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Johnny Phillips: Ruben Neves owes Wolves nothing – he should leave with everyone’s blessings

Ruben Neves will run out in the club’s colours for the final time tomorrow.

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Ruben Neves
Wolverhampton Wanderers' Ruben Neves

Wolves’ greatest icon since Steve Bull has been the poster boy of the Fosun era since the day he walked into the club. More than any other player on the pitch, Neves has come to symbolise the ambition of Wolves under this ownership.

Five summers ago, it was the arrival of a 20-year-old Portuguese international which raised eyebrows from afar during a period when Wolves’ transfer activity was being scrutinised. Here was a player supposedly courted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Liverpool and Chelsea on these shores.

Captain of Porto in the Champions League at the age of 18, how could this move be in the player’s best interests? Neves himself privately wondered as much in those early days but soon enough he shifted the agenda from Jorge Mendes to the subject supporters cared for most of all. Football.

Early in the first half of his very first competitive match, Neves introduced Wolves fans to a range of distribution they had never witnessed before. The trademark flat, raking pass from way back on the left side of his own half found Matt Doherty running into space on the right flank, deep into Middlesbrough’s territory. The gasp from the stands, as if this sort of thing should not be attempted, was quickly followed by a warm cheer when the ball found its target. It was different. The check, the sidespin, those deviations in flight akin to a master golfer manipulating his ball around a course.

Neves ran his own goal of the season competition during that glorious 2017/18 campaign when Wolves stormed the Championship. There were more gasps, this time followed by cheers of disbelief when his volley against Derby County provided the stardust to the title march.

Then, just for fun, Wolves went and signed Joao Moutinho to keep him company for the Premier League years. Few could have imagined they would still be together after four seasons’ service as the ultimate midfield double act in the club’s history. Both played to the soundtrack of their songs sung proudly from the terraces but, while Moutinho was a diamond cut elsewhere arriving on this stage as the finished article, Neves was a player developing on this patch. Fans are proud of what he has become at Wolves over the last five years.

For a while his departure last summer appeared odds on but he stayed and hit new heights, with more facets added to his all-round game. Not even the most dyed-in-the-wool Wolves fan could begrudge him a transfer this summer.

Tomorrow he will face his old team-mate Diogo Jota at Anfield. A player who has already won two trophies this season and is still in with a shout of adding the Premier League title and Champions’ League trophy to his CV. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect Neves to put personal ambition aside.

By leaving for pastures new, Neves provides the perfect illustration of why Wolves can attract players of his ilk in the first place. Why wouldn’t top young talent from Europe come to Molineux? A place where they can improve on the pitch, help the team get better, make that next career step and leave on good terms? Far better that than end up at a club where young players are stockpiled and not given the opportunity to flourish.

Likewise, why go to a place where it is made difficult to leave with mutual respect? It will be fascinating to see how the Declan Rice situation pans out in the coming months or years at West Ham United. Here is a player of similar standing and age in the Premier League whose future has been subject of far too many column inches already, before the season has even finished. The numbers game has started: dates, contracts, salaries. All very public. This could become unedifying fairly quickly for Rice, as each party briefs against the other.

Supporters would love him to stay but Neves owes them and the club nothing. It is fanciful to expect such a burgeoning talent from overseas not to make the next step after spending so many years of a relatively short career here. Wolves will always retain an important place in his heart.

There is, of course, a reasonable question some may ask: Why can’t Wolves offer that progression and challenge for the big trophies? Maybe one day they will but this is only their fourth successive season in the Premier League. Wolves’ history at this level is in the distant past. The team has spent only nine out of the last 40 seasons in the top division. The club is still playing catch-up. It may have attracted new global wealth, but Wolves is part of an investment conglomerate not a gulf oil-state play thing. Wolves cannot yet compete with bigger clubs in the Premier League.

What supporters can demand is that Neves’ departure is a catalyst for growth and not a sign of faded ambition. This is where the owners must have their eye on the ball. Fosun can aim high so long as players like Neves are on the pitch, but without him the ambition must manifest elsewhere.

When David Moyes sold Wayne Rooney at Everton, in 2004, he lost the brightest prospect in a generation but the departure helped fund a rebuilding programme which turned a team that had just finished 17th in the table into one that produced four top six finishes in the next five years. Wolves cannot improve quite so dramatically, but Neves’s legacy can be about more than just the five years he has already spent here. And he should depart with everyone’s blessing.

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