Wolves look capable of running away with the Championship under Nuno Santo but how have they done it? Adam Bate speaks to players past and present to get the inside track on the star-studded side that seems destined for the Premier League…
The managers of Hull, Derby and Leeds all agree that Wolves are the best team in the Championship. Bolton boss Phil Parkinson thinks they will win the league by 10 points. Norwich manager Daniel Farke even admitted he would not bother analysing his team’s defeat to them, such was the gulf in class. Wolves are tearing up the Championship.
For fans who have endured so many disappointments over the years, it is beyond exciting. The atmosphere is one of uncharacteristic optimism as Thomas Baugh, co-founder of Wolves Blog, explains. “The mood is amazing given how many times Wolves come close only to fail to deliver,” he tells Sky Sports. “But this is the best Wolves team I have ever seen.”
Former Wolves goalkeeper Matt Murray has seen some of the false dawns up close himself. “There have been tough times,” he tells Sky Sports. “We went right down to League One and there has been some boring football. Now the fans are getting entertained at home and away. ‘West Bromwich Albion, we’re coming for you’ is the chant ringing out. It’s fantastic.”
Watch highlights of Wolves' 5-1 win over Bolton at Molineux last time out
Don Goodman made 154 appearances for Wolves in the mid-1990s, a period in which the club received huge investment from Sir Jack Hayward. Even he admits this is something else. “If I am honest with you, I don’t think I have ever seen the fans so excited,” Goodman tells Sky Sports. “But these are exciting times and that is reflected in the mood on the streets.
“It is not just that the team is winning games of football. Wolves won games of football when I was there and have won promotions since then. It is the manner of it. I have covered the Championship for 11 years for Sky Sports and this football does not belong in the Championship really. The football that is being played is just exceptional.”
Murray agrees. “It is one thing getting results, which is great, but it is the manner of the performances too,” he explains. “It is so entertaining to watch. The Wolves fans believe that there are players who are playing for us who are basically Champions League players playing in the Championship. That is how good that Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves are.”
Neves joined in July for £15m, a record for Wolves and the Championship. He is Porto’s youngest ever captain and still only 20. Jota is the same age. He arrived on loan from Atletico Madrid, after spending last season at Porto with Neves, and has already scored nine goals and provided four assists. He has been the division’s outstanding player.
Jota and Leo Bonatini have combined for more goals than anyone else in the Championship. The second most frequent goal combination? Ivan Cavaleiro and that man Jota. “He has been incredible,” Wolves defender Conor Coady tells Sky Sports. “He has taken to it like a duck to water. He gets kicked but he just gets up. We are lucky to have him at the club.”
Luck, of course, has nothing to do with it. Given the financial backing received from Chinese investors Fosun, coupled with that much-discussed linkup with so-called super agent Jorge Mendes, it is easy to see the subsequent success as inevitable. But that was not the view in the summer. Wolves were not the favourites for promotion back then and for good reason.
“I watched us lose in pre-season at Shrewsbury and we did not look great,” says Murray. “When Walter Zenga came in last season there were a lot of players who did not adapt to the league and it did not work. So when Nuno came in and got rid of the backroom staff, the fear was that it could be the same again. Instead, it has been completely different.”
Nuno’s role in Wolves’ success should not be underestimated. The quality of Jota, Neves and the rest is obvious. But so too is the fact that Wolves are not only the most talented team in the Championship but also the best organised. Going into the weekend, no team had kept more clean sheets. This is a team that is both brilliant and brilliantly coached.
“Coached is the appropriate word,” says Goodman. “That is what Nuno has done. He has got them on the training ground and he has coached them. Some of the standout performers this season were there already. Players like Matt Doherty, Conor Coady and Romain Saiss are unrecognisable in terms of their confidence on the ball and their overall awareness.”
Coady has been particularly impressive with Baugh describing his “transformation from jobbing midfielder to super sweeper” as a Nuno masterstroke. The former Liverpool man once captained England at the Under-20 World Cup but it’s only now, operating in the middle of a three-man defence in Nuno’s 3-4-3 formation, that he is fulfilling his true potential.
“Everything has been brilliant and I am loving it,” says Coady. “I have got some fantastic players around me and it is a pleasure to play with them. When you see players like Neves and Jota coming in and a manager and staff who have been at Porto and Valencia together, you realise quickly that the club wants to improve and you want to be a part of that.
“It is something I am really grateful for. The manager has helped me massively in terms of my positioning and the organisation of the team. It all comes from him. He is implementing his style and we are learning from him each and every day. We have done the same thing from the first day of pre-season so we all knew what he wanted. Everybody bought into it.”
Of course, nothing unites a team like winning and when Wolves beat Middlesbrough, Hull and Derby in their first three matches of the season, the tone was set quickly. Speaking to Bonatini earlier this season, the side’s top scorer described this seemingly disparate group of players as like “family” to him already. Coady credits the attitude of the new arrivals.
“The great thing about the boys who have come in is that they get involved,” he says. “They have not just been shy and quiet. We all mix and the guys who were here before have helped them settle.” That could have been problematic given that many, including club captain Danny Batth, have found themselves out of the side but the spirit seems good.
Highlights of Wolves' recent 4-1 win over Leeds United at Molineux
Murray got a glimpse of that spirit for himself when covering the recent 4-1 win over Leeds at Molineux for Sky Sports. “I was speaking to some of the lads in the dressing room after the game that night and they were saying that the competition for places is the reason why everyone is playing at such a high level,” he explains.
“Danny came into the team but then went back out again and he doesn’t know when he is going to get back in but he cannot argue because they are winning. Because of that, when players are in they are desperate to be at the top of their game as they know that if their standards slip then there’s someone just as good waiting to come in.”
On-loan Porto defender Willy Boly is the standout performer at the back – “the best defender I have seen at the club since Joleon Lescott,” according to Baugh – with Ryan Bennett and Roderick Miranda also challenging for places. “It is healthy competition,” adds Coady. “People come in and out but whoever is playing knows their role and responsibility.”
Could it all go wrong?
All of which is enough to make anyone think that the season is over with 27 games to play. It is a trap that the players themselves must avoid. “We have started really well but it is only a start,” adds Coady. “It is a platform for where we want to go and nobody is looking too far ahead. Nothing is won in November and we know how tough it will be over Christmas.”
It is the hectic winter schedule that offers some hope for the chasing pack. While many managers have lauded this Wolves side, Cardiff boss Neil Warnock bristled at the suggestion that they would win the league at a canter, while Aston Villa manager Steve Bruce also offered a warning. “Wolves are doing well,” he said. “But it is a long winter.”
A long winter for those used to a winter break? Not everyone is convinced by the argument and Coady offers a swift rebuttal. “It is not as if it does not get cold in Portugal,” he laughs. “These boys know what they are getting into. These are fantastic footballers. They do not just play in the summer and then stop playing in the winter. That is not how it works.”
Murray is similarly bullish. “A little bit of the concern for Wolves fans was that they weren’t sure what would happen when the yellow ball came out,” he says. “Well, the yellow ball has come out and we dominated Fulham, dominated Leeds and dominated Bolton. Whenever there has been a defeat they have bounced back with a win and a clean sheet.”
Perhaps the greater fear for Wolves supporters is not the opposition on the pitch but the prospect of a setback off it. Fosun have stressed that their investment is long term but with Mendes in the business of transferring, as well as representing, football players, there is a lingering feeling that the fans should not get too attached to their star names just yet.
“So far we have only had the carrot when it comes to Mendes, benefiting from his influence to get players who were previously in another galaxy,” says Baugh. “At some point I suspect we will get the stick, which means players, or even the head coach, being moved on at his whim. That is in the back of my mind, but at the moment we are all just enjoying the ride.”
How far can they go?
While some resist the urge to wonder just how far that ride could take the club, others are daring to dream big. Could Wolves go to the Premier League and make an impact? Recent newspaper headlines suggested that the Champions League is the target for chairman Jeff Shi. That feels a world way just now but a platform for Premier League survival is in place.
“I have a philosophy on it,” says Goodman. “I think that in 2017 you need to play a certain type of football in the Championship to go to the Premier League and survive. Keeping the ball is essential. Wolves can do that. Even if they were not to sign a single player from now on, and they will of course, I still think they would have a chance in the Premier League.”
Birm’ham vs Wolves
December 4, 2017, 7:30pm
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It is likely that Wolves will strengthen well before then. Murray points to a need for cover at right wing-back and up front if Nuno is to avoid the risk of injuries weakening his side in the second half of the season. He expects they will arrive. “Neves and Jota did not come here to stay in the Championship,” he says. “They wanted to put themselves in the shop window.
“Now there will be lots of other top players who are looking at it and thinking, ‘Wolves are top of the league here, we can get promoted and very quickly be in the Premier League’. This club is an attractive option now for big, big names.” The Premier League is the destination for Wolves. But maybe the journey for this famous old club is just beginning.
Don’t miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Birmingham and Wolves on Monday night, live on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event from 7.30pm