We are Premier League! A look back on a remarkable Wolves season, which now sees the club returning to the top flight after a six year absence.
“I hope I can help build a new future here. I believe in the project. I believe in the ideas and I trust people.”
Dateline 1st June, 2017.
Nuno Espírito Santo is introduced to a packed gathering of local and national media in the Hayward Suite at Molineux.
And a new adventure, a Nuno adventure, is born.
After a first year of ownership, and a mixed season with dramatic FA Cup heroics balanced against a mid-table Championship finish, Fosun had opted to make a change in the head coach hot seat with Paul Lambert making way and Nuno stepping in.
Those Wolves fans without a knowledge of European football may have found themselves scrabbling around on Google for details of the new man, and details of his previous high-profile roles at Valencia and Porto.
Well if there were those who didn’t know too much about Nuno then, they know all about him now!
Some 317 days after that opening address at Molineux, Nuno’s Wolves – a refreshed and revamped Wolves – are celebrating promotion back to the Holy Grail of the Premier League and the chance to dine at the top table of English football for the first time in six years, when the three successive seasons inspired by Mick McCarthy came to a desperately disappointing end.
There have of course been some huge ups and downs during that period since 2012.
A double relegation, a club seemingly in free fall, but then re-established by Kenny Jackett and back up to the Championship on the back of a fleeting, but record-breaking, stay in League One.
Could that upward momentum continue? Could Wolves make it back to the promised land? Very nearly in the first season, finishing outside of the play-offs on goal difference alone, but sadly not so close in the following two years.
Enter Nuno. To ally himself with Fosun’s ambition and drive for a very different future.
And a raft of new signings. From the established and the well known – John Ruddy, Ryan Bennett, Barry Douglas – to the more unexpected – Ruben Neves, Willy Boly, Leo Bonatini, Diogo Jota.
A rarefied mix of footballing backgrounds and personalities, the arrival of so many without any experience of England - let alone the Championship – prompted questions about just what would unfold. How it would work? How could it work? You’ll be ‘rubbish’ in the winter.
Yet “Nuno had a dream. To build a football team.” And that was the task he set about pursuing from the first day of taking charge.
On the training pitch, day in, day out, the football work began. Shape work. Positional work. A new and distinctive style, with “five at the back (or three), and pace in attack.”
The quality of Neves, Jota and Boly quickly shone. Bonatini too with an early flurry of goals. Alongside a solid backline with the experience of Ruddy as the last line of defence.
Douglas and Matt Doherty were inspired as wing backs, Conor Coady revitalised as a majestic sweeper, Batth, Saiss, N’Diaye, Bennett, Costa, Cavaleiro, Afobe and many more – everyone has played their part over what was always going to prove the usual long and hard Championship season.
When talking about that gruelling marathon of a second tier campaign, many often refer to turning points, moments which dramatically changed fortunes, and yet with Wolves those have been countless.
Maybe that opening day, when a team with six of the starting line-up making their Championship debuts came through a tough test against a battle-hardened Middlesbrough side, freshly relegated and among the tips for promotion.
Quickly winning away at well-fancied Derby and Hull to further increase expectation levels, a swashbuckling local derby success against Aston Villa, taking Premier League champions-elect Manchester City to penalties in the EFL Cup.
The epic late win at Bristol City, the fantastic Fridays at Middlesbrough and Cardiff, a truly unbelievable goal from “a wonderkid from Porto” in this week’s return against Derby.
Big moments? There are just so many to choose from.
And it has not just been about quality, but also the character and the personality of the cosmopolitan dressing room who have responded to pretty much every setback with renewed determination and vigour.
Equally they have been backed by a fiercely partisan fanbase which has engaged itself firmly behind the new Wolves era and made a seat at Molineux the hottest ticket in town with a string of capacity crowds.
They have also blogged, podcast-ed, and waxed lyrical like never before as the internet stratosphere has become a breeding ground for revitalised supporters to openly embrace and hail the successes of a remarkable season.
And all this with the sometimes calm, and equally sometimes fiercely passionate, hands of Nuno at the tiller.
Not one to court the media attention, Nuno’s weekly messages to the assembled press pack have rarely deviated from talking about the team ethic, one game at a time, and never getting carried away. Talking about the strength of the pack, the importance of togetherness.
His is an approach where he prefers to do his talking, or at least his team to do the talking, on the training pitch or during matches.
It is fair to say that approach has proved a resounding success.
And all that success, everything that has been played out on the grass, has transpired amid the backdrop of the club receiving some crushing news during pre-season.
Football dressing rooms are pretty stoic and unflinching places of work. No place for the faint-hearted, nor the weak-willed. A place where those sporting imposters of triumph and disaster are indeed treated much the same, without fear or favour.
But when news was broken by Nuno at the start of July that Carl Ikeme had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia, that Compton dressing room became a scene of shock, of silence, and then of tears.
Not Carl, not the big man, in prime condition, in the peak of his goalkeeping powers.
Not Carl, who had been unswervingly sweating his way through testing summer gym sessions alongside his big mate, and Wolves’ big mate, Matt Murray.
And yet, if ever there was an event which united a whole club – staff, players, supporters – it arrived in response to hearing that devastating news.
The genuine love and affection with which Wolves’ now longest-serving senior player is regarded was quickly to the fore with a host of fundraising initiatives raising an extraordinary amount for Birmingham-based charity Cure Leukaemia, singing his name at matches home and away, and the parading of a flag of support both at Molineux and in many other stadia across the Championship landscape.
Carl continues to watch and support every step of the way whilst undergoing treatment, and that day, one day, when he steps back inside Molineux for the first time there will surely be many more tears but for wildly contrasting reasons.
And there was further heartache for the Wolves family early into the New Year with the sudden passing of long-serving press officer and programme editor John ‘Fozzie’ Hendley.
Fozzie had attended well over 1,000 consecutive first team fixtures after which he would compile the match report for the club website, and his premature passing left a gaping hole in Wolves’ rich tapestry.
It was perhaps fitting that his final fixture would be that comeback win at Bristol City that culminated in Ryan Bennett’s dramatic headed winner, and equally fitting that it would be standing room only at his memorial service at St Peter’s Collegiate Church with a host of emotional tributes. There will be many who will be thinking about Fozzie today. And also long-serving former groundsman Terry Carver who sadly passed away in March. Many supporters will have their own loved ones to remember with whom they have no longer been able to share the memories of such a momentous season.
From now, footballing-wise, it will be about looking forward. What can this team achieve moving on as they swap the relentless muck and nettles of the Championship for the league billed as the greatest show on earth. Among the many threads of positivity at what has happened over the last nine months, the style of football suited to the higher echelon is surely already in place.
No doubt Nuno will continue in his own style and in his own way, just as his two promotion-winning predecessors did in the Molineux dugout over the last decade.
This is a very different squad to the one which last ascended to the Premier League in 2009, and indeed those under Jackett who stormed League One some five years later, but all three are deserving of huge credit in their different ways.
Now though for the future, and pressing on with owners in Fosun who are fiercely committed to establishing Wolves not just as a top flight team, but more pertinently, a top flight force.
A couple of lines from the song which has provided the accompaniment to the relentless pursuit of promotion over the second half of the season have already been not so subtly shoe-horned previously into this article.
And that song’s final line is perhaps the most suitable place to finish, in perfectly bringing together the strands of the past, the present and the future.
Yes indeed. “We’re Wolverhampton, we’re on our way back.”
Written by Paul Berry, lifelong Wolves fan and member of the club's media department until January this year.