Although Wolves’ modern-day king has abdicated his Molineux throne, Ruben Neves’ legacy will shine on at the golden palace for eternity.
No other player has made such an impact on the pitch in gold and black during the last six years having featured more than 250 times in a remarkable period in the club’s history.
Switching Champions League-chasing Porto for the Championship lights of the Black Country, Neves’ landmark signing was the first inkling of what was to come in that second tier-winning season and forming the foundation of the Wolves which is known across the world today.
The signing sent shockwaves across English football.
Little old Wolves, perennial mid-table second division Wolves, Wolves who had flattered to deceive time after time after time were able to bring one of the most promising talents in the world – and the youngest captain in Champions League history – not to the Premier League, but to the Championship.
Some might have thought the league would be too physical for him – as well as the other players of Nuno Espirito Santo’s past who had joined their former boss to help start a new dawn at Molineux in Diogo Jota and Willy Boly – but how wrong they were.
A battle straight from the off came as Middlesbrough paid visit to the West Midlands on the opening day of the 2017/18 season. A tough game against a Boro side which was one of the favourites for promotion before a ball was kicked, was settled by Leo Bonatini’s first-half strike as Neves starred in the centre of the pitch.
But a 2-0 win at Pride Park seven days later showed Wolves’ new generation wasn’t just a one-off. Lining up alongside Romain Saiss in midfield, Neves once again displayed not only the skill, but the heart to be one of the best players ever to step foot in the Championship.
If there was one thing which would set Neves apart from any of his peers was his sublime long-range finishes. The first of those was on display in just his third outing in gold and black.
With just six minutes on the clock at the KCOM Stadium, Barry Douglas played an innocuous pass to the Portuguese almost 30 yards out from goal, and with his second touch, Neves lashed an unstoppable effort into the top right corner of the net – leaving Allan McGregor with no chance.
The Nev-olution. 👉😆— Wolves (@Wolves) July 8, 2022
Happy Wolves anniversary, Ruben Neves!
Screamer after screamer would follow. When he found the net for a second time for Wolves at Hillsborough in December, many thought he would not be able to better an incredible side-footed finish from the edge of the D.
Most players would lash that effort towards goal and hope for the best, but not Ruben. A cultured touch earned his side a 1-0 win, their 16 of a season which had seen Nuno’s side rocket to the top of the second-tier standings.
Wolves’ goal of the season competition could have consisted solely of Neves strikes. He added more impressive efforts in wins over Brentford and Sheffield United before his goal set up a dramatic and memorable night at the Cardiff City Stadium.
But all those stunning shots paled into insignificance when days later he found the net with one of the greatest goals Molineux has ever seen.
Compatriot Jota had already put Wolves ahead against Derby, but when the clock struck 51 minutes the 28,500 fans packed into the stadium that night of 11th April 2018 witnessed something they would never forget.
Mikey Burrows tried to sum it up on commentary. ‘Ruben Neves with one of the greatest goals you will ever, ever see. That is simply, simply stunning. Sensational. Wonderful. Incredible.’
But even those words were not worthy to describe what Neves was able to do against the Rams as he flicked up the ball with the outside of his boot before lobbing Scott Carson from 35 yards out and putting the ball ‘top bins’. No goalkeeper in the world was keeping that ball out.
A goal that all-but secured Wolves’ return to the Premier League after a six-year absence, it cued some brilliant scenes at the end of an outstanding campaign, with Neves at the centre of them.
Neves in the Championship felt like a cheat code.
The fact he was better than anyone else on the pitch at whichever stadium he played at set Wolves up brilliantly for the top-flight, and he couldn’t have wished for a better start.
In his first outing against Everton at Molineux, he blew the roof off with a quite perfect midfield showing. Having got Wolves back on level terms when he posted a stunning free-kick past Jordan Pickford, he would set up Raul Jimenez for his opening Old Gold goal.
Neves was instrumental in Wolves not only taking to life in the Premier League but excelling in it for the first time.
Previous seasons spent in the competition always saw the men from Molineux fight just to stay up, but with the Portuguese pairing of Neves alongside Joao Moutinho in the centre of the park, that was never going to be the case this time around.
A run to the 2018/19 FA Cup semi-final could have stalled at the first hurdle had he not picked out the far corner against Liverpool or been the catalyst for creating one of the greatest atmospheres the historic stadium has seen in recent memory as he provided the pass for Jota to put Wolves two-up against Manchester United in that most incredible of quarter-final nights.
As Wolves were looking to secure a European spot for the first time in almost 40 years, Neves was the man to step up and take charge. From an almost identical position as his opening day bullet against Everton, he stepped up again against Arsenal to turn the ball home and guide the Old Gold to their first win over the Gunners since 1979.
Another assist for Jota at Vicarage Road three days later before a 1-0 win against Fulham at Molineux (coupled with Manchester City’s FA Cup final trouncing of Watford) meant seventh place in the standings was enough to bring European football back to the Black Country.
Neves was an ever-present for the club during a 2019/20 campaign which ended in another top seven finish as well as a journey to the Europa League quarter-finals – something Wolves had previously achieved all the way back in 1972 in the inaugural season of the UEFA Cup.
The midfield maestro was back among the goals straight from the off, with the first two not being further apart in terms of difficulty and strength of opposition, having opened his account by tucking away a penalty to make the scoreline 4-0 in the dying moments of the win against Pyunik in Yerevan.
But his second was another piece of art fit for the Louvre. With Man United the visitors to Molineux, Neves was found at the edge of the box, took a touch, and curled a picture-perfect finish off the underside of David De Gea’s crossbar.
His influence on and off the pitch has never been doubted at any point of his Wolves career, and the skill he has displayed during his time in Old Gold has been remarkable, with the worldie goals continuing.
Everyone will remember Aston Villa at Molineux and then there is Espanyol. Jota took the headlines with his second consecutive hat-trick, but the goal of the last 32 first leg was all about Neves.
The control was only matched by the finish. Having held off the defender, a ball headed clear was met by Neves’ chest before he unleashed a volley which flashed straight into the net. A traction-engine of a finish.
Although Wolves’ European dream ended against eventual champions Sevilla – managed by his former Porto boss Julen Lopetegui (we’ll revisit him later) – Neves was back at home on the continental stage.
As Wolves were unable to retain a Europa League spot, uncertainty began to surround the midfielder’s future in gold and black.
Whether or not that uncertainty had any affect on Neves’ performances on the pitch can only be answered by the man himself, and having watched from the stands and being around the players at Compton, you wouldn’t have noticed.
In his fourth and fifth years as a Wolves player, Neves continued to shine, despite the team having a pair of underperforming campaigns – by their own high standards.
A spate of five goals inside the opening two months of 2021, with three of those coming from the penalty spot, coupled with his first open play Wolves goal from inside the 18-yard box against Everton and a headed effort versus Newcastle United, continued his impact on the pitch.
The Portuguese also deputised as Old Gold captain for the first time in the top-flight as Conor Coady made a very rare Covid-enforced absence.
As Bruno Lage came into the club as head coach at the start of 2021/22, Neves’ position as the go-to man in midfield was unwavering, playing more than 2,660 minutes of Premier League football that season, and finding the goal four times as Wolves looked to return to the top seven.
Hopes were high when his late strike against Aston Villa secured a thrilling three points in Birmingham, while goals against Brentford and Leicester also helped earn three points, before another stunner was added to his bulging collection. Nobody will forget that cheeky chipped effort against Watford as the hosts ran out 4-0 winners.
His greatest of goalscoring seasons for Wolves came in the past 12 months. Entrusted with the captain’s armband on a permanent basis, Neves stood out from the off as the man was going to do his all to take the club to greater heights.
Seven consecutive nominations for player of the month, and a three-time winner, displayed just how clear of his teammates he was in terms of performances as the side, as a whole, struggled.
2️⃣4️⃣ in 8️⃣4️⃣ seconds.— Wolves (@Wolves) July 8, 2022
Every Ruben Neves goal. A beautiful collection.
But with the arrival of Lopetegui Wolves’ fortunes took a positive turn, and Neves was again at the forefront. The midfielder was an irreplaceable presence under his former Porto boss. Fighting for every ball and dragging each of his teammates with him. Fighting for the shirt in what was to be his last season in Old Gold displayed not only his love for Wolves, but his love for the supporters.
The passion was on full show as he netted late in a 3-0 win against Liverpool. He followed that up with an important goal in Wolves’ fight against the drop against Palace at Molineux, before setting up Toti for the winning strike against Villa which would ultimately secure his team’s Premier League status for a sixth successive campaign.
It was no surprise that Neves would go home with both supporters’ and players’ Player of the Season awards following an emotional final outing at his golden palace, the venue of some of the most outrageous moments of his incredible gold and black career.
In tears as he led his family – a family born and brought up in Wolverhampton, his adopted city – around the pitch, Neves knew this great chapter of his life was about the close.
If it wasn’t already clear, it was in that moment. Neves loved the Wolves supporters as much as they loved him and the flood of emotion on display from all inside Molineux during that afternoon of 20th May will ensure the memories of the Portuguese poet will live on for generations.
Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.