The long read: Wolverhampton Wanderers, a sleeping giant revived under new leaders of the pack
One of the founding members of the Football League had fallen on hard times before Chinese investment and the recruitment of Nuno Espirito Santo
The suited man in his early fifties turns heads as he walks behind Molineux’s towering, modern Stan Cullis Stand. Stephen George Bull, the local hero from nearby Tipton, wisely carries a pen. The legendary striker for Wolverhampton Wanderers, with a club record 306 goals and a Black Country accent so strong that a journalist translated his words when he played for England, is obliging as he signs autographs and smiles for selfies before disappearing into the vast structure ahead of a Premier League game.
Promoted to England’s top flight for this season having been hailed as the Championship’s best ever side last term, Wolverhampton Wanderers are unrecognisable from the club Bull joined in 1986. Among the playing ranks these days is Portuguese pass master Ruben Neves, the 21-year-old midfielder who stood out against Manchester United at Old Trafford. His agent and compatriot Jorge Mendes has helped facilitate the rise of the modern day Wolves, but they are more than a chequebook club.
Among Wolves’ best players are Dublin born full-back Matt Doherty, now in his ninth year at the club; while Liverpudlian club captain Conor Coady has changed position from a central midfielder to a Franco Baresi-like sweeper. Raul Jimenez, an on-loan Mexican striker from Benfica, is a tireless worker who provides a forward option in a team lacking them. Joao Moutinho, who, like Neves, once played for Porto, adds class while Morgan Gibbs-White, an 18-year-old local boy who rose through the academy, has become a prominent part of the squad this term.
Wolves looked for local talent in 1986 as well. They had to. They found Bull and fellow new signing from West Bromwich Albion, Andy Thompson. Wolves were skint and their once mighty Molineux home a crumbling, condemned, mess. Between 1984 and 1987, Wolves suffered three successive relegations and ended up in England’s fourth tier. Crowds dropped as low as 3,000.
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“Molineux only had two stands open and the changing rooms leaked,” says Thompson. “It was not a nice place, but it was my team and my town.”
That year, the official receiver was called in and the club was only saved when the city council bought the stadium and surrounding land for £1.2 million (Dh5.8m), land which was used for a supermarket under a deal which paid off the club's debts.
Thompson remembers how he came to sign. “Bully drove us down and the manager Graham Turner sold us his vision. He wanted us both. These were bad times and Wolves were down to the hardcore, but in Bully they had a player with a never-say-die attitude who was passionate about his roots. He must have been a nightmare to play against because he always wanted to win. Bully scored 50 goals in two consecutive years.”
Thirty-two years on and Wolves, from a city of 259,000 in England’s West Midlands are, in the words of their fans "on our way back". Twice promoted to the Premier League since, they have been on their way back before, but this time, thanks to shrewd Chinese owners and a talented Portuguese coach, it seems for real.
Wolves have impressed on their return to the Premier League, drawing with both Manchester clubs and Arsenal, then beating Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup. Better still, they play entertaining football.
Wolves have a history of peaks and troughs that long precede the time of Bull and Thompson. They were a great name of early professional football, yet in 1923 they became the first of the Football League’s 12 founder members to be relegated to England’s third tier.
By the 1950s, up to 30,000 fans could stand on the South Bank, the deepest terrace England has ever seen. The team who played in front of the multi-spanned old gold gables thrilled a generation of 1950s football fans, winning the FA Cup twice and becoming champions of England three times between 1949 and 1960. Manager Stan Cullis made them the best team in the world in the 1950s. Wolves played a series of friendlies against football’s elite before European competitions had been established. Star player Billy Wright was capped 105 times by England. There are pictures and posters testament to Wolves’ magnificent history outside and inside Molineux – its distinctive name taken from the surname of a local 18th century merchant. In a Barcelona art gallery there’s a poster stating "The Wolves shall not pass" ahead of a European game between Wolves and Barca.
Those were the high points. By 1990, the club was rescued again, this time by Jack Hayward, a former regular on the terraces, who paid £2.1m. Hayward then invested £50m of his own money into redeveloping the stadium. Wolves played one season in the Premier League in Haywood’s 17-year tenure.
“Jack Hayward was massive for the club,” says Thompson. “There was interest in buying the ground for building development because it’s located by the city centre, but he developed the whole ground and the area around it. Sir Jack lived in the Caribbean but his roots were here, he was a likeable and lovely man.”
In 2007, Wolves were bought by popular Liverpudlian Steve Morgan for a nominal £10 with Hayward’s proviso that £30m would be invested into the club. There wasn’t much money floating around locally and industrial decline didn’t help: tyre manufacturers Goodyear were synonymous with Wolverhampton for a century before closing their doors in 2017. In 2016, 62 per cent of the local population voted for the United Kingdom to leave the EU in a referendum, 10 per cent above the national average.
Thompson had friends and family, all Wolves fans, who were affected by Goodyear’s closure. “It employed a lot of people but was more than a factory, it was a community. Goodyear had sponsored the Wolves, too, they backed us when things were not so great.”
Wolverhampton – its motto is highly apt: "Out of the darkness cometh light" – is part of the West Midlands urban area, but locals are proud of the subtle differences of their area.
“People call me a Brummie, but I’m not a Brummie," explains Thompson, "because I’m not from the city of Birmingham. In the Black Country we have our own words like bostin’ [meaning brilliant, excellent]."
It’s a football area, too. Duncan Edwards, one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players, who died at Munich, hailed from Dudley in the heart of the Black Country, as did Billy Wright.
The changing room wasn’t right and there was a massive disconnect between the fans and the players. The fans felt the players didn’t care and it was so bad it was easier to play away from home.
By 2013, Wolves were in England’s third tier and things were bad. Carl Ikeme, a goalkeeper from Birmingham, had joined Wolves when he was 16 and played his entire career as a contracted Wolves player – at least when he wasn’t on one of his nine loan moves – recalls those dark days only too well.
“We had back-to-back relegations and ended up in the third division. It was such a mess that people were saying we could go down a third time. The changing room wasn’t right and there was a massive disconnect between the fans and the players. The fans felt the players didn’t care and it was so bad it was easier to play away from home.
“There was too much pressure there and we were having problems coming out of the stadium at its worst. Fans were protesting because of the results. Leaks were immediately coming out of the changing rooms that shouldn’t have been. But we made that first step back with promotion and got the fans back onside. You need the connection between the fans and the players.”
The improvements have taken time.
“The first team were in the Premier League [in 2003]”, says Ikeme, “yet we were still getting changed in portacabins. It was difficult to attract players until we built the new training ground, but now the club is fully geared for the Premier League. The infrastructure has been improved and the support is there – it’s a proudly working-class, one-club city where you can’t get away from Wolves.”
That can be a blessing and a curse when you play for Wolves but Ikeme is glad that the connection with fans “came back and has stayed back".
The takeover by Fosun – a Chinese conglomerate and investment company, which bought Wolves for £30m from Morgan in 2016 – was a major reason, but not everyone was happy with it at the time.
“Their arrival was greeted with a mixture of suspicion and intrigue,” explains Dave Harrison, a veteran football journalist in England and author of Nuno Had a Dream. “There had been foreign owners before in the form of the Bhatti Brothers who ran the club into the ground in the 1980s. Initial inquiries revealed that Fosun were a global company of genuine wealth. Its chairman Guo Guangchang has an estimated personal fortune of $7.3 billion. They arrived in Wolverhampton insisting that they wanted to restore Wolves to the pinnacle of European football but that early intent proved to be hollow.
"They replaced popular manager Kenny Jackett with former Italian goalkeeper Walter Zenga, whose managerial past was chequered. He lasted 87 days and Wolves slid towards the relegation zone with four wins from 18 games. Zenga was replaced by Paul Lambert who, at least, provided a relatively safe pair of hands and steered Wolves away from the bottom. He went at the end of the season and in came Nuno. The revolution was about to begin.”
Ian Cathro, a 32-year-old Scot, joined as first team coach in 2018, having worked with Nuno at Rio Ave and in Valencia.
“Wolves is one of the few clubs in England with a real history of success,” said Cathro, who was also assistant manager at Newcastle United and manager of Heart of Midlothian. “It’s worth spending time in the club museum, it really captures your attention.
“Wolverhampton really comes to life when there’s a home game, you can feel it around the place and it makes a reasonably quiet English city feel much bigger. Wolves gives it life.”
Cathro is privy to the inner workings of how Wolves play.
“We have young, hungry, talented players working under one of the best coaches in Europe. We have a style which is to build a way of playing which allows players to be consistent and to improve things day by day. We want to have control in the game. Sometimes you can do that with the ball, other times you can be able to do it without the ball. You need the quality to have possession, to score from organised play and counter attacks. We have to be able to compete in every game we play. Last season people recognised that – I could see as an outsider that fans felt there was a bond and something to trust. Credit to Nuno and his staff for that.”
But what does Nuno do well?
“He’s got a good football philosophy and brain which he implements in a simple manner to the players,” explains Ikeme. “I wondered why he brought so many staff with him when he arrived and if I’m honest I was disappointed because a lot of friends and colleagues lost their jobs, but I can see now how it all fits together. He’s demanding, very hands on and has the balance between the players liking him and respecting him. He’s taken the club to a different level and Wolves are very difficult to play against.”
“He’s a natural leader always sees the whole picture,” adds Cathro. “He has the conviction and instincts to lead the group by knowing what they need. He has a global understanding of his football. He knows that every team has a weak as well as a strong point. Football is always interesting, but he has a deep understanding of football, of the problems we might face and he’s good at coming up with solutions. He has a clear way of working so we can continue to improve. He doesn’t chop and change. The idea is to build something that will last, that can be developed, invested in and grown, that can allow the players to deeply understand what their role is.”
Wolves are eighth in their first season back up. Are they happy with that?
“It’s more important to look at the journey that the players have been on,” says Cathro. “It was very new at the start of the season, with only two or three players with Premier League experience. We’ve had different stages. We managed to settle ourselves well at the start, with everyone looking to get comfortable. Then we had our work validated by some positive results. We’ve had massive highs and felt genuine pressure when we’ve been going six games without a win. We’ve grown and improved throughout the season and that’s the important thing in a very difficult league. Every game has its own story. Top teams don’t adapt so much to a newly promoted team like a smaller team might do. We’ve gone to play against some of the top teams in Europe, but we’ve seen that teams have made changes when they’ve played us – which is a matter of respect. This group is capable of continuing to grow as part of a really ambitious project, while still suffering from some knock backs.”
We saw potential in a historic club, a sleeping giant with a big fan base; we thought that promotion to the Premier League was realistic. We wanted to wake that giant
Jeff Shi, Wolves chairman
The coaches know they have to deliver for their demanding, ambitious owners. Thompson thinks the combination is working.
“It has taken the owners time to get the right manager, but I think they have it with Nuno,” Cathro says. “He was a breath of fresh air, though people did frown a little at the start because of the way he wanted to play with more of a passing game. Yet he’s transformed some players into different positions – Conor Coady has been a revelation moving to a sweeper. Nuno’s philosophy has proved right and he’s continued it in the Premier League. We’ve come unstuck a few times, but that’s part of the learning curve. There’s a buzz back at the club, every game is sold out and last year was the first time in all my years in football that I didn’t hear any criticism of the manager.
"The Chinese owners want to promote Wolves globally and the club have come on a long way.”
Jeff Shi is the chairman of Wolves and part of the Fosun group.
“We were looking to invest in a football club and talked with clubs in Spain, Italy and Portugal,” explains Shi. “We settled on Wolves, who we considered to be a good fit. Wolves were in the Championship and much cheaper than a Premier League club. We saw potential in a historic club, a sleeping giant with a big fan base; we thought that promotion to the Premier League was realistic. We wanted to wake that giant.”
Are the owners in it for the long run?
“In 2016 I was just an investor who lived in Shanghai, my home city. I came to Wolves three or four times and the club didn’t do well [Wolves finished 15th, seven points clear of relegation back to the third tier].
“I thought it was better for me to move to Wolverhampton to be able to make quick decisions, to watch training and all the games. It was exciting to experience a new country and city at the age of 40, but promotion to the Premier League was the highlight of my time at Wolverhampton.
“Wolverhampton is very different from Shanghai, it’s smaller and quiet and green. The food and shopping are better in Shanghai, but the air is cleaner here, the traffic less. The important thing is that I like football. I’ve watched it since I was a child when I watched Serie A. Gradually, the Premier League became the most popular league in the world, but being a fan is totally different from being inside a club. Football is my career now and I think about the club and the industry every day.”
What is the aim for Wolves’ owners?
“Long term, we want to be one of the best clubs in the world,” says Shi. “We want to be top four, top six in the Premier League. We want to compete in the Champions League. I want us to win the Premier League in five-to-ten years, but our aim for this season is to stay in the Premier League and then climb up the table next year. We have a young squad but we want to recruit and develop better players. Football is changing because of the Financial Fair Play and the television in the Premier League. Every club has money now.
“Financial Fair Play is the right thing to do, but it’s about profit and loss. Sometimes it’s not fair on the new teams because they don’t have the same size fan base as big as the biggest clubs. They can’t generate the same revenues from sponsorship to invest in their team. It’s not always the best for ambitious owners who want to invest in the team. We’re a new team who wants to challenge the big six, but they have a form of protection [with FFP] and it’s hard to do that at the moment. So we have to be smarter, we have to find better young players.”
Wolves – and every Premier League team – benefits from TV riches. The global popularity of the league also means that it’s no longer essential for clubs to be from large metropolitan areas where the vast fan bases can provide the highest attendances since match day revenues are less important to club revenues.
“It might be different from basketball where the city size can be important to a team, but football is global,” says Shi. “The majority of the fans who follow Premier League teams are not from the city where the clubs play. They don't care about the size of the city. The majority of the revenue now comes from sponsorship and TV rights. Wolves can become a global club with a global fan base, but we do also need a bigger stadium capacity.”
Molineux, which holds 32,000 and is the 20th biggest football stadium in England, was rebuilt between 1979-1995. It’s fit for Premier League football and the smart new Cullis stand was added in 2012 as Morgan invested into the club. But Shi is confident that the stadium can be expanded towards a “40 or 50,000” capacity.
There are more pressing matters for now.
“We needed to define the philosophy for our first team and how we play,” explains the chairman. “We need to know the demand and profile of every player we are looking to recruit. We speak a lot with Nuno, our head coach and also with our sporting director. Players don’t need to be famous or even expensive, they need to fit our philosophy and identity which will run from our academy to the first team.”
Barcelona did this, Ajax and Manchester United too. A player at nine should play in the same style as a player in the first team, but changes in manager can alter that. Jose Mourinho’s philosophy was very different from Alex Ferguson’s, but in Nuno Espirito Santo and his staff, Wolves’ style has been widely praised.
“His style was revolutionary,” explains David Harrison. “Nuno is the best thing to happen to Wolves for the best part of five decades. For those fans who didn’t share the glories of the 50s, 60s and part of the 70s, he has brought a style and substance to the team which has never before been witnessed.
“Leaving aside the football, he has engaged with the fans with his passion, which, admittedly, has sometimes been over the top and landed him in trouble with referees. He talks repeatedly of being part of 'The Pack' – which is usually followed by the phrase 'together we are stronger'.
“Nuno totally reshaped the club with his philosophy and football beliefs,” adds Harrison. “Ruben Neves is the standout. At 21 he is a mature midfielder with a vast array of skills – superb range of passing, work-rate and an eye for goal. He scored six goals last season, all of them long range efforts, including a stunning volley against Derby which is still being talked about. He cost £15.8 million – a club record at the time – but is already being valued at £50-60 million.”
Other players have had to settle in. When Helder Costa, then Wolves’ £13m record signing arrived, Ikeme had his doubts. “You could tell he was good but it was that typical English attitude of worrying whether he’d be game for it when he got kicked. He quickly proved me wrong and nobody could touch him in training. He’s still doing it now in the Premier League.”
It’s a shame Ikeme can’t play with them. In 2017 he was diagnosed with acute leukaemia after routine blood tests pre-season. A year later and in remission, he retired from football. He still watches Wolves and is spearheading a donor drive for blood cancer.
“There’s a problem with ethnic diversity,” explains the former Nigerian international beneath Molineux’s main stand. “We don’t get enough blood donors from ethnic minorities, but we’ve got about 50-100 signed up this week.”
A football club is far more than a football team, but as the team has grown, the club has looked to raise their profile.
Russell Jones, the club’s head of marketing outlines Wolves’ strategy: “We’ve prioritised markets and looked at China because of our ownership group. It’s an enormous country but we will prioritise tier two cities. We’re also looking at markets where we have players like Mexico for Raul.”
Different markets for different fans.
“People from Wolverhampton are quite self-deprecating,” says Jones. “They’re honest and very proud of their city, a football city where the football club comes first. The football club is hugely important to the local economy and the City Council appreciate that the club who carries the city’s name are in the Premier League. They’ve been very supportive.”
Bottom-of-the-league Huddersfield Town are the visitors in late November when The National visit Molineux and Wulfrunians are confident of victory. Just 16 games into the season, Wolves had won six, more than they managed in the whole of their last top-flight campaign in 2011/12. There’s much good about what this club are doing, from a child-specific match day programme to community engagement. A flag behind one goal reads "The strength of the wolf is in the pack", words Nuno would approve of.
But Wolves lose. And they lose the following game against another struggling side, Cardiff City. They follow that up with an unexpected win against Chelsea 2-1 and then beat Spurs away later in December. Wolves have now beaten or taken points off every team in the top six this season.
They never did do things the easy way in Wolverhampton, but they have impressed again this season and their future is bright.
Updated: January 27, 2019 07:43 PM