Big interview: Nuno building a new piece of Wolves paradise
He comes from paradise, in his own words – and now Nuno Espirito Santo wants to take Wolves fans to their own utopia.
The man who has become an almost mythical figure during just 15 months in WV1 may come across as a complex character, but it’s the simple life he yearns for.
Growing up on the idyllic island of Principe, off the west coast of Africa, with its white sandy beaches and achingly-gorgeous scenery is a world away from industrial Wolverhampton.
Not so much jumpers for goalposts, more sandcastles for penalty spots and palm trees for corner flags.
He can still find peace and happiness in his work, though, and the relationships on which his successful Wolves foundations have been built.
“My roots… Principe is paradise,” Nuno fondly recalled during a rare sit-down interview this week. “I grew up with no shoes because my house was there and the beach was there.
“Anything better than this was impossible.
“I live here, my grandmother lives there, all the family live in the houses, house by house.
“There were no cars and we played. It was paradise. That was good.
“I have those memories. If that dictates things now I don’t know but it’s still in my memory. That feeling of freedom that we had; of family. Still of course it's there.
"The same principle we have here is closeness. I have a lot of people that work with me – group dynamics in terms of psychology and management is one of the most important factors “
Nuno’s mantras and messages may be simple and repetitive but there’s clearly far more to this man than a few repeated slogans.
The work he’s done with Wolves since becoming their fourth head coach in the space of just 12 months in June 2017 has been nothing short of remarkable.
Taking 11 new players, a new backroom team, new formation, new tactics and moulding them into a mid-level Championship club is no easy task.
A season later Wolves had stormed to the Championship title with 99 points – and they’ve continued that momentum and form into the Premier League with a hugely impressive start that’s seen them beat West Ham, Burnley, Southampton and Crystal Palace and hold Manchester United and Manchester City to draws (the latter two results made him “proud, proud, proud”).
Only Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool have conceded fewer goals and Wolves have earned plaudits from pundits up and down the land for their defensive rigidity and attractive style of play.
Nuno also pipped the country’s finest bosses to win the September manager of the month award. Not bad eh?
“You cannot say we are surprised (at our good start),” he said.
“At the same time it would be arrogant if you said we expect it. The reality is we prepare ourselves for starting well. That cannot cause surprise.
“It makes us proud. It’s about this identity. If you compare our situation to a Wolf Pack, whatever territory you go you want to dominate. You want to be yourself there and having your people seeing that. It’s special for the boys.
“It helps us inside, it helps our confidence. What it creates in others, I don’t know but it helps us. When people try to change or adapt because of you, that’s important.
“We felt it before and we started feeling it again. We had it in the last game at Palace. They tried to create it but they changed the way they play, their wingers Townsend and Zaha were always inside.
“What you have to become is be really strong in what you do. That’s the point of building a team. You don’t know any other way – it would be absurd to do it any other way. Changing something that’s already working.
“The way we are doing is to have an identity. Last season the Under-18s and 23s didn’t play like us, now they are playing the same shape.
“We are trying to create this through the club, this way you can look and see a bit in front – in two years’ time this is what you’re going to have.
“This is identity. You don’t have it in one season. The identity must be in the club. If the manage changes the identity would change, that is what Wolves must not do.
“Whatever is here will have this identity. You have it in big clubs but not many clubs have it.”
Ah yes, big clubs. In the eyes of their supporters are certainly one of those. Both historically and via their fanbase, it’s hard to argue with that, but in reality they’re small fry even compared to two of the three clubs Nuno has previously managed, in Valencia and Porto.
Fosun want Wolves to become one of the biggest clubs in the world. Does that mean they can satisfy Nuno’s ambitions?
“Wolves is a big club, through history, this is the first step to becoming a big club.
“I don’t look at things by my own perspective, where I’m going to be happy in two years or one year.
“No. I’ll be happy tomorrow, I’ll have good times and bad times, it’s not about my expectations.
“What brought me here was not money, it was other things, it was having the chance to create something.
“I had other propositions to go and work but what gives you the belief is the people you talk to.
“You look in their eyes and say ‘ok’ and there’s a commitment to it. Of course people involved were people I knew before (Jeff Shi and Jorge Mendes) so it’s easier and we share the same things.
“The ownership, you are talking about one of the biggest investment groups in the word, they could buy another club if they wanted to. Maybe they could buy another club which is more expensive and is already where we want to be. We share the same views.
“A lot of people took a big step by coming away from our families and the same things we expect from the other side, give us big patience, knowing and realising that things take time to achieve.
“They are supportive and what I signed (a three-year contract) for me is important.
“I have a contract. I will honour that contract, of course.”
That’s music to the ears of thousands upon thousands of Wolves fans, the world over.
The universally positive relationship and mutual adoration Nuno and the club's supporters share is a rare thing indeed.
It goes beyond some cheap merchandise, or them singing his name every week.
Sure they love him stroking his beard like an ancient Greek philosopher, or celebrating wildly on the touchline, getting angry with referees, singing the 'Nuno had a dream' song at West Park, or even just annoying Neil Warncok. They love all that – but the relationship is about so much more.
The trust they have for him is unquestionable – they believe, unstintingly, that he can take Wolves to where Fosun want to go. He is an almost Godlike figure who can do no wrong. It's quite something to witness.
So what is it that makes this former goalkeeper, best known as being a back-up at Jose Mourinho's Porto, the potential successor to his former mentor as the 'new special one'?
Of his leadership qualities, the 44-year-old says: "Where does it come from? My education, my parents, my environment and from the way I see things, my personality."
Did sitting on the bench help him see the game clearer?
“You think when a player is playing he’s a better person than when a player is not playing? That’s not the case.
“The way that you adjust depends on what? You can gain leadership by example, by playing, and you gain the respect of your team-mates.
“Or you can gain respect for your leadership by how you are, what you say and what you do in training.
“It is where you are. If you are in a club that already has this spirit of no selfishness, no individuals, no players bigger than anything else, we are the same and the club has this, you will have a lot of these cases like we have.
“Many of my team-mates mentioned that when I was in Porto and Porto had these values as a club.
“If you go to a club that is a mess you will become a mess. It is where you are that dictates what you are. Where you are dictates your behaviour.
“What we had there was a really good group of players and fantastic human beings with a fantastic leader (Mourinho) that kept us pushing and drove us through.
“I didn’t realise in the moment but I realised after when I became a manager that what we had there was special.
“It’s not that specific year in Porto that made me. It’s through time; the good things, that you pick up.
“Sometimes in the history of football specific things come through in the right moment, the right people work together and I can feel this here this season.
“There are players here (at Wolves) who didn’t know each other before and now they are becoming soul mates.
“It goes beyond work.
"After Porto is was much later when I knew I wanted to be a coach. My first experience was when I finished and Jesualdo Ferreira want to work at Malaga.
“He asked me if I wanted to join him and I said it would be a pleasure and I felt in that moment I was ready."
He certainly was ready. Just six years later he is likely to be coming to the attention of some of the biggest clubs in world football.
Not that his fairly rapid rise has made defeats easier to cope with setbacks.
"It doesn’t get any better. Just as how before a game you are anxious and nervous, that doesn’t change either.
"Sometimes you sleep well but sometimes you win and don’t sleep.
"The difference (between after a win and a defeat) is the time you think about things.
"When you win, it’s just after the game. Then you switch off and switch the next game on. For me when the result is not so good it sticks and stays with me longer, a few days. You live it more."
Does he lose sleep worrying about bigger clubs coming in for his star players?
"No. I don’t fear it. Not at all. Because I ask the player and if he tells me he wants to stay here, that’s more important.
"It happened already and the player is still here. Because he wants to be. The moment that it feels natural that you can’t stop these things anymore then okay. It’s natural. Things happen naturally.
“The club is the club. The player is the player. The agent and the head coach. These four parts, everybody knows that moment will come (leaving).
"It’s how you prepare for that moment, knowing that this is natural. But the first thing you have to know is tell the player that this will come naturally in your life, don’t try to rush it.
"If you rush it, it will be a mistake for you. If you want to achieve that, it is normal. Ambition is good and I will support you. For you, when you arrive, it is better because then you can go on up."
Maybe one day he'll return to that idyllic, uncomplicated life, like the one he so loved in his youth.
After all, he has a picturesque plot of land back in Portugal that's all his...not that he can do anything with it.
“I bought land because I pictured that I wanted to build my house there," Nuno said when asked what his most extravagant purchase has been.
“This is extravagance! It was in Portugal, on the highest hill in Guimaraes and I said: ‘What a perfect place this would be.’
“But I forgot to ask them: ‘Can I build a house there?’ When I did, they said: ‘No!’
“The land is still there. Afterwards I went again and asked, ‘Can I build?’ and they said no, the area is protected!
“It comes up for application every 15 years when they allow some development.
“I should have checked it out. But it was in 2002 and I was 27.
“It was going to be my dream home. It was perfect."
He may not have his dream home yet, but building a football team to fulfil dreams doesn't seem to be a problem.