Every Saturday follows a clockwork pattern for Stuart Earl and Dave Slape. Shortly after daybreak, they set out from their London homes and board a train bound for Wolverhampton, making the four hour round trip to Molineux to support their team. It’s a routine they’ve enjoyed for over 50 years, after establishing London Wolves, with some joyous highs and gut-wrenching lows along the way.
Following a lower league team isn’t always easy and these hardened veterans know more than most about the trials and tribulations that can be faced when religiously supporting home and away. They were there when things took a turn for the worse in the 1980s, Wolves suffering three consecutive relegations to fall into the fourth division. However, what goes down must (sometimes) come up and the pitfalls of the 80s were a distant memory as the club were promoted to the Premier League in 2003 and again in 2009. On both occasions, their stay was temporary, and despite moments of glory – with home victories against Manchester United in both 2004 and 2011 providing rare elation – they soon found themselves back in The Championship.
Fast forward seven years and Wolves are back again, only this time, bank-rolled by Chinese conglomerate Fosun International, with an emerging manager who is getting the most of his players, often provided by ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes, their stay might not be so short lived.
Few saw this coming. Fresh from a 14th placed finish in the 15/16 season, no one would have imagined that in two years, Wolves would be about to kick-off in the top flight – with many predicting a lofty top-half finish as a likely outcome next May. That all changed in July 2016 when a new owner, Chinese businessman Guo Guangchang and the deep pockets he brought with him, ushered in an era of unforeseen prosperity. There’s little doubt that the investment has helped and you’d struggle to find a press conference last season where an opposition manager didn’t raise the disparity. Mick McCarthy summed it up best: “Heavens, they had a £13.5 million sub coming off the bench the other day”. Multi-million-pound players gaining minimal game time simply doesn’t happen in England’s second tier.
Of course, wealth doesn’t automatically equate to success. Don’t believe us? Just ask QPR, who found out the hard way in 2013 and 2015 when a dressing-room of international stars failed to gel, calamitously ending in relegation and a club in considerable financial difficulty. The difference for Wolves comes in the form of Portugese manager Nuno Espirito Santo, who has heightened his reputation further having arrived with promising credentials from his time in Portugal and Spain.
Santo’s success lies in forming a finely balanced team – with a rock solid spine and the attacking prowess of players that include Reuben Neves and Diogo Jota, complimented by a crystal clear tactical plan. This summer they’ve strengthened further, bringing in seasoned Portugese internationals Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho, as well as breaking their transfer record to sign Adama Traore from Middlesbrough. While Championship teams may have felt unease at the large sums, in the mega-rich Premier League, these fees remain relatively modest. It will be interesting to see how the club fares punching against contenders of the same weight. Santo is under no allusions that the calibre of opponent has changed: “I am very cautious of what’s going on…we have to improve and work hard but we cannot say we are going to fight for the top 10 or fight forever. That will be a big mistake”.
Now in a league with teams of similar financial means, one grey area remains: Jorge Mendes and the influence he holds at the club. There has been much talk over the past year of the relationship that exists between Mendes and Wolverhampton Wanderers. At best, he has helped to bring a string of new signings to the club. At worst, his level of power and influence makes him one of the most powerful men in the game, with an article by David Conn for The Guardian in June 2017 stating that not only did Wolves sign the majority of their star names, including Santo, due to Mendes but that it was also on the agent’s recommendation that Guangchang bought the club in the first place. The details are, and will remain, cloudy and don’t expect the manager to indulge in conversation on the topic. Prompted by Conn, he summarised: “Jorge doesn’t have any job here. Any job at all. You see him here? Come on. He is a good agent, the best agent. We get what we need from him. If he can provide good players for us? Fantastic. If another guy can give? Fantastic. It is not the job of Jorge doing here.”
On Saturday, you will find Stuart Earl and Dave Slape at Euston station. A heads up if you’re looking out for them – they’ll be a little later than usual, owing to the televised late kick-off on BT Sport – a sign that Wolves truly are back in the big time. The pair have been on thousands of journeys together over the years and there’s many still to come, but with the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool lying in wait, they could be the most exciting yet. A world away from record breaking signings, billionaire owners and influential agents, that is really what it’s all about.