Big interview: Diogo Jota aims big with Wolves and proves the doubters wrong
When Diogo Jota swapped the Champions League for the Championship, even his family questioned whether he was doing the right thing.
Jota was an up-and-coming Portuguese star; an Atletico Madrid player who’d just enjoyed his breakthrough season during a loan move with Porto, scoring nine times in 37 games – and was moving to a team that had just finished 15th in English football’s second tier, writes Wolves correspondent Tim Spiers.
“My father always supported me and the rest of my family, but my uncle tried to say ‘why are you doing this?’” Jota said during an extensive and in-depth interview.
“Many people in Portugal criticised me. And Ruben (Neves).
“I said, ‘no, I believe in the project and then, if everything goes well, like I expect, next season you have the reason’.”
His uncle Ricardo will be at Molineux tomorrow to see first-hand why Jota made that bold move in 2017 as Wolves take on Manchester United in one of the biggest games in their recent history. No one is doubting Jota's reasons for moving now.
It’s been a rapid rise for Portugal Under-21 international Jota.
He was Wolves’ top scorer when they stormed to the Championship title last season, netting 18 times. After a tough few months adapting to Premier League life, a formation tweak to 3-5-2 has seen the 22-year-old thrive.
Six goals and a handful of assists since the start of December have seen him cement his place in a team seventh in the Premier League table. He’s also enjoying a burgeoning partnership with Raul Jimenez, with the pair combining for Wolves’ past three goals.
Europe’s elite clubs will be watching closely. But if Jota approaches real life in the manner that he manages clubs on Football Manager, Wolves have nothing to fear.
“I like to play Football Manager and I like to start in lower teams,” he said.
“For example this game I started with my first club, where I was in the academy, Gondomar, and I like to reach big levels.
“Of course you have to keep always from one season to another key players. You have to be your identity on the pitch.
“I think that is what a club is. I think that’s what he (Nuno) wants to do. Because you can’t build the squad from zero every season.
“You have to know you have someone there who already understands the project, the game, to be a success.”
He may be only 22 but Jota is a student of the game. He certainly devotes plenty of time to the addictive Football Manager, where he’s just won the Champions League with minnows Gondomar – in the year 2031 (!). He even signed the 35-year-old version of himself.
“I won the Champions League with Gondomar – I scored a penalty because it went to penalties,” he added
“I wasn’t able to sign Ruben Neves – he is very old now!
“Whenever I travel I play, for example on plane, train. I don’t know how many hours, and I don’t want to know!”
Does he see himself as a future manager? “I already discussed that with some guys, for example Ruben, because he wants to be a coach.
“I don’t see me as a main coach, but an assistant manager maybe.”
As well as playing his beloved mangement game, Jota also watches endless hours of the real thing.
Again, for someone so young, it's impressive how he has such a keen sense of learning.
"Once I had a coach with the national team and he said ‘a football match on TV is like an open book we can read’.
"That made sense for me and it’s true. Each game is a different game and you are going to learn something to improve your game.
"I like to watch Portuguese football – not just the big games but my previous club Pacos. I like to watch football in general."
Wolves have been deeply impressive against the top sides this season, beating Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool and taking points from Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United.
They'll still be the underdogs tomorrow – but that's a role that Jota embraces. Indeed, he used to support the unfancied sides when watching English football on TV as a child.
"I liked to watch the small teams trying to beat the big teams," he said.
"I was supporting them no matter who. I remember Everton always being a tough ground.
"You can compare (Wolves) with (that). Now I'm doing what I liked to watch as a kid.
"I would go to my grandfather’s house, he had the channel Sports TV that would transmit the English Premier League games.
"I would watch the Saturday and Sunday matches, I would like to see it and dream I would be part of it one day.
"Now I am, so I’m very pleased about that."
After producing no goals or assists in the opening months of the season, a switch to 3-5-2 against Chelsea back in December has seen Jota come to the fore.
While he was exceptional as a left-forward in the Championship last season, a central role suits him better.
"Yes, that’s where I stared to play when I was in Portugal," Jota added.
"I was a striker in the under-19s in a 4-3-3, but being on the pitch and knowing your teammates, that’s what makes the difference.
"These changes in the system have helped me as a player.
"At Porto and even with the national team I am used to two up front. Last season we played with three – it was ok but this season the coach has changed it to two and it has benefited me.
"But I can do many positions on the pitch.
"At the start of the season I was trying to adapt to (Jimenez's) style of play and he has to adapt as well to our team. It takes time for us to understand each other but now everything is natural."
Jota has excelled up front – and that's despite coming up against strong and brutish centre-halves. Indeed, Wolves fans have become accustomed to seeing the slight figure of Jota brushing off players taller and heavier than him.
"I try to do my best and now players realise I am not an easy shot," he said.
"The way I play, if you go one v one, if I pass the ball, no one kicks me, but sometimes I will get kicked.
"I knew that before I came here, I knew what I was going to. The Championship is one of the hardest competitions, there are many games.
"But being kicked helped me to grow up as a player.
"Now here in the Premier League, sometimes it’s the same, but in terms of the quality, you can’t compare, it’s much better, and here is where I want to stay for a long time.
"I was always very small, especially at the beginning when I was 10. 12, 14 I was always the smallest guy on the pitch.
"That’s never affected me, I’m used to it, I will find other ways to get through.
"The physio used to ask me if I did weights, I’d say no, it’s in my DNA.
"I’m the worst at lifting in the gym. I never did that specifically and in Portugal, it doesn’t have as much value."
Jota has developed a close relationship with his head coach Nuno.
The pair worked together at Porto and Nuno was keen to place Jota in a key position as part of his Wolves revolution.
It's clear Nuno is a father figure to the 22-year-old.
"Yes, I think he helps everyone, we know we have a young squad," Jota said.
"I think he is able to transmit confidence but at the same time we know we have to respect him and what he says.
"He gives us tasks to do in the games – that helps the young players know what they have to do.
"I knew him before (at Porto). He is a humble person. He knows how and what he can do for the team. I think every player here trusts him and he know he can trust us to give our best for him.
“He wanted me when I was at Atletico. I was able to try and help him win the first league in Portugal and then he trusted me again to come here and help with his project so our relationship is good.
"It’s not a question of why I wanted to work with him – the question is why not?
"You don’t know the person until you have daily contact with them but then you build up trust."
When Jota scored a hat-trick against Leicester, Nuno couldn't contain his joy and edged on to the pitch to celebrate with him.
"He doesn’t do that in training!
"It’s not just me, I think it was the way the game ended with the late goal.
"I think they are feelings that he doesn’t like to show but he couldn’t help it because it’s an emotional game.
"I don’t think he thought about it – he just did it. I think it was a good thing for fans to see their coach celebrating like that.
"Everyone this season has their chance to do something for the team, they know if they are not playing in this moment but they could be in the next game.
"We have a small squad and have to feel everyone is important. We know that is true as rough the season nearly everyone has had their opportunity for the team."
Wolves will be back by a passionate and vociferous Molineux crowd for one of the biggest games the stadium has seen for many a year.
Like his younger self did, Jota hopes the nation back Wolves too.
"Maybe because they like the underdog! Everyone wants to support, like me as a kid, the small teams because they can trust they are going to give their best against the big team."
You can guarantee Wolves and Jota will do exactly that tomorrow now.