It’s difficult to know where to start with a season review. As with all of the title-winning seasons we’ve experienced in my lifetime, casting my mind back to the start of the season is like trying to remember my first day at school. It also highlights the fact I’ve missed more games this season than I did of the preceding years of mediocrity!
Nevertheless there’s a been a seriously happy coincidence of Wolves’ success and my own married life. Those who read this blog regularly will note I don’t like to believe in coincidence, but I might let this one slide.
When I think about the last 9 months, many moments spring to mind that could be seen as defining our campaign. The opening day win. Beating Villa 2-0 at home. The drama of Bristol City. Hammering Leeds United. The helter-skelter victories over Middlesbrough and Cardiff and the final, icing on the cake wins against Birmingham and Bolton. Two games stick out like sore thumbs though: losing 2-1 at home to Cardiff and losing 4-1 to Aston Villa.
It’s not because we lost these games, but more because of what happened after each game and the real contrast between the drivers behind the victories of these opponents and ourselves. It’s safe to say, these two clubs have been on our tails for the majority of the season You’d also have to say both managers and squads had a wealth of Championship experience that dwarfed that of Wolves. So how the hell did we manage to run away with it so easily?
Even so early on in the season. the Cardiff game was billed as a real test of our credentials. A Beauty vs the Beast kind of clash that was meant to be the eye-opener as to what the Championship is really about for our foreign contingent. Sure enough, we lost. It was a kick in the teeth for a team who had looked imperious against supposed promotion rivals up to this point, although we took a few more kicks in a more real sense during the game. But this was the start of the learning process for us as a team and a fanbase. Teams were building themselves up to play us. You can imagine the Cardiff dressing room that day, Colin on the warpath, rousing his troops in a Cup Final-like manner, lashing them into a frenzy ready for kick off. We left the game battered and bruised but it taught us a bit of a lesson. So thanks Colin and Cardiff.
The next time we would taste defeat was October 28th, a run that included victory against Premier League Southampton and taking Manchester City to penalties with our reserve side.
Losing 4-1 to Villa was a big moment in our season, but again outlined the stark contrast between the way Villa took to conquering the division as opposed to us. Villa harnessed the big game build up and really played on the emotion of the occasion. It served them well. They rode a wave towards our goal and duly punished us with 4 goals. The thoughts of Steve Bruce highlight the difference between he and Nuno:
“The only thing I demand from anyone who plays for me is that you have to put a shift in. I don’t mind a mistake. The key for me is to work hard and we worked as a team – but we have to keep doing that.”
If that’s the case Brucie, sign me up! I’ll run like a dog after a bone all season long pal! You see the problem with rising to occasions such as this is precisely that: they’re just occasions. In a 46 game season it’s important not to lose sight of the fact you have to develop a formula that will serve you well for 95% of the games you play in. We’ve had our off days – we’re only human at the end of the day – but the methodology espoused by Nuno from day one of pre-season was built with that in mind.
Control. If you totted up the words used in Nuno’s interviews, it’s the probably the one he used most. It’s a holy grail for Nuno and he’s managed to exercise control in 95% of games we’ve played in this season. Rather than playing on the emotions of the players, riling them up to ‘win their battles’, ‘make the first and second ball theirs’ and ‘get into ’em’, instead he has basically removed the idea that emotion plays a role in a football match, to the extent where much of our play is automated and robotic. For the first time in many years we have a distinctive style of play, designed to maximise our ability to create chances, prevent goals against and monopolise possession.
Close your eyes. Imagine John Ruddy has the ball. Where to next? You know the drill. Ruddy out to Coady. Coady to Boly. Boly to Douglas. Back to Boly. Boly in to Jota’s feet. No turn? OK, back to Neves. Oh who’s that in acres on the right? Big switch out to Doherty. And NOW we play. You could swap Boly for Bennett and switch the roles of Doherty and Douglas and you’d have the same result. Pep Guardiola once said to his Barcelona side: “It’s my job to move you through the first two-thirds of the pitch. It is your job to do the rest.” Watching a Nuno team can feel a little like this, with methodical, exercised moves, building possession from the back with patience and an eye for an opening. It’s when the ball hits the feet of the likes of Jota, Cavaleiro, Costa and Bonatini that the pulses raced, that the blood started flowing and the hairs started standing up on your neck.
It’s difficult to attribute our success to any particular component parts. We’ve finished the season with the best defence and the best attack. We have the best home record and the best away record. These are unequivocal indicators of our dominance. I guess what that means is that the real driving force behind what we’ve done this season can only be one man – Jorge Mendes! Of course I speak with tongue firmly pressed against my cheek there. Nuno Espirito Santo is absolutely the reason why we head into next season talking of top-half finishes, European qualification and maybe even spoiling the Top 6 party one day.
He of the velvet voice, the wisdom beard and the imposing stature. Nuno has come in – assisted of course by the aforementioned Mendes – and tore up the Guide Book on Promotion from the Championship. He’s not succumbed to any naysayers, doubters or those who consider themselves better informed. He’s simply ‘made his ideas stronger than theirs.’ The whole campaign has almost been a battle of wills, from on-pitch to off-field issues about how you go about your business. Nuno has sheltered his players from all of this, simply reiterating the focus on the football. Game-by-game. Week-by-week. Ignore the table, that will be taken care of. You just go out and win this football match. The complete absence of emotion from the players’ perspective ensures their ability to stick to their plans and implement them in the most effective way. They have a job to do. Football is a stirring game and as spectators few things can match the rollercoaster of emotions you can go through within a 90 minute period. But if the players allowed this to affect them, then they’d lose the ‘control’ Nuno so dearly craves.
It takes a certain type of player to not wilt under the pressure of a Championship campaign combined with the demanding conditions Nuno has put in place. It must not be underestimated the mentality of the players that have been brought in. Much has been made of their ability, the kind of which we’ve never seen in Wolverhampton, but their strength of character and will to win really consolidates their status as elite footballers. Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota in particular supplement the local leadership from the likes of Danny Batth and Conor Coady, with a winning mentality and flawlessly professional attitude that the others feed off. Neves credentials are clear having captained the Porto side in the Champions League. Jota leads through taking responsibility, never hiding and even when he’s having a poor game, always driving us on. This, despite being the most brutally assaulted player in the league. He’s taken an absolute beating and deserves a good rest in time for the Premier League, where his individual talent will surely flourish even further.
Nuno recently did an interview with ‘The Coaches Voice’, a website that interviews football managers and gets into their psyche and the way they work, In it he said this:
“You take everything you experience, and it is like you put it all in a box. Then, when you need anything from it, at any point, you go in and you grab it. It becomes an instinct.
“You join a specific philosophy. A view of how football works. But you add to this view, and give these people your own view of the game, the view of being inside the dressing room. It is important to connect this feeling to the way you perform on the pitch.
“Dialogue. It is about sharing. One of the big things a group dynamic demands is to be able to listen and really understand, to learn from listening to others. You must always have space to share opinion, but at the same time be ready to make decisions that fit the way you think is better.”
I’m not sure I could sum up the way Nuno has tackled the challenge this season any better. Each defeat comes with a rebuke in the most emphatic fashion. True intelligence is not having all of the ideas all of the time. It’s about learning from what is going on around you, adapting your own ideas and implementing them in the most effective way possible. Nuno has done that from day one. He decided his system, recruited or adapted his players to fit that system and got to work on managing the personalities involved. Even players on the fringes of the squad have not spoken out about their lack of action. It takes a master of personalities to ensure the dynamic is not upset.
For the vast majority of Wolves fans, we’re entering unknown territory here. We’re on the verge of something special which we can all agree upon, but it’s very important for us all to take stock of the past 12 months. From the moment Nuno arrived, it has been an upward trajectory and this leg of the journey is arguably the most important. This club is no longer built on sand, but a foundation of ideas, structure, ambition and pure will to succeed. We’re being taken on a journey and we’re truly privileged to be in this position. There will be the odd bump on the way, players will leave, defeats will occur and bitter pills may have to be swallowed for that is the industry we are in. But to have the people we have at the helm, who simply do not do failure is something to cling to and especially while Nuno Espirito Santo is in situ.
As many of you who read this blog will know, visiting the Molineux is a family affair. At any one time my extended family has held up to 15 season tickets across Molineux and our own history within Wolverhampton was built in the shadow of the stadium in Whitmore Reans. I myself first lived around 200 yards from The Golden Palace on Park Avenue. My father has worked on the turnstiles for over 30 years and my brother has since joined him for the past 5 years. My mother holds the fort in the South Bank while myself, my wife and a long-time elderly family friend of ours (who we believe to be the oldest Punjabi attendee at Molineux currently) reside in the Billy Wright family enclosure. It’s this sense of family and belonging that means Wolves are held so close to our hearts and why so much of our lives is devoted to them. For the past 20 plus years that I’ve been attending games, life as a fan has meandered along, without any genuine reason to believe we might gatecrash the elite. That has now changed. Our years of patience and loyalty are finally, truly being rewarded.
This blogging journey started as a passion in my spare time, but it’s gone on to become an account of a story that will be told probably 100 years into the future. It all started here, in the season 2017/18 and what a year it has been. I will leave you with this video, something I’ve watched countless times myself that really captures the essence of what it means to be a Wolf in these times.
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you in the Premier League.