AS A FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE, Wolverhampton Wanderers have carried with them an added impetus from their prestigious history to succeed. But even this has not been able to save them over the past decade and a half, in which they have been up and down between the Premier League and Championship, even briefly diving into League One in 2014.
Since their promotion back to the second tier, Wolves have been steady, if uninspiring; always just hanging around, but never solid enough to earn promotion. Supporter unrest was increasing as the club sputtered to a 14th-place finish in 2015/16.
That’s when Chairman Steve Morgan resigned and the club was put up for sale, and their new story all began. This new tale, with an exotic Chinese/Portuguese twist, sees Wolves in a rather unique yet somewhat speculative present-day state.
It was literally a brand new start when Wolves were sold to Fosun International in 2016. Fosun is a Chinese company with the capabilities of pumping the sort of capital into the club to make them a viable Premier League side again, and they made it perfectly clear what their intentions were from the start. “As part of our strategy, it makes perfect sense to buy a great football club. Our goal is crystal clear: we will do our very best to help take Wolves back to the Premier League as soon as possible and to stay there. We believe the club and the fans belong at the top of English football and getting there is our first and top priority.”
However, all of this was just the prologue to the actual story of what Wolves have been up to since the takeover. The trick has been how this new brain trust has found a way to separate the team, as historic as it might be, from the rest of the pack. Because – spoiler alert – every single club wants exactly what Fosun said they wanted for Wolves, and they all have their own strategy of doing it. To make it happen so quickly, though, is almost unheard of.
They have, however, had a unique idea. It all began with the first completed move for a Portuguese player – a loan move for Jorge Mendes’ client Hélder Costa. It was hardly groundbreaking; Portugal has a great stock of young talent and Costa is one of many. But what followed was more than just happenstance.
Right after the takeover by Fosun, 12 players were brought in, the majority of whom had one clear thing in common – they were Portuguese. This included the club-record move for midfielder Ivan Cavaleiro, another client of Mendes, as well as another loan move, this time for João Teixeira. His agent? You guessed it, Jorge Mendes. You know what they say: Championship football and Portuguese starlets are as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly – or something like that.
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It has since been established that one of Fosun International’s chief advisors is Portuguese super-agent Mendes, whose star client is Cristiano Ronaldo, and who also happens to be the agent of Wolves’ current manager Nuno Espírito Santo. Thus, we are starting to see a clearer picture of where this Portuguese connection is coming from. But what is the significance of this connection, if any, and is it sustainable to give the Wolves what they want in Premier League relevance?
It got off to a rocky start, despite that eventful first summer. Other than Hélder Costa, nobody really latched on like they might have been expected to as Wolves finished 15th in the Championship last season, the first with the new ownership in charge. There was no panic, though, because phase one of the Portuguese project was complete. Mendes’ influence was impossible to ignore, despite what the official records state, such as João Teixeira supposedly not even having an agent to facilitate his move.
The speculative nature of Mendes’ influence didn’t stop with just loan moves and transfers, however. Paul Lambert, who accepted the managerial role after the takeover and had to be at least somewhat privy to what was going on, soon learned that his own influence at the club was dwindling, and was not happy about how much control Mendes had over transfers and recruitment.
Unsurprisingly, Lambert was let go just six months later, to be replaced by Mendes’ own client. Two other first-team coaches and the head of science at Wolverhampton were also let go in one broad restructuring.
The summer just passed was busy for Wolves, and for Mendes, as the trend continued. A somewhat modest five of their incoming 12 transfers came from Portugal as well as a further two of five loans. This included the blockbuster, club-record deal for Rúben Neves, the defensive midfielder who had been courted by numerous top-tier teams before opting to sign with a club with nothing more than optimism at being a Premier League club soon. And Neves’ agent? Jorge Mendes.
It also included yet another loan, this time for highly-rated Atlético Madrid winger – and another Mendes client – Diogo Jota, who took no time to settle down and start pelting in the goals from the word go. It was like Hélder Costa 2.0.
It may look like there are a lot of shady dealings going on behind the scenes, and it’s hard to deny that Mendes has had a much bigger say in who is brought into the club than perhaps they are willing to admit. As it stands, six of Wolverhampton’s most used players are clients of the man who is apparently just an advisor to the ownership. It was enough to force Lambert out of the club, even though the official statement from Fosun International denied Mendes’ role in recruitment and transfers, maintaining that he was simply an advisor to the club’s ownership.
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But regardless of what anyone’s opinion is of the Portuguese connection and what sort of power Mendes is wielding, the most important thing, from a supporter’s standpoint, is that it’s working. Wolves are modernising and they are improving. They aren’t just establishing themselves as an outlet for Portuguese players to express themselves. They aren’t doing anyone any favours. They are building a foundation for the future, one that seems to be heading towards the Premier League sooner rather than later.
Aside from just bringing in truckloads of Portuguese starlets, Wolves have also implemented a 3-4-3 formation. They are the only Championship team that is utilising the set-up and one of only two teams in the league to deploy three at the back regularly. More importantly, teams like Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City have all turned to a formation which Antonio Conte used to win the league with Chelsea last year. Clearly it works.
Maybe Jorge Mendes is pulling far more strings than is being let on. His client is the manager and numerous other clients of his populate the first team. It’s clear why that might have upset someone like Paul Lambert, who felt his influence had disappeared – or never even existed – and as a manager, that’s never a good feeling.
But Wolves have been treading water in the Championship for years, unable to figure out how to move forward amidst a throng of hungrier teams. Then, within a year of this influence from the Portuguese connection, everything feels different, fresh, even unique. The club is trying new things not often found in the Championship, and they are building towards a sustainable future modelled on what is working in the Premier League as they themselves aspire to make it there. This shows a type of forward-thinking that transcends the nationality of players.
Mendes is the second most powerful agent in the world, according to Forbes, ranking just behind Scott Boras. Lambert’s exit showed us that Mendes’ power is expanding beyond monetary valuation, as he is using Wolves as a means to bring his clients more exposure and more chances. That undoubtedly sounds suspicious, but the end result is a team that looks like being at or near the top of the Championship table for the foreseeable future.
These aren’t scrubs from Portugal with no future either; these are the likes of Rúben Neves, who will be playing at the top level of world football in coming years, no matter where that may be. Hélder Costa, who started out on loan and proved himself as a top talent, was then secured on a permanent deal. He was buried at Benfica, going on loan after loan.
The fact that his success at Wolverhampton and his subsequent move benefited him just as much as it benefited the club itself is a testament to Mendes and his intentions. He is seemingly just as loyal to Wolves and promoting their success as a club as he is to his own clients