Express & Star

Matheus Cunha interview: On relationship with Gary O'Neil and settling at Wolves

One of the biggest positives from Gary O’Neil’s first season in charge at Wolves was how he united the supporters and a disillusioned squad.


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But arriving just four days before the start of the season meant O’Neil had a big job on his hands to bring everyone together.

It took time and it was not until late September that Wolves’ 2023/24 season really took off.

One of the stars of that season was Matheus Cunha. The Brazilian notched 14 goals and eight assists, despite a serious hamstring injury, to record the best goalscoring season of his career so far.

Arriving in January 2023 for £43million and scoring just two goals in Julen Lopetegui’s Wolves side, Cunha was clearly a talented player who needed to adjust to the Premier League.

But his tremendous success this season was hard to predict – and the player himself admits the unexpected managerial change was tough.

“It was hard for me to be honest because Julen was the manager who brought me here,” Cunha said.

“I had a very good relationship with him and I’m grateful to him for bringing me here. You always want to work with the manager who brought you here because you feel confident.

“Gary came and I started to be a little bit afraid about what would happen. I lost the manager who bought me and maybe this manager doesn’t like me!

“But I think it’s been the best relationship I’ve had with a gaffer, ever.

“I really enjoy working with him and how he manages the group. I’ve learned a lot on how to manage a group and hard situations.

“I have more appreciation for football with him. He is the person I have a lot of appreciation for.”

Matheus Cunha with former Wolves boss Julen Lopetegui (Getty)

But it was not all plain sailing. Wolves put in a fantastic performance on the opening day at Old Trafford, but lost 1-0.

They then lost 4-1 in the first Molineux game of the season, and got deep into September with just one win in the league.

In a candid interview at Wolves’ Compton training ground, Cunha was honest about his doubts and concerns in the early stages of the season.

“We’re always joking about this!” Cunha said when asked the moment he realised O’Neil was the right manager for him.

“One of my best games here was against United at Old Trafford and he changed me in the 77th minute.

“I started to think ‘Oh my God, this season will be hard with this coach. It’s my best game and he’s changing me, what can I do?’ We always joke about it and smile.

“After the Brighton game, I didn’t have a good reaction after two games and started to do crazy things saying training wasn’t the best and Gary came to me and said ‘I’m with you, I’m not your enemy. I know it’s hard to start a new journey with someone but I’m here to help you’.

“I’m Brazilian and a very emotional guy but I will always remember how he looked at me as more than a football player. It was more than results, he wanted to help me get to my best version.

“Everyone can see how well he has done in the job. I have an unbelievable coach that supports everyone a lot. Everything together has helped me to show everyone my best version.”

O’Neil did get Cunha on board and it resulted in a fantastic campaign – with the player himself dubbing it his greatest season to date – and one that was full of memorable moments.

Matheus Cunha (Getty)

A hat-trick at Stamford Bridge springs to mind instantly, as Cunha reflects on a successful 2023/24.

“The game against Chelsea was unbelievable,” he said.

“It was a stadium I always dreamed to play in and when I play my first game I score three goals.

“At the time I followed the Premier League I watched more of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and United at Old Trafford. To go there and score three goals, I will always remember it. It was one of the best moments in my career.”

For the supporters, another game much closer to home sticks out in the memory.

Wolves beat Albion 2-0 in the FA Cup, Cunha scoring the second, to record a first win at the Hawthorns since 1996 – a historic afternoon for this Wolves side.

“I think that’s the fans’ favourite,” Cunha said.

“Maybe it’s my second best moment here because I felt it from the fans. All week the fans were thinking about it when we got drawn with West Brom. It was crazy.

“The fans came here to say it was the most important game of the season, they cared more about this game than the Premier League!

“It was amazing to enjoy that and get the win for the fans.

“I’m a very emotional guy who hates to lose. I only want to go to the pitch and play football.

“With a lot of pressure we can’t be our best version and I don’t play football because I want to go win and go home and it’s finished, I play football because it’s my whole life.

“When I was a kid all I wanted to do was play football and then I grew up with my dream, enjoying to do it.

“I don’t want to go to the pitch and be a robot, I want to enjoy it.

“This season gave me back this part of enjoying the game and playing with a smile.”

But it was not all smiles for Cunha.

The very next game after his hat-trick against Chelsea, the forward came off after 20 minutes against Brentford with a hamstring injury.

He came back ahead of time after just seven weeks, but Wolves were already in a slide that saw them end the season with one win in 11 games.

From jubilation in the capital to the treatment table in a week – football can be cruel.

“It was very tough,” Cunha said.

“It was a moment where I was enjoying playing football, a hat-trick at Stamford Bridge. It was a dream come true. After that, it was the next game. I was very sick the whole week, a fever and all this.

“I trained one day and went to the game because you cannot score a hat-trick and then not play the next game, I wanted to play – maybe I will score more goals in the next one, I felt very confident.

“At the start of the game, it happens. I am thinking, maybe it is because I am sick, it will be a little problem. But I go to the MRI and, urgh, what’s that?

Matheus Cunha and Gary O'Neil (Getty)

“I wanted to go to the national team to play at Wembley against England. Normally, you play for the national team against South American teams and I really wanted to play against England. It was a game I was always thinking about. Also, Spain. It was my best moment.”

Despite that setback, the forward came back firing with a double against Nottingham Forest.

Perhaps his performances on the pitch also correlate with a player settled off it – and Cunha has made Wolverhampton his home.

Born in Brazil, Cunha moved to Switzerland aged 18 to begin his career as a professional footballer.

His rise saw him move on to play in Germany and Spain before arriving in the Black Country.

Cunha speaks six languages – although he admits he only speaks four of them confidently – and he has now mastered English in the 16 months he has lived here.

Wolverhampton may not be the sun-kissed Spanish capital of Madrid, but it is the warm welcome of locals that has helped him and his family settle.

He said: “What can I say to you about Wolverhampton? I was afraid to come to England, honestly.

“Germany was very good for me, I played very well there. But it was not the best relationship with the culture. The fans were amazing. But away from football the people were very far away from my culture.

“It is a little bit cold. Maybe because the country is cold, the people are cold. Not bad people but cold. Brazilians are very emotional people who talk, who give hugs. I was afraid to come to England and have the same experience but I come here and it is completely different.

“The people are so good. Wolverhampton, it is a very small city. I come from Berlin to Madrid to Wolverhampton. It is crazy. But my son has started to learn up here, I love the school, he loves to be here. He has started to learn English with the accent.

“These things are more than football. It is how the people talk to me here. This is the city that has given me back the passion for football. Everything together shows me that I am in the right place.”

He added: “I started to speak many languages also because it helps me on the pitch. I left Brazil at 18 years old so I thought I would never adapt in Switzerland, a different culture and everything.

“Then I started to speak the language and understand more things. Then you go to the pitch and understand your coach, understand your team-mates, every relationship is better.”

In fact, before his move to Europe at 18, Cunha had already moved to the southern corners of Brazil aged just 14 in order to chase his dream.

Tackling freezing temperatures, in comparison to the Brazilian climate, was just one hurdle to overcome.

But now, having celebrated his 25th birthday yesterday and recently getting married, Cunha is in the best stage of his personal and professional life.

Wolves may have finished the season badly, but Cunha has a reason to be cheerful and hopes next season the club can once again prove the doubters wrong.

He said: “I am very excited to be here, very excited for the future with Wolves. I am happy, that is the most important thing for me.

“I passed moments that I don’t want to pass again. Moments where I do not feel like I want to play football, where I feel very bad. Now I feel very happy and you want to do your best.

“I look forward with excitement at Wolves. Maybe we can show we are not a team to be relegated to the Championship. Maybe we can show we are a team that can go for Europe. I hope so. We never know the future but I hope so.

“We can show everyone the potential that we have.”