness and improving players are at the forefront of Nuno’s success however, a little slice of luck along the way is always gratefully received, and in their run to the FA Cup semi-finals, it’s difficult to dispute that Wolves have received that. Though a tie against title-chasing Liverpool was hardly the easiest of draws in the Third Round, the Old Gold might have struggled to have found a better time to play Jurgen Klopp’s team. Focussed on matters in both the league and Europe, a weakened side arrived at Molineux and were promptly rolled over by the hungrier team.
In round four, it took a rousing comeback and a 93rd minute Doherty equaliser to prevent Nuno’s side becoming one of the many top flight teams dumped out in the early stages by a team from a lower division, as struggling Shrewsbury Town were denied an upset. The replay was hardly a comfortable affair either, as Doherty again came to the rescue, levelling up the scores at 2-2 in first-half stoppage time, before Salop finally succumbed to Cavaliero’s winner.
At Bristol City in round five, a lack of VAR at Ashton Gate meant that Doherty escaped conceding a penalty with a blatant handball in the area, before Cavaliero again settled the tie. All that being said, Wolves were electric in their quarter-final meeting with Manchester United, putting Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to the sword with late goals from Jiminez and Jota.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see Wolves go toe-to-toe with a confident United side, having taken ten points from nine games against the top six sides in the Premier League so far this season. A willingness to go for the jugular against so-called superior opposition has held Nuno’s side in good stead, and has provided the manager with something to hang his hat on during his first campaign in England’s top flight. It also provides supporters with hope that, should they meet Manchester City in the final, the result is far from a forgone conclusion.
First though, they’ll have to get past a Watford side themselves enjoying a vintage campaign. Javi Gracia has built a team as dangerous going forwards as it is compact at the back, and when the two met at Molineux back in October it was the Spaniard that took home the spoils, setting up his side to withstand the Wolves attack and relying on the pace and trickery of Robero Pereyra and Gerard Deulofeu on the counter. It’ll be down to that core backline to ensure there’s no sting in the tail of the Hornets on Sunday.