Feature: How the feel-good factor returned to Wolves
Something is stirring in Wolverhampton...a sleeping giant is rousing.
Molineux may have witnessed more false dawns than an Arctic winter, but this battle-hardened fanbase is daring to dream again, writes Wolves correspondent Tim Spiers.
Wolves are a club rejuvenated, aiming for promotion once more and producing some of their most exciting and attractive football in years.
A deeply passionate supporter base from a one-club city desperate for success needs little encouragement to jump on board...and fans are duly showing up in big numbers, eager to see whether the 'Nunolution' has substance to back up the hype.
So far the signs are good. Underpinned by huge investment from owners Fosun – who in 17 months have already ploughed in £20million more than the initial £20m/£30m they'd promised to invest during their first two years at the club – Wolves have assembled a number of exciting young overseas talents including Diogo Jota, Ruben Neves, Leo Bonatini, Ruben Vinagre, Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro (all aged 18 to 23).
Nuno Espirito Santo's team are second in the table, season ticket numbers and attendances are up to levels last seen in their Premier League stay (2009-2012) and they're doing as well as they have in the League Cup for 22 years (having beaten a strong Southampton team 2-0 at St Mary's despite making 11 changes themselves). What's not to like? And how has this happened so quickly?
The irony of the city's motto being 'out of darkness cometh light' is lost on no one for a club that's long lived in the shadow of its glorious 1950s heyday.
All subsequent eras – even the 1970s crop who won two League Cups and reached a Uefa Cup final – have fallen short of those glory days. As will any owner/manager who attempts to live up to the time of Cullis, Wright and Broadbent.
While acknowledging their glorious past, Wolves want to create new history – and Fosun's ambitions (becoming a Premier League force and expanding the club's global reach, particularly in China) are huge.
In terms of establishing the club in the top flight both the two previous owners fell short despite big investment. Sir Jack Hayward threw money at mercenaries – and failed. Steve Morgan invested heavily but still wanted to balance the books – and failed.
Fosun are combining vast wealth with young talent. Backed by a head coach with Champions League pedigree, they're making good progress on what could be a long and thrilling journey.
But for all the victories, the stats and the money, the manner in which the whole feel of the place has been transformed in such a short space of time has generated a tangible feel-good factor.
Managing director Laurie Dalrymple feels it too.
"I speak to fans a lot and the common thread is they’ve not felt this enthused or happy with the quality of football and the feeling around the club for years and years," he told the Express & Star.
"A huge amount of that comes from what we’re doing on the pitch and a lot of the credit for that goes to Nuno.
"Clearly he’s of a very strong calibre and brought in a much bigger backroom team than coaches have before, but with the expertise comes a big transition process. Then there’s a different formation and style of play, so they could be afforded time and flexibility about when they got it right...six months? Nine months?
"But in six weeks he’s got that group playing pretty much as he wants. They’re responding to him, they're cohesive – and they believe.
"When that starts to happen the positivity permeates amongst the club."
While the money, the facilities and the talented players are all well and good it needs someone to bring it all together.
The man charged with doing that is Nuno. Hired from Porto with the help of long-time friend and agent Jorge Mendes, whose influence at Wolves runs deep, Nuno has overhauled just about everything.
A dozen new players, a new 3-4-3 formation and a new playing style have all been implemented in a short space of time. Crucially many of the new signings were in at the start of pre-season and Nuno soon set about deciding who could and couldn't adapt from last year's squad.
Uniting the 12 new signings with a decreasing core of homegrown players such as Conor Coady, John Ruddy, Danny Batth and Matt Doherty has been Nuno's biggest challenge but so far the squad looks tight-knit. Indeed, you'd have to go a long way to see an almost brand new team of numerous nationalities and skill-sets gel so quickly.
Pinpointing midfielder-turned right back Conor Coady as someone who could marshal his new-look back three was a masterstroke and the likeable Coady has thrived, becoming the heartbeat of the team alongside revitalised skipper Danny Batth, who too embraced the new style.
Nuno's no-nonsense man management, attention to detail and tactical astuteness are traits that have helped engineer a deeply impressive start with 10 wins from 14 matches in all competitions. No stone is being left unturned by a sizeable backroom team that's placed a big emphasis on physical recovery in the unrelenting bear-pit that is the Championship.
Setbacks (a 2-1 home defeat to Cardiff when Wolves were outfought and a 2-0 loss at Sheffield United with 10 men) have been immediately followed with victories at Southampton and a 4-0 demolition at Burton (where Wolves lost last season), hinting at a newfound mental steel that's been lacking in the past two seasons under Kenny Jackett, Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert.
The 43-year-old Nuno has an intense dislike for playing the media game (post-match interviews have been scythed down to a few short minutes) but when he speaks, the fans listen.
"He can’t do anything wrong," David Evans, creator of the long-running podcast Wolves Fancast, which marks its 300th episode next month, said.
"He’s quietly spoken but you can tell the cogs are constantly whirring.
"He’s brought in a fantastic style of football and it's all clicked into place so far. People are impressed by the way it's been quickly adopted by the whole team.
"People like Nuno's honesty, he’s respectful to the opposition and he’s not trying to get the fans ahead of themselves."
It's not just fans too young to have lived through the 1950s or 1970s who are enthused by what's happening.
Seasoned supporters have spoken of the quality of football on show being up there with anything they've enjoyed at Molineux.
Kelvin Large has been watching Wolves regularly for 43 years and is equally impressed by Nuno.
"Jeff Shi's appointment of Nuno may be his best day at work," he said. "Calmness personified to the media but passionate on the touchline, he continually reinforces the bond between club and fans, his Wolf pack."
The importance of the Wolf pack is something Nuno speaks of frequently. As is his 'idea' of how to play the game, which he desires to impose on the opposition week after week with consistent performance levels.
Indeed he places a bigger emphasis on performances than results, such is his fervent belief that if they consistently act out his demands in terms of style and tactics the results won't be a problem.
"You can see what Nuno’s about," Kelvin added. "It’s not all about the new guys though. Danny Batth has returned like the prodigal son and Conor Coady seems to be relishing every minute he plays."
While on-field results are the be all and end all, there's also a palpable sense of that vital bond between club and fans strengthening.
Communication and transparency are key to an inclusive and happy football club and Wolves have clearly made efforts to improve both.
A series of ticket initiatives have helped boost the average attendance to a six-year high, while an inventive 'Early Bird' season ticket offer led to the highest sales figures since relegation from the Premier League.
Wolves have only failed to sell out one away allocation (on a Tuesday night at Hull when they still took 1,500 fans) and this weekend's highly-anticipated visit of local rivals Aston Villa is heading for a rare sell-out.
That feeling of being on board with something fresh, new and exciting has been an important aspect behind the current feel-good factor. Confidence in previous owner Morgan and chief executive Jez Moxey had eroded after disastrous successive relegations from the top flight to League One.
There was a deep feeling of mistrust from the fanbase. Jackett's youthful band of relateable youngsters restored pride when winning the League One title with a record points total, but in the past two seasons successive 15th-placed finishes in the Championship – a league Wolves fans depressingly know oh-so well – quelled any momentum he had garnered.
Hence the root and branch change – on and off the field – of the past year. A number of long-serving backroom staff moved on in the summer, as did midfielder Dave Edwards and striker Nouha Dicko, who spent a combined total of 13 years at Molineux.
Sentiment has gone out the window and Fosun's era of ruthlessness is here to stay in a modern football world that surely demands it.
"There comes a time when you have to go through an evolution – I think we’re probably going through that at the moment," managing director Dalrymple, whose pre-match trip to a London pub with Shi to buy endless rounds of drinks for fans before a match at Brentford encapsulated the current mood, said.
"That’s not to say these people weren’t good enough or haven’t been good for the club but if we’re being really honest now is the time for us to evolve as a club and that meant going in different directions in some ways, tapping into different talent resources.
"It’s not to say individuals, either coaching staff or players, weren’t good enough but they probably didn’t fit into the direction we’ve gone in.
"There is a culture change and the speed with which it’s evolved would indicate the decisions we’ve taken this summer have been the right ones."
Previous head coach Lambert stated on numerous occasions that there wasn't a winning mentality at the club.
"Maybe he was right," Dalrymple continued. "If you make a direct comparison to where we are now there is a different feeling at the club, there’s no question about that.
"There’s been a lot of change. I think the most important point is in the summer months a lot of really good people left, in the backroom team and the playing staff, Dave Edwards in particular.
"He was here almost 10 years and that level of loyalty is relatively spare these days.
"Where this season will go remains to be seen, but there’s certainly a different feeling.
"When you complement that with us trying to be as transparent as we can and trying to get as many people in the ground as possible and making the experience a positive one, then yes the general atmosphere is going to be strong."
Fan Kelvin says there's been a 'yearning' to unite everyone – and improved communication has certainly helped.
"The Early Bird deal captured the imagination as did the children’s £1 per match offer but having dallied with Paul Lambert’s demise. Fans were left wondering what would come next.
"In the stands, Molineux is buzzing. The South Bank can sing on their own but the North Bank is starting to find its voice. The bars and concourses are also busier than they’ve been in years. Eager new fans are streaming through the turnstiles with the same dreams that so many of us have had before them."
Fancast creator David added: "It's a bit like Jackett's first year, there's a connection with the fans again.
"People can see the effort everyone is putting in and can also envisage a long-term future.
"If you look at it off the field, Laurie can’t do anything wrong at the minute and seems to be in tune with what the fans want.
"He’ll say what can and can’t be done but he’s giving a lot of hope – fans can see the club are moving forward off the field.
"With Fosun coming in it's given new optimism for everyone, a fresh start on a whole new level. We’ve been wanting to buy into something and now we’re feeding off it."
Fosun came in all guns blazing after buying the club last summer, splurging £14m in six mad weeks signing 12 players of which only three (Cavaleiro, Costa and Romain Saiss) are still in the first-team picture.
They also hired Zenga – a man whose CV was longer than a chapters list in War and Peace – and within weeks the whole thing crumbled. It all smacked of short-term planning with no small amount of naivety. But lessons have been quickly learned.
After briefly frolicking with Lambert, whose results veered from the sublime (FA Cup wins at Liverpool and Stoke) to the ridiculous (defeats to Wigan and Burton) but would ultimately never fit into the mould Fosun wanted, they settled on Nuno, more akin to their original 'plan A' choice of current Spain boss Julen Lopetegui who dramatically spurned their advances in the hours before the takeover was announced.
Recruitment has run smoothly under Nuno who crucially, unlike Lambert, has a close working relationship with Mendes.
They have built from the back (seven of the first eight summer signings were defenders or goalkeepers) which has led to a solid start defensively and, unlike last year, many players have been sourced over time (Roderick Miranda, John Ruddy, Ryan Bennett and Barry Douglas were on their radar last season) while the £15m club record capture of Ruben Neves felt like a game-changer. It was certainly a head-turner.
Sporting director Kevin Thelwell, whose reputation unfairly suffered under Morgan's ever-tightening purse-strings as the ex-owner looked to balance the books and then sell up, has found – and played – a key role amid the Mendes-heavy strategy, overseeing the key captures of Ruddy (and his extremely able deputy Will Norris) as well as Championship experience in centre half Bennett. It's also believed Thelwell flew out to Portugal with Shi to secure the impressive loan capture from Atletico Madrid of top scorer Jota, who has starred in the opening weeks with six goals.
The squad has been decisively trimmed. To earn more than £7m from the combined sales of Dicko and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – who scored just six goals between them last season – seems like excellent business.
Thelwell has also overseen a widening recruitment strategy for the under-23s with a host of promising youngsters scoured from Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Spain, amid a hectic summer of no fewer than 41 transactions in and out.
The whole recruitment process is thought to be working with more cohesion despite the extra voices and opinions that Fosun's links with Gestifute have brought.
The only thing missing was a top-class proven striker, with Wolves trying and failing to sign a host of well-known players including Chris Martin, Loic Remy, Nelson Oliveira and Jordan Rhodes, while a £10m move for PSV's Jurgen Locadia fell through on deadline day.
Leo Bonatini (with four goals and four assists) is doing his best to ensure that failure won't prove costly, until January at least.
In the midst of it all is Mendes, regarded as the most powerful man in world football. His influence is substantial and a number of national media articles have poured scorn on his involvement.
However after a few years of frugality under Morgan at a club which has tried several different strategies and methods to return – and stay – in the Promised Land™ of the Premier League, fans couldn't seem to care less about Mendes' involvement as long as success follows.
"If you asked any football fan do you want Jorge Mendes and his black book of players at your disposal no one would say no," Fancast man David added.
"We’ve been fortunate we have that relationship with him.
"Traditionally it's not the thing you’d do – the traditional British mentality is hard work and local players, which ultimately we'd all want – but this is the way football is going.
"There's been a lot of press talk about Mendes and Wolves but you don't see much about Man United and Mino Raiola.
"Perhaps because we’re a Championship team and we’re at that different level it’s disconcerting for others."
Six Portuguese players started the 4-0 win at Burton (on the same weekend only three Portuguese top flight teams fielded more in their XI) but as long as the results are there, it won't matter whether they hail from Bilston or Burundi.
And the last two times Wolves started a season this well (2008/09 and 2013/14), they were promoted.
There will be pitfalls ahead – and how this young band of Portuguese stars copes with the notoriously tough winter slog in the Championship will be key – but at this point in time Wolves are in a great place.
"I couldn’t be happier with where we are as a club at the moment," Dalrymple said.
"We’re just really satisfied with where we are. No one’s getting ahead of themselves, we’re barely into October.
"We’re really careful not to put any undue pressure on Nuno or the players. But there has to be a degree of expectation because of the investment we’ve made and we can see the technical ability of the players in the group.
"We’re certainly happy – but keeping our feet on the ground."
Expectations are high, but the moment Wolves are meeting them.