Johnny Phillips: Heavyweight signings at Wolves and Aston Villa put rival clubs on red alert
Ruben Neves brings the ball comfortably out of midfield, riding a challenge as he heads towards the opposition penalty area, but just as he gets within shooting range a perfectly-timed tackle from John Terry averts the danger…
That scenario could well have been played out between Liverpool and Chelsea in a Premier League title race next season. Instead, it is now something that could happen in a Championship derby between Villa and Wolves and that illustrates just what a couple of weeks it has been in the transfer market for the two clubs.
The signings are chalk and cheese when placed next to each other, symbolic of the different approaches being taken by the two neighbours. The financial clout of both clubs is the envy of many others in the division, who will be looking to replicate Huddersfield’s achievements last season and show that money isn’t everything when it comes to building a successful promotion side.
Terry’s capture represents a coup for manager Steve Bruce, who had to fend off interest from arch-rivals Blues to secure the player. The 36-year-old brings a wealth of experience and big-game know-how with him to Villa Park. His new manager made a similar switch himself, leaving champions Manchester United in 1996 to sign for Blues at the age of 35.
Bruce clearly believes Terry has enough left in his legs to cope with the rigours of a long Championship campaign. That stuttering performance in Chelsea’s final game of the season at home to Sunderland gives rise to slight concerns that he may not last the course, but Terry has also been signed for his dressing room presence. Leadership material has been in short supply at Villa in recent years and the former England man brings plenty of that to his new club. Stand by me, indeed.
Wolves have smashed their transfer record to bring in Neves from Porto. It is an eye-opening deal given he was supposedly contacted by both Chelsea and Liverpool recently, but as a client of Jorges Mendes and a former player under Nuno Espirito Santo it is clear to see how he ended up at Molineux. Even so, it represents some come down from Champions League football and Wolves supporters are jumping through hoops at the prospect of the Portuguese turning out in the old gold.
Porto have been forced to balance the books after falling foul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations and, given the investment made by both West Midlands clubs in the last 12 months, that prospect raises questions here but the reality is different. Villa’s chairman Dr Tony Xia and chief executive Keith Wyness are well aware of the club’s spending and have pledged to cut their cloth accordingly. Wolves are in credit from the frugal times of the previous regime and Fosun don’t envisage any difficulties with FFP going forward. Neither club will have a problem.
The major task is getting promoted from what already appears to be a competitive Championship. The approach of both clubs is going to be very different. Villa have a proven manager for this division and a squad of experienced players also highly regarded at this level. Wolves are going down a completely different route and have invested heavily in younger players with no experience of the job that awaits. There is a good reason why Villa are the bookies’ favourites for the title and Wolves are around twice the price.
Both clubs will need their supporters on board for the entire season. Villa’s fans responded to a dismal relegation from the Premier League with some fantastic backing for their team last August. When Dr Xia marched out on to the pitch before their home match with Rotherham it felt like a cloud had been lifted, gone was the loathed reign of Randy Lerner and there was a real appetite among supporters to look forward. It didn’t sustain for a whole season but Bruce’s arrival has given cause for further optimism. A packed and vocal Villa Park always gives the team a lift.
Molineux has been a harder place for those occupying the home dressing room in recent years and there were many occasions last season when visiting players were visibly lifted by the moans and groans echoing round the stands. Stands that became emptier as the months passed by. But there were times when Wolves supporters found their vocal chords to encourage and if the atmosphere that greeted the players for the visit of Chelsea in the FA Cup can be replicated then Nuno’s side will feel invigorated.
A young team made up of continental players will need time to adjust. In all probability not all of them will be a success. But if Fosun’s plan is to be given a chance then supporters will have to show patience. Easier said than done.
When the two sides meet for the first time next season at Molineux in October it promises to be a fascinating match-up. By then the first shots will have been fired across the bows and we will have a better idea of the identities of the two teams.
A Championship season is like no other, though. Its length sets it apart from the Premier League and it retains a competitiveness that is rarely matched in any of the other three divisions.
But if Neves and Terry are still making football headlines next May then fans of both clubs will have had a season worth hanging around for.