Johnny Phillips: Jota’s mix of grace, class and courage at Wolves
The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
These words of depth and meaning, uttered by no less a man than Nelson Mandela, give voice to experiences, fears and triumphs experienced over a lifetime.
So it might seem a little trite to bring them into the sphere of sport.
Bravery in life is very different to bravery on a football pitch but it leads to the same ends.
Without it nothing can be achieved. Courage in a footballer takes many different forms. The game is awash with clichés and metaphors for bravery.
Lion-hearted captains, one-hundred-and ten-per-centers, full-blooded challenges, bodies on the line.
This conjures up images of what a brave footballer possesses; thighs like tree trunks, blood dripping from a head wound, veins bulging out of the neck, not an ounce of energy being spared.
This prototype footballer looks nothing like Diogo Jota. But last Saturday the slight Portuguese winger put in one of the bravest displays on a football pitch Wolves fans have seen in a long time.
Jota has many qualities. He has a turn of pace, an acceleration past his marker. His fleet of foot allows him to burst free from tight situations, permitting him to wriggle away from challengers as he did when Nottingham Forest doubled up on him as he ran down the left wing late in the second half last Saturday at the City Ground. Technically he has the ability to feint, turn, twist and glide without the ball ever leaving his control.
But without bravery he wouldn’t be able to do any of it.
The 20-year-old is playing in his first season in English football, in the most physically demanding of the four divisions.
A challenge he has embraced, despite the fears that would have crossed his mind when leaving his homeland where he has played all his senior football so far.
There is so much boldness about the way Jota plays the game. The thunderous and committed tackling so often associated with bravery isn’t where true courage lies. The bravest players are those with the ball.
They know that their opponent is there to stop them, to cause destruction. A six-foot behemoth in defence lunging into a tackle isn’t the brave one. It’s the skilful creator on the ball knowing that he is the one who will suffer the consequences of any brutality who shows true courage.
Jota carries the ball like nobody else in The Championship.
Every stride he takes he knows that those opponents are closing in on him, looking to win the ball, take the man; stop him. Yet still he runs, ball at his feet, retaining possession until other options become available.
The further Jota carries the ball, the more the pressure builds. Not just from those opponents out to bring a halt to his progress but from those on his side.
Team-mates wanting the pass, the manager wanting an end product and the supporters wanting a goal. All the time Jota runs with that pressure building. Each step he takes there is more obligation on him to deliver a finished product.
There are times when it doesn’t come off – a tackle, a misplaced pass – and the player turns to see his manager or team-mates with arms aloft in exasperation or hears the groans of the crowd. But he is never afraid to try again.
Against Forest, Wolves were never fluent in the opening 45 minutes.
It was stop-start stuff, possession squandered, play broken up, nothing happening. But Jota was there time and again seeking out the ball.
He wasn’t at his best either but it never stopped him trying.
The second half was when it all came right. Forest couldn’t live with the youngster.
Their defence couldn’t quite work out what they were up against – was he a winger, was he a forward or was he playing in the hole? ‘What is he doing to us, why can’t we stop him?’
In injury-time, as Jota lay prone on the deck after one too many challenges outside the laws of the game, Forest’s beaten players will have been contemplating an individual performance that they just couldn’t come to terms with.
The winning goal was bravery in a microcosm.
Receiving Matt Doherty’s pass out of defence Jota began on another of those runs.
This was the moment, Forest’s defence was turned but there was so much to be done. The off-balance pass to Leo Bonatini kept the move going.
And while we are on the subject of bravery don’t be in any doubt that Bonatini didn’t know what was coming as he deftly flicked a return ball to Jota.
The thuggery of Matt Mills’ challenge on the Brazilian forward should have brought a red card and had events not unfolded as they did then it might well have done.
Bonatini took a brutal hit that he knew was coming.
Now Jota was on his way into the penalty area, but he was clipped by Forest’s Armand Traore as he strode into the box. It was a foul but the Portuguese eschewed the simple option, stayed on his feet, keeping his composure as well as his balance and slid the ball past the keeper. A deadly counter-attack.
The goal was as good as any Jota has scored this season but none have summed up the player’s qualities quite so precisely. Pace, skill, composure and, most of all, bravery.