Further progress is in the air at Wolverhampton Wanderers

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 16, 2018

There’s so much enthusiasm at Molineux. It’s not what people notice first when they come here, walking past Stan Culis and Jack Hayward, but it’s impossible to ignore. This is a crowd and a place which believes wholeheartedly in their side and, probably more importantly, the forces behind it.

There are plenty of caveats in football now, a lot of supporters eager to place asterisks against anything that a rival does. It’s always framed as moral objection but, really, it’s little more than well-reasoned tribalism. Those who claim concern for the sport’s future, for instance, tend to be able to plot their way around those fears as and when convenient.

It’s just as well, because look hard enough and there’s a “yeah, but…” almost everywhere.

But each to their own, because nothing matters more than how a community responds to its team. Owners who are guilty of egregious abuse are another matter but, generally, as long as those who buy tickets and file into the stadium feel connected in some way, it could always be worse.

So Fosun, Jorge Mendes? Okay, but there are bigger things to be worrying about.

As a side, Wolves are a delight. Whatever Mendes’ role actually is here, it can’t be said that the club in the broad sense hasn’t benefitted from his influence or that his authority hasn’t been channeled precisely. In the past, agents who have exerted power over clubs have shown little or no interest in the common good. Gestifute will be extracting all sorts of advantages, of course they will, but at least the fans get to share in those.

And they are, very clearly. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side fits together. It helps that he has an abundance of technical ability at his disposal but, then, so does Manuel Pellegrini at West Ham. Santo has managed to construct one of those teams with a clear purpose. Their football is composed and impressive without ever being too frilly and with a creative hub in the middle of the pitch, there’s a range to their play which makes them an enjoyable watch.

They haven’t quite stormed the Premier League. They’ve had nice moments and impressive results against Everton and Manchester City, plus that dramatic late win over West Ham, but Sunday’s victory against Burnley felt like their real point of arrival. They humbled Sean Dyche’s team; the scoreline didn’t reflect that, but the performance very much did – Wolves were brighter and better, smarter and quicker. Had it not been for Joe Hart’s saves and a series of desperate goal-line blocks, the game as a contest would have been over by half-time. Had the hosts also converted a succession of good opportunities after the break, this would have been a very embarrassing afternoon indeed for Dyche and his players.

As a neutral, if you’re honest, you come to watch Wolves to see Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, Portuguese ball-players of the highest standard, one at the beginning of his career the other at the end. You leave, though, having barely noticed them. Not because they’re less than advertised, but because your attention is drawn more broadly. Individuals do stand-out – Moutinho and Neves are highly cultured, centre-half Willy Boly is outstanding, and Adama Traore scorches the turf during a brief cameo – but the eleven players on the field function so well that it’s hard to separate them from each other. Diogo Jota and Helder Costa surge and scheme, Jonny looks like a well-disciplined, skilled full-back. There’s a lot to take in.

Eventually, Raul Jimenez scores the game’s only goal, screwing a shot past Hart and in off the post, but the fluid football creates all sorts of chances for all sorts of players. By full-time, ten of the thirteen outfielders used by Santo have recorded at least one shot and both of his wing-backs have each had three. As a spectacle, it’s terrific.

The win isn’t without its imperfections. One of the truisms of the top-flight is that chance conversion is critical, meaning that Wolves’ profligacy would have cost them on a different day against a better opponent. It’s concerning, too, that despite Burnley’s chronic lack of imagination, they should really have had an equaliser in the second-half, with a low cross evading everyone and drifting just wide of Rui Patricio’s far-post.

But the win will have a calming effect. Newly-promoted sides suffer when on the verge of victory in a way that established teams don’t. It’s two victories in a row for Wolves now and with that will come a sense of belonging; eventually, games will be seen out with confidence and the stadium won’t hush at the slightest hint of danger. In time, in time.

So the present is rosey. But so too is the future, maybe. It’s tempting to laugh at new owners’ objectives and to snigger when, as Fosun have done, they aim themselves towards the top of the league. That won’t happen this season at Wolves, but it’s not difficult to imagine it becoming a reality within the next five. Repeated injections of broadcasting revenue will animate that, of course, but so too will the aesthetic on display – why would a talented foreign player not want to come here? What kind of gifted footballer at the beginning of his career wouldn’t look at this side, the profile that it’s affording to its incumbent parts, and conclude that Molineux is now one of the most attractive destinations in the country?

Not many. As the chant here goes, Wolverhampton Wanderers are on their way back.

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