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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Ruben Neves, Wolves’ first icon since the days of Steve Bull

By Johnny Phillips | Wolves | Published:

Ruben Neves played his 50th game for Wolverhampton Wanderers last Saturday. It is a small landmark but he has already become an icon during his short time at Molineux.

He is inextricably linked to dreams and ambition. More than any other player on the pitch, Neves has come to symbolise Wolves under Fosun.

It is important to go back to July 2017, when the Portuguese star first arrived at the club. Wolves were creating headlines in the national media. Their transfer activity was being scrutinised and Jorge Mendes was the name on everybody’s lips. It was the arrival of Neves, in particular, that raised eyebrows. Here was a player whose name was regularly mentioned as a target for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Liverpool and Chelsea in particular.

Wolves had pulled off a coup and questions were asked about the player’s own appetite for the move. Seasoned European football observers could not work it out. Here was a player who had captained Porto in the Champions League at the age of 18. How could this move be in Neves’s best interests? The player himself is too discreet to ever suggest that he may have had reservations about a move to Wolverhampton, but it was not long before he was able to shift the agenda onto the topic of conversation that mattered most. Football.

Neves seduced an entire fan base.

Those who witnessed his early performances would report back to the uninitiated with tales of his talents.

“Have you seen him yet?” Nobody is ever too long in the tooth to fall in love. Men old enough to be his grandad would come over all misty-eyed. “I’ve not seen anyone like him down the Molineux before, yer know.”

Part of Neves’s charm on the pitch is that he is different. His type has not graced a Wolves shirt before. There is no easy comparison with a player of the old gold and black past. The way he manipulates a ball. Raking passes with back spin, side swerve or dip. No pass is off limits or beyond his capabilities. It usually requires a bag full of golf clubs to get a ball to move in so many different ways.

Then there are the goals. His early season thunderbolt at Hull City hinted at what he is capable of. As Neves built up his own portfolio of goal of the season contenders, supporters would urge him to shoot from any and every angle. The volley at home to Derby County will never be forgotten. A parting gift to the Football League.

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A moment that said: “Thanks for having me, I’ll never see you again.”

As Wolves marched to the Championship title, the narrative developed further. What ambitions did these owners have? Chairman Jeff Shi and managing director Laurie Dalrymple have been consistent with the message. There are no limits to the ambition. Wolves want to go as high as possible. Importantly this aim has been delivered without hubris. Nobody has stated Wolves will win the league. They have simply asserted that setting targets would not be fitting of the way Fosun operate.

To believe the ambitions, supporters need to see a player on the pitch who can relay the same message with his ability. In a very different era, in very different circumstances, Wolves’ last icon was able to do this.

One of Steve Bull’s greatest legacies was the way he convinced fans to believe again. When he made the short journey across the Black Country on that cold and dark November day in 1986 there was no belief on the South Bank. Supporters had lost hope. Bull, with his phenomenal goal scoring feats, changed all that. The impossible became possible.

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The word icon has moved on from its original Byzantine meaning which referred to an image or painting of Christ, or a holy figure.

Religious icons were devotional representations of a person or higher being deemed worthy of veneration. It retains some of its origins but today’s icon is a person who carries a symbolic weight.

They do not come along as often as supporters would like, but icons are important to football clubs for what they represent. At Manchester United in the 1990s, Eric Cantona was not the most successful player but he is the iconic figure of that period.

He came to represent the flair and pride that emerged at Old Trafford during Sir Alex Ferguson’s time, after so many barren years. Cantona drew a line in the sand.

On the one side were the remnants of FA Cup third round defeats to Bournemouth and team sheets with the names of Graeme Hogg and Clayton Blackmore. On the other, a path that led to league titles and European Cups, and the emergence of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.

At Wolves, Bull symbolised the shift from bankruptcy to respectability.

In Neves, supporters see a player who encapsulates the Portuguese transformation on the pitch. A rising star who has brought something new and exciting to Molineux. He has adapted to his environment and forced his game on English football, brushing aside the ‘Can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?’ brigade.

Icons draw together the values fans hold close.

Neves represents potential and ambition. Fosun can aim high so long as players like Neves are on the pitch. Supporters are proud of all these players. None are regarded as more valuable than others, but Neves is the one fans want to show off to the opposition.

Just like Bull, his name crops up in more than one terrace song. At 21, he has a long way to go before he can be considered a legend of Bull’s standing at Molineux, and the likelihood is he will not be around these parts long enough.

But in little over a season, Ruben Neves has become the iconic figure of the Fosun revolution.

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit, giving his thoughts on football across the country.

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