For supporters, the power to affect change has gone. Players are not inspired by emptiness. In the long process of evolving a team, let alone trying to do so during a global pandemic, there are setbacks.
Wolves’ 2020/21 season has become a fraught and wretched affair since the moment David Luiz collided with Raul Jimenez on that north London night in November. Thursday’s FA Cup defeat at the hands of Southampton was laced with pathos, for good measure.
Nuno Espirito Santo picked the side he did for a good reason. It is impossible to keep selecting the first team. All the strength and conditioning data tells him that. Willy Boly was out with a hamstring injury, Daniel Podence with an abductor muscle problem. These are stress-related injuries caused by high intensity performances. Keep picking the same players during a condensed fixture programme, in the absence of a summer break or pre-season, and they will keep getting injured.
Would Nuno have selected the same side on Thursday night with the fixture played in front of a full house during a normal schedule? No. The FA Cup is steeped in history at Molineux, the fans play a heightened role when the moment arrives. As they did in a frenzied atmosphere when Manchester United were chased off in that epic quarter-final two years ago. Now it is just another schedule filler, here to offer a passive viewing opportunity during another lockdown. This may not be a view shared by all, but a behind-closed-doors FA Cup defeats the fundamental appeal of the tournament. It is another competition stripped of meaning.
Maybe, aside from the physical necessity to change the team, it just did not mean as much. Like all of us, the management and squad have been put under intense strain during this pandemic. Nuno has spoken openly about his fears and concerns for society. His isolation. The overseas coaching staff and players are feeling this separation, denied a convivial and communal life in Wolverhampton. Anyone with a preoccupied mind finds it a struggle to concentrate at work. Footballers are no different. Ruben Neves had to experience the birth of his child via a FaceTime call on the team coach back from Crystal Palace. “It’s really hard to not be there for an amazing moment for my family,” he said. Do not doubt the impact these days are having on a group who have hit so many magical heights during their time at Molineux.
There was agitation among the fanbase in the New Year, concerning the ambition of the club. The January transfer window always causes a degree of fretting among football supporters.
There is a demand for clubs to keep fans in the loop with their business, but if there is one month of the season when clubs should stay quiet then that is it. Wolves did not utter a word because it would have made no sense to do so.
The pursuit of a replacement for Raul Jimenez was rigorous and ultimately successful. Wolves were never in the market for a player who would make up the numbers, instead focussing on genuine top talent such as Luka Jovic at Real Madrid. He was a priority and a quick answer about the player’s availability gave the recruitment department time to focus attentions elsewhere.
Willian Jose’s acquisition required substantial effort over a number of weeks, not least because of the player’s personal circumstances. He was settled in San Sebastian, a stunning Spanish beach city that even those with unrelenting civic pride in Wolverhampton would admit holds more of an allure at this time of year. With his wife expecting their first child, there was plenty of agonising before a decision was reached. Even once the green light had been given, the post-Brexit paperwork was a consuming battle.
In some quarters there was an unwillingness to give up on Patrick Cutrone but, crucially, Nuno had no faith in the player. Keeping him at the club a day longer than necessary would have wasted everyone’s time. The country-hopping forced upon Cutrone did not look good during lockdown, but the best way to eradicate unnecessary player movement would have been to shut the window altogether. That was not Wolves’ issue; the club was productive in a bad window.
Looking across the pitch on a grim Thursday night it was easy to see why targets for frustration emerge. As Fabio Silva unerringly located the wrong side of the crossbar, Danny Ings found the net. But now is not the time to pick on teenage prospects while comparing them to a seasoned striker with over a decade of first-team football in the bag. Another teenager, Ki-Jana Hoever, excelled going forward and is proving an astute acquisition. But it wasn’t a night for highlighting the positives. The immediacy of social media ire demanded someone in the stocks. Silva was not the only player with online rotten tomatoes heading his way after that performance.
It’s all a bit rubbish isn’t it? Over-reaction is understandable. There are no concourses to walk along and stairs to descend after the match. No walks back to the station or journeys home. No pubs to congregate in. Nowhere to diffuse. Just pent up aggravation in endless isolation.
When this season is over Nuno will need to find a way of making Wolves fresh again. We all need to feel fresh again. The pandemic has sapped the energy and joy from our lives. The 2020/21 season will meander to its inevitable conclusion. Wolves are not getting relegated and they not going to win a cup competition in an empty stadium for the benefit of sponsors, broadcasters and armchair viewers.
Wolves are just about surviving their way through this season. We all are. These days will pass.