When it comes to individual performances, sometimes, like my previous instalment, a player reaches beyond their usual levels to answer the need of the team, before reverting back to type and going on to make less of an impact. Sometimes though, an individual is exactly that – a stand-out in a sea of mediocrity, a lighthouse on a darkened coast, a rose in the thornbush, a player so far ahead of the rest it becomes obvious on a frequent basis. My latest display of this series is most certainly the latter, during what was a rather forgettable season for the club.
Helder Costa – Liverpool 1-2 Wolves (2017)
But first, some context…
The 2016/17 season has almost vanished from the annals of Wolves’ recent history. The story of Fosun, which began at the start of this season, is told unequivocally positively, but only from the point at which Nuno Espirito Santo was made manager. A whole season was presided over before Fosun managed to get to grips with English football and the Championship. It was a 46-game learning curve, one that saw Walter Zenga, Rob Edwards and Paul Lambert at the helm, over the course of it. There was a mad trolley dash of signings, a number of them all suspiciously from a certain agent’s stable and what felt like a squad that could fill the Graham Hughes stand on a midweek Molineux night.
And, there was Helder Costa.
Costa was of course one of those players brought in who was part of Jorge Mendes’ agency, but we could all have been forgiven for thinking he was another one to make up the numbers. There were enough of them – Silvio, Ola John, Joao Teixeira – so there wasn’t exactly the fanfare that was afforded to Ivan Cavaleiro who came in as the club’s record signing. Costa and Cavaleiro were essentially footballing twins at this point, passing through Benfica, Deportivo La Coruna and Monaco together, before pitching up at Wolves.
Costa would of course go on to become the shining light of a season which promised so much, but delivered little in our quest to establish ourselves amongst the elite. We were only to wait another 12 months of course, but for Costa, this would go on to be the peak of his Wolves career, Like the guy the Beatles left behind, Costa contributed so much, but the likes of Ruben Neves, Diogo Jota and Cavaleiro himself would steal the limelight during the promotion-winning campaign. But the fondest memories of this daintiest of wingers were reserved for this season and quizzically, for Paul Lambert it seemed.
FA Cup matches have thrown up a number of heroes over the years for Wolves and Cosra seemed to save his best for the competition, He was excellent in the victory over Stoke, although perhaps overshadowed by a stupendous goalkeeping performance by Carl Ikeme. Truly for me he peaked in the next round, a trip to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, a game where both teams set up with a degree of prioritisation, although those priorities seemed to be elsewhere.
Of the additions to the squad that were supposed to enhance Wolves’ promotion challenge, that day only Costa started and only Jon Dadi Bodvarsson was on the bench. Andi Weimann was quite obviously a Lambert signing and was more a rescue mission signing to try and salvage something for the season but it goes to show how poorly recruitment had gone. Costa’s support cast included Lee Evans and George Saville in midfield, Conor Coady and Matt Doherty in relatively unfamiliar full-back roles, Kortney Hause who wasn’t a regular at the time, a massively hampered Nouha DIcko and Harry Burgoyne, making his third senior appearance. Liverpool may not have been at their strongest, but a number of their Champions League winning squad featured, including Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi, Gini Wijnaldum and Joe Gomez, with Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can all coming on from the bench. It was set to be a nice day out, but perhaps not necessarily a successful one – but Costa had other ideas.
Much like Keogh’s rendition, Costa kicked things off early, curling a looping free kick onto the head of Richard Stearman to give Wolves the lead. It wasn’t exactly one of Costa’s regular party tricks that season and much of it could be put down to some rather lax defending from the Liverpool backline, but Costa had stamped his mark early on as the most threatening forward player on the pitch. What happened thereafter was right out of the Costa wheelhouse.
A Liverpool corner is headed clear by Hause, perfectly into the path of Costa who ran. And ran. And ran. And ran. He bore down on goal, was about to pull the trigger, until Ben Woodburn of all people, got back to challenge him. There was a hint of a penalty perhaps, but Ben Woodburn – arguably his best contribution in a Liverpool shirt to date – thwarted one of the great FA Cup goals. This was peak Costa in full flow. Lithe, quick, impulsive and direct. He was not to be denied again.
His next notable contribution extended Wolves’ lead further. Picking the ball up in the inside right channel, again on the counter-attack, Costa holds off Alberto Moreno before sliding a pass into Weimann who rounds Loris Karius to make it 2-0 to Wolves. Wolves were in dreamland and Costa was at the head of it all. On came the likes of Coutinho and Sturridge, but neither were able to overshadow what Costa had managed to produce, during his 67 minutes appearance, no doubt rested for the league matters at hand.
This was Costa at his unbelievable best, a man unshackled by systems and unafraid of anyone frankly. He remains the player with the most flexible ankles I’ve seen and we can all namedrop some of his finest moments that season. But this would prove to be the peak of his powers. Costa under Nuno was a shadow of his former self. An ankle injury would rule him out towards the end of the 16/17 season and when he did finally reappear, part way through the 17/18 season, he was merely another jewel in what was becoming the most bejewelled crown in the Championship. Add to that the rigours of Nuno’s formation and tactics and the peacock of the Zenga/Edwards/Lambert era was no longer able to fan its tail in the way it had been used to.
Despite this, Costa would start the Premier League campaign as a fixture in the first XI as Wolves took on the Premier League, but Costa became the Law of Diminishing Returns personified and he was never able to replicate the form he displayed at Anfield on that January afternoon. To this day, Leeds United fans who know look to him for inspiration haven’t seen such form either.
But as they say Helder — we will always have Liverpool…