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Johnny Phillips: Match made in heaven but maybe it was time for Conor Coady

When Conor Coady walked off the Molineux pitch at the end of a 1-0 home defeat to Wigan Athletic, on a grim February night in 2017, he must have wondered what the future held at Wolves.

Conor Coady (Photo by Jack Thomas - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images).
Conor Coady (Photo by Jack Thomas - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images).

It was a third successive defeat, leaving the team 18th in the Championship table.

Coady was introduced as a late substitute, replacing winger Ben Marshall to supposedly tighten the team shape going into the final minutes of what appeared to be a drab goalless draw.

His match-defining contribution was to lose his opponent, Jake Buxton, at an 88th minute corner, allowing the Wigan man to head the winning goal.

Just two years later Coady signed a new five-year contract as inspirational captain of Nuno Espirito Santo’s Premier League side. It was some transformation.

“It’s the best feeling in the world, to captain this football club.” he said. “To be part of this team with this set of lads is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It won’t stay around forever.”

Now, this chapter of Coady’s career has ended.

Since first appearing as a sweeper in Nuno’s three-man defence during a pre-season friendly against Werder Bremen in Austria, in July 2017, the Liverpudlian has been a talisman for Wolves.

Nuno was revolutionary in his approach to taking the club to the next level. Coady was his trusted lieutenant, tasked with being the linchpin of the three-man defence and the cohesive force in a dressing room filled with new players.

This club has always prided itself on the calibre of its captains.

Billy Wright, who also skippered England on 90 occasions, was the template and remains the greatest figure to serve the role in these parts.

But many others have held the job with distinction, often in very different circumstances. The players of the successful team of the 1970s looked up to Mike Bailey in almost reverential terms. A decade on, with Wolves by now down in the basement, an unexpected leader emerged in a former Albion hero, Ally Robertson, who helped guide the club back to respectability.

Others like Karl Henry and Sam Ricketts led by example with their consummate professionalism and dedication.

Coady embodied so many qualities. His effervescent and warm character around the dressing room transferred to a vocal, organising presence on the pitch. Like all great captains he was in the team on merit, first and foremost. A smart reading of the game, assurance on the ball and excellent range of passing meant Coady was a virtual ever-present once he established himself in the sweeper position.

A humble and grounded upbringing meant he was always a pleasure to deal with off the pitch, whether that involved dragging him out of the team hotel during pre-season in Switzerland in 2018 for an afternoon filming at Lake Geneva or following him around Shanghai as he fulfilled a litany of public relations tasks during the Premier League Asia Trophy tour a year later.

Coady was a dream for the suits in the boardroom. He portrayed the club in the best of lights and won the hearts of all who encountered him.

As somebody who is acutely aware of just how short football careers are, Coady’s desire to squeeze every last drop from his shines through. The switch to Everton – initially on loan – is probably his last big move.

At 29, it is unlikely that another chance like this will emerge. Under Frank Lampard there is a feeling of renewal at Goodison Park; the start of a journey that will incorporate a move to an iconic new stadium in the future.

As at Wolves, Coady has the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.

A guaranteed starter, he can also rubber-stamp a place in Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad later this year. The move back home works for him on a number of levels.

There are two ways of looking at Wolves’ role in this. On the one hand there was a great deal of class in what the club did, honouring his years of commitment by agreeing to the move and illustrating to others in the squad that they will be dealt with fairly.

Perhaps there is room for sentiment in football after all.

Has this also presented an opportunity for Ruben Neves, poster boy of the Fosun era, to take more of a leadership role and remain settled for another year?

Yet on the other hand it made no sense to let Coady go as this clearly weakens the squad with no immediate remuneration. Bruno Lage appears to have settled on Max Kilman and new signing Nathan Collins at the heart of a back four, but who is to say Wolves will definitely prosper in this system? Collins has played only half a season at this level.

Wolves have lost a huge presence on and off the field and Lage now has fewer options at the back while the dressing room has lost its natural leader, leaving the team short of strong voices.

Whichever view supporters have – and it is possible to hold a mixture of both – there must also be a pragmatism about the timing. As Coady said, nothing lasts forever.

Seven years is a very long time in football.

Maybe a fresh voice will do the dressing room some good, just as a fresh challenge will re-energise the outgoing player. Although it is only a loan with an option to buy, this feels like a decision where there is no going back.

Wolves has been the making of Coady and the player has helped make Wolves what it is today.

As legacies go, both parties can walk away proud of the part they played.

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