Under Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo’s (left) leadership the club won promotion and then qualified for Europe
It is less than six years since Wolves went to Crawley Town for a midweek League One game.
Those who were there can still remember that depressing excursion to Sussex. The pitch was bad. The facilities were bad. The result – a 2-1 defeat – was bad. The three-and-a-half-hour bus ride and return home at 2.30am was bad.
As they prepare to host Espanyol in the last 32 of the Europa League, nights like those at the Broadfield Stadium belong to a different era.
There was a false start. In their first season after the club was bought for £45m by Chinese conglomerate Fosun International in 2016, Wolves went through three managers and at one point went two months without a win on their way to a 15th-place Championship finish.
But two games into the following campaign, talk inside the club became about promotion to the Premier League. One player was so convinced he told club media only a month later that Wolves were going up. The interview was never published. But he was right. And Wolves’ fortunes have not stopped rising since.
Fosun, through their mega-rich chairman Guo Guangchang and Jeff Shi, Wolves’ executive chairman, have changed a lot of things in the last four years. Mindset was the most important.
Wolves’ commercial department make a virtue of the Black Country slang ‘Ay We’ in some of their advertising. Fans used to talk about it in a negative manner. Anything that could go wrong would, the theory went, because ‘We are Wolves, Ay We’.
Financially, the club budgeted expecting the worst. In the Championship, that was for just outside the play-offs. It created a mindset where eighth was regarded as acceptable when, in truth, it wasn’t for a club whose supporters had grown up with tales of the 1950s, of titles, FA Cups and Honved.
There was some scepticism internally when Fosun introduced buzzwords – progressive, determined, humble, unity, bright – and Shi spoke of Wolves becoming one of the world’s top clubs. But slowly, heads started to look up, not down. The fatalistic view began to fall away.
Through the hard work of Guangchang, Shi, chief executive Laurie Dalrymple, sporting director Kevin Thelwell and manager Nuno Espirito Santo, Wolves reset their aims.
If Wolves finish in the top half of the table this season, it will be the first time they have done so in consecutive top-flight campaigns in 47 years. They have only managed eight top-half finishes since they last won the league in 1959. But unless they at least match last season’s seventh place, it will be viewed by some as a disappointment. These are the aspirations that exist at Molineux now, even if a sober realism is also taking hold.
Guo Guangchang has been described as the ‘Warren Buffett of China’ in the media
First the good news for Wolves fans.
Fosun remain committed. The gamble they took investing in the club paid off because promotion was delivered within two seasons. Wolves’ value has grown and revenues have risen. The wider group has suffered financially because of the collapse of travel firm Thomas Cook, in which it was the largest shareholder, and the coronavirus outbreak, but is big enough to ride out such storms and no impact on the football side is being felt.
However, a subtle touch of the brakes is being applied.
The club’s aim is not to muscle into the top group once. It is to do so season after season. There is now an acceptance this will take more than money. It will take patience and time. Shi sees himself as being around for another 20 years to deliver that vision.
Wolves regard Tottenham as a reasonable example of what they hope to be. It has been noted that from becoming chairman in 2001, it took Daniel Levy eight years to turn the club into a permanent fixture in the top half of the table and a further eight to record successive top-four finishes. And Spurs started from a much higher base.
Like White Hart Lane, Molineux is a grand old stadium in need of a major upgrade. At one point there was an idea to build somewhere new.
This changed to scaling up the existing ground fairly quickly. But the cost of that, estimated to be anywhere between £50m and £100m, is high and the payback period, up to 25 years, long. Unlike Tottenham, Wolves cannot generate funds in the USA through a bond scheme, so the interest rate being quoted is more than 4%.
A strategic decision has been made to wait until the financial picture is more favourable before major work at Molineux takes place. Wolves hope to add 700 seats this summer and another 2,000 in 2021. But that will still only put them 11th in the list of current Premier League capacities and a long way behind all the clubs they are trying to catch.
When the January transfer window closed, some at the club noted mild criticism of the relative lack of new faces into Nuno’s squad. Yet their total outlay on Daniel Podence, Luke Matheson and Leonardo Campana was almost £20m, the fifth highest in the Premier League and more than Wolves have ever spent in a January window.
The criticism comes from growing expectations that now have to be managed. There are some who feel the club may have got to their present situation slightly more quickly than was actually ideal.
There have been some major changes since that night in Crawley.
First, the food. These days there are more options. The food itself – particularly the fruit and vegetables – are organic and of the highest quality. The budget for nutrition has quadrupled. Players notice these things.
In the gym they wear weighted vests rather than doing press-ups and squats. They have machines that can check the state of muscles before and after games to assess the likelihood of injury.
Should Wolves find themselves needing to get back from Sussex after a night game these days, the chances are they would fly.
It is fair to assume no-one was tuning in from Mexico that night to hear how Kenny Jackett’s boys were getting on. Now there is an audience. Thanks to star striker Raul Jimenez, Wolves fans wear sombreros, the club have a third shirt that looks very much like Mexico’s national attire, they have a Spanish language channel and a live radio relationship that means anyone in Mexico wanting to know how their favourite forward is getting on does not need to subscribe to the TV network that shows Premier League games.
Wolves are attempting to arrange a 2020 pre-season tour that involves the US cities with a significant Mexican population. WWE star Sin Cara has been to Molineux. Jimenez wore his distinctive mask when he scored in last season’s FA Cup semi-final. Wolves have campaigned with the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico to protect the endangered wolf.
The club know when the day comes that Jimenez is no longer part of their squad, their appeal in Mexico will diminish. The aim is to ensure it does not vanish.
Goalkeeper Rui Patricio is one of several Wolves players with connections to agent Jorge Mendes
As they prepare to face Espanyol, it is hard not to regard Wolves as an unqualified success story. They win more than they lose, their stadium is full – with 10,000 on a waiting list for season tickets – the atmosphere is usually fabulous and their manager is charismatic, if not exactly media friendly.
Their squad may still be top heavy with Portuguese players but, in Matheson, they signed a highly-rated 17-year-old last month. Morgan Gibbs-White, Max Kilman, Chem Campbell, Dion Sanderson and Taylor Perry have all come through the ranks to start first-team games this season.
Even the complaints about agent Jorge Mendes have largely disappeared.
When Wolves were in the Championship, some rival clubs were unhappy with Mendes’ influence, believing it gave them a massive advantage in player recruitment.
A subsidiary of Fosun has a significant stake in Mendes’ Gestifute agency, which runs the careers of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho among many others.
Mendes has been behind a number of significant Wolves transfers, including those of Ruben Neves, who dropped into the Championship from Porto, where he was playing in the Champions League. Euro 2016 winners Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho are also from the Mendes stable, as is Nuno, and also Podence.
Senior figures at Molineux argue the influence is not as great as it would appear – and that most big clubs have relationships with major agencies which they use to their advantage.
The Podence deal, for instance, nearly collapsed because Olympiakos kept nudging the price up just as completion came close. If they had the chance, Wolves would be keen to sign Bernardo Silva, David de Gea and Fabinho, who are all Mendes clients currently playing in the Premier League. But in none of those cases could they get close to the wages required.
Despite all the positivity, Wolves do now find themselves at a crossroads.
The exits of Dalrymple, due to a difference in vision, in the summer and, this month, Thelwell, who has taken up a new challenge with the Red Bull group in New York, has left the club without two popular and highly rated senior figures.
Last week, Nuno fuelled speculation about his own future by revealing there had been no discussion with Shi over an extension to his deal, which ends in 2021.
There is no doubt Wolves want Nuno to stay. A contract offer will eventually be forthcoming. It is felt the 46-year-old shares the same vision as his bosses, recognises the club are ahead of schedule and accepts the need to take a breath before a concerted push to the next level.
Yet Fosun are also prepared. As with Thelwell, they regard it as a positive that rival organisations are interested in their employees, as confirmation Wolves are doing something right.
In the immediate aftermath of Unai Emery’s dismissal by Arsenal, Nuno was installed as one of the favourites to take over. In the end, no approach came.
But if one did, the reaction would be fascinating as Fosun view change as an opportunity for an upgrade. Even though they clearly got it wrong in their appointments of Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert, they would back themselves to bring in the right man to continue the momentum.