Mourinho’s Manchester United pale in comparison to Santo’s Wolves, relishing their days in the sun and back at the top table

Wolves are winning many plaudits for their early-season form in their first year back in the Premier League

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 5:03pm

A Manchester United legend walked away from Old Trafford on Saturday.

“I didn’t come all this way to be entertained by Wolves,” he said ruefully to a fanzine seller on Sir Matt Busby Way.

Promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers were impressive, playing with confidence. They’re a welcome addition to the Premier League, a team not afraid to attack their biggest foes. United have a woeful recent record against promoted sides and Diogo Jota, Helder Costa, Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves were better than any home player. Wolves have taken a point off both Manchester giants in the first six games and been defeated only once.

Their Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo walked to the 3,000 away fans at the head of his players and punched the air several times as they sang: “We’re Wolverhampton, we’re on our way back” and “Nuno’s the special one”

“Nuno’s the best thing to happen to Wolves for the best part of five decades (at least),” agrees veteran journalist David Harrison, author of Nuno Had A Dream – Wolves Championship Season 2017-18. “For those fans who didn’t share the glories of the ’50s, ’60s and part of the ’70s, he has brought a style and substance to the team which has never before been witnessed.

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“He talks repeatedly of being part of ‘The Pack’ – which is usually followed by the phrase ‘together we are stronger’.”

That togetherness was abundantly evident among players and fans who are not short of confidence themselves.

Wolves have seen average home attendances rise by 10,000 to 31,000 in the two years since they were taken over in 2016 by Fosun International, headquartered in Shanghai and listed in Hong Kong.

“Their arrival was greeted with a mixture of suspicion and intrigue,” said Harrison. “There had been foreign owners before in the form of the Bhatti Brothers who ran the club into the ground in the 1980s.”

Wolves finished an underwhelming 15th in Fosun’s first season, 2016-17, with home crowds as low as 17,000. Then the sleeping giant began to stir.

Espirito Santo arrived in 2017, the choice of his agent, friend and compatriot Jorge Mendes who was to have an increasing influence on club affairs.

Not everyone was happy with Mendes’ involvement, as Harrison points out. “Fosun had shares in the agent’s Gestifute holding company and there were inevitable accusations of conflicts of interest. No wrongdoing was discovered, nor was it when Wolves reached the Premier League and further ownership investigations were required.”

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Wolves are now the top dogs in the West Midlands ahead of Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and the long-fallen Coventry City.

While Wolves acquired owners who are eulogised by their fans, Coventry’s owners became despised by theirs and they tumbled from the Premier League to the fourth tier where they currently reside.

Fosun’s purchase price of £45 million (US$60 million, HK$460.7 million) – cheaper than three of Manchester United’s midfielders – already looks shrewd given the interest from the world’s billionaires in owning English Premier League clubs and the television millions that they bring.

Wolves’ South Bank terrace, holding 30,000, was once among the biggest in football. But in the 1980s, against the backdrop of a working class city of 250,000 which had suffered from Britain’s post-industrial decline harder than most, the club suffered a catastrophic plunge down the divisions. By 1986, they were languishing in England’s fourth tier and crowds dropped as low as 3,357 for a fixture against Aldershot.

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Wolves fought their way back to the Premier League after that and had great owners including lifelong fan Jack Hayward, but they’ve never finished above 15th in England’s top-flight and were in the third tier as recently as 2014. A first top ten finish in 39 years is a reality, a run of winnable games against Southampton, Crystal Palace, Watford and Brighton provides a chance to show their quality.

They won’t win the league, but look in their best shape since 1980 with Jose Mourinho the latest to praise their attitude and mentality.

“They were in the game since the first minute, they played every ball with the maximum intent and desire,” he added. “We didn’t.”

United are seventh after six games, eight points behind Liverpool and six behind Manchester City and Chelsea. United’s goal difference is zero, City’s is plus-16. The most optimistic United fans hoped for a serious title challenge in August, but expectations have already dropped.

United have enjoyed plenty of days in the sun, their achievements so great that second last season seemed like a failure. They have hugely talented players but they’re failing to hit the levels of consistency needed to win league titles. For Wolves, they’re delighted to be among the heavyweights – and giving more than a good account of themselves.