If I were to ask you to name a footballer that defines your life supporting Wolves, how would you answer? The obvious one for many would be Steve Bull. Perhaps it was Derek Dougan or Kenny Hibbitt. Even further beyond the realm it may have been Billy Wright or Stan Cullis.
As a club, it’s become clear we’re entering a new, glitzier, more glamorous realm. The aforementioned players can all be held in high esteem due to their fierce loyalty and longevity. That’s all well and good, but some players never leave because nobody ever wanted them – I won’t mention any names. Does that slightly dilute the whole concept of loyalty in football?
It’s with this in mind – and the prospect of having players at our club that may never play more than 100 games for Wolves – that I introduce the idea that Ruben Neves becomes the man to define my time supporting Wolves. Hear me out…
The reality of the situation is that Ruben Neves will leave Wolves at some point in the relatively near future. By that I mean, within the next 3 years maximum. The only scenario that would prevent that occurring is by Wolves securing Champions League football, because let’s face it – that’s where he belongs.
Never have I seen a more majestic, inexorably good player at Molineux and I’ve never seen a Wolves player whose own performance levels are so wedded to the performance levels of the team as a whole. There aren’t many players out there you can say that about, which really is the measure of the man. There we were wondering if Mr Championship would get to our Ruben, but with each passing game he seems to add tools to his armoury, he becomes more elusive against the press, more sharp in the pass, more dogged in the tackle and more prodigious in front of goal. It’s this completeness of attributes that makes him the ultimate midfielder, like a walking, talking bag of golf clubs, he assesses situations in an instant and draws for his driver or his pitching wedge, whichever the situation demands.
All this at the mere age of 20 could become too much for some players. Diogo Jota, it could be argued, has looked like a player who is carrying a little extra pressure on his shoulders at times, at the ripe old age of 21. Not Neves. Maybe it’s just a stylistic thing, Jota the terrier-like, relentless, effervescent forward, compared to Neves, the bathrobe, slippers and cigar-puffing midfield general. But Neves casts a spell on you. You could watch Neves for 90 minutes, ‘Player Cam’ style and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the game is going. He raises the ceiling of our performance levels higher than anyone else at our disposal and he’s the launchpad for Fosun’s Wolves to rocket into the stratosphere.
Listening to the Express and Star Podcast recently there was a question about Ruben Neves ‘numbers’ and how he could do with improving them. About how he needs to add more goals and assists to his game. No! You’re watching him wrong. This is a problem with modern day football. Everything needs a number next to it, something in black and white that you can take to social media and boast about. So what if someone thinks Tom Cairney or Robert Snodgrass is a better player than Neves? Let them. Look who’s top of the league, with Neves conducting his orchestra. They don’t see Neves bring sky high balls down to the ground as if they were brought down on a feather. They don’t see how Neves takes out an entire team with one switch of play, probably with his eyes closed. They don’t see the looks of exasperation from opposition midfielders who think they’ve got Ruben where they want him before he slips from their grasp, again and again and again.
I began to wonder what Neves would be a capable of and I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Neves would – as things stand right now – improve the midfields of Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and perhaps even Manchester United. Manchester City are basically the only team in the country I’m ruling out of that point and that is with the caveat that Fernandinho will soon experience a decline with age. The reality for us Wolves fans though is that we probably wouldn’t swap him for anyone in the world right now.
Neves is, to coin a phrase from a rather famous Wolves fan, the Stairway to Heaven. He is the man to lift us to the next level. He doesn’t belong here. He’s simply come down from on high to take us with him. He’s the conduit for us to create our own sense of belonging at the top table. He’s the one players will look to and think ‘I want to play there.’
Where we will end up – who knows? Our upwards trajectory is like the ball just leaving Neves’ right foot, arcing upwards, looking for somewhere to settle. How high, how far and how quickly it will settle is anybody’s guess. The problem lies within the fact footballers have such a short career. Clubs can take 10 years to reach their goal if they want. If that’s what it takes, I’m sure Fosun will oblige and see the job through until we can call ourselves elite. But Neves has a small window of opportunity to maximise his talents. We’re fortunate he is only 20, but football waits for nobody.
So watch him, drink him in and savour him. By the time we see anything else like him our arrogance will have caught up with us and another of that ilk won’t perhaps receive the same kind of adulation, fairly or unfairly. But Neves decided to come when we needed him most. So ask not what Neves can do for us, but what we can do for Neves. He won’t be here forever.