Wolves dreaming big after sealing EPL return

Ruben Neves. (Getty Images)
Ruben Neves. (Getty Images)

Cape Town - It was a promotion push funded in China, masterminded in Portugal, and realized in an industrial city in central England.

Wolverhampton Wanderers are back in the English Premier League after a six-year absence and the club has taken a very global route to get there.

A contentious one, too.

The fact that Wolves' best player, Portugal midfielder Ruben Neves, joined the club after swapping the bright lights of the Champions League for the grueling churn of England's second-tier League Championship demonstrates that this is no normal promotion story.

So does the involvement of so-called "super-agent" Jorge Mendes, whose close links to Wolves' owner - Chinese conglomerate Fosun International - has given him vast influence at the club. Seven of Mendes' clients are at Wolves, including Neves - the record signing for £15.8 million from Portuguese giant FC Porto - and manager Nuno Espirito Santo, the former coach of Porto.

Throw in Fosun's spending power and it was hardly a level playing field when Wolves began its bid for promotion last August, starting out with a 1-0 home win over Middlesbrough. Eight months later, they sealed a return to the Premier League last weekend with four matches to spare in one of the most convincing second-tier campaigns in years.

"Promotion into the Premier League is a major, major component part of where we want to take this club, but this is not the end," Wolves managing director Laurie Dalrymple said on Monday. "We want to get in the Premier League and compete strongly for a long time. We want to position ourselves in the very elite of English football.

"There shouldn't be any limits to our goals here."

Wolves' sporting director, Kevin Thelwell, used similar language to describe the club's ambition.

"We are not keen to put a ceiling on it really, it's almost dare-to-dream stuff," he told British newspaper The Guardian.

"They (Fosun) are uber-ambitious, and they have been uber-supportive. With the squad we've got, the age of the players, the coach we've got, sky's the limit really."

Wolves proved to be far too good for their rivals in the Championship - and one moment, sprinkled with stardust, exemplified that last week.

Neves scored a goal for the ages in a 2-0 win over Derby at Molineux, teeing the ball up for himself 30 meters out before delivering a looping volley into the top corner. It showed just why the 21-year-old midfielder became the youngest Champions League captain of all time in 2015 when he skippered Porto against Maccabi Tel Aviv and also why the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea were reportedly interested in him before his surprise switch to Wolves.

Neves hopes his form earns him a place in Portugal's squad for the World Cup in Russia, and intends to stay with Wolves for their first season back in the Premier League since 2012.

"I am happy here and if it's possible I'd like to stay here for my first year in the Premier League," said Neves, who has won five caps for Portugal. "Honestly, I love to play here, I love the boys, I am really happy to play here, and I'm really happy to stay."

That must be music to the ears of Wolves supporters who saw their team plunge to back-to-back relegations in 2012 and '13 to end up in the third tier.

After that, they had four managers in four years - including Italian Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert - until the arrival in May 2017 of Santo, a former professional goalkeeper and a close friend and first-ever client of Mendes.

By then, Fosun had already showed its intentions by signing winger Helder Costa from Benfica for £13 million. Others to arrive were striker Diogo Jota, on loan from Atletico Madrid, and former Benfica youth player Ivan Cavaleiro from Monaco.

Mendes' influence is clear and his links to Fosun date to 2015, when he agreed to sell a minority share of his firm to a subsidiary of the Chinese company. Fosun bought Wolves for £45 million a year later, adding the club to its portfolio of investments.

Rival clubs have complained to the English Football League about the relationship between Wolves and Mendes.

"Jorge is an agent, just like any other," Thelwell said. "We've taken some of Jorge's clients but also taken clients from other agents. My perspective on it is we haven't broken any of the rules, we are very clear on that."

Wolves won three top-flight titles in the 1950s and the last of its four FA Cups in 1960. The fans believe the good times are returning, with full houses of 30,000 fans at Molineux this season testament to that.

Having won 29 of their 43 league games and lost only on penalties to runaway Premier League champion Manchester City in the League Cup, Wolves will take momentum - and likely some more high-profile signings - into next season.

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