The Underdogs of the Premier League: The Wolverhampton Wanderers

With the English Premier League’s 29th iteration upon us, MTTN takes a look at a few teams that gave the footballing world some of its best underdog stories. This is the story of the Wolverhampton Wanderers—a tale of tact, grit, and footballing passion. Read on to find out about the Wolves’ quick ascension to modern Premier League greatness:

Humble Beginnings and the Glory Days

All great things have humble beginnings. The Wolverhampton Wanderers (or the Wolves, for short) had theirs in the quaint English village of Blankenhall. They were started by a schoolmaster who would give the boys a football on the occasion of an excellent academic year. It’s quite the feeling, standing on a pitch of green, the grass swaying against your boots, glistening with dew, the breeze in your hair. To top it all off, a football at your feet.

To think that the Wolves would go from combining local cricket and football clubs to becoming a more extensive football-centric organisation. From red-and-white jerseys (the school colours) to the iconic gold-and-black that they are known for now. From having a shed for spectators to being invited to the inaugural season of English Football. From jumping fields to the iconic golden Molineux Grounds. A boys’ club turned to a floodlit religion for thousands of followers. 

If that weren’t enough, they’d win numerous titles, have the 3rd most goals scored, and the 4th most points scored in England’s top flight of football. To put things into perspective, their success in the 1950s spurred the proposition of European Football. How? They beat Ferenc Puskas’s Honved side which was notorious for outclassing the England national team which was supremely talented at the time. Moreover, they would beat Di Stefano’s Real Madrid over two legs. Yes, Di Stefano as in Alfredo Di Stefano, who is arguably the best player in Real Madrid history, during a period where Real Madrid was the best team in the world. These performances were enough to prompt talks to put together a competition where the best teams in Europe went head to head.  

The Struggle of Keeping a Club Afloat

A club of such stature would undoubtedly be regarded more highly than it is, wouldn’t it? That is till you realise that their last top 10 finish before 2018 was, a whopping 38 years ago. To say that the Wolves have been forgettable would be an understatement. However, they still stand in the history books. An incredibly long run of bad managerial and financial decisions had left the club often fighting relegations to 2nd division or sometimes even 3rd division football.  Add to that, the risk of bankruptcy. They would fail, more often than not, to overcome either.

Few greats of the past have survived—the once legendary San Siro—home to AC Milan, now is hardly ever at full capacity. The Wolves were heading towards the same bleak fate, given how expensive football had gotten. However, things took a turn for the better in 2016, when a Chinese investment group called Fosun International acquired them. Yes, it was a much-needed cash infusion, but on the surface, Fosun didn’t offer anything different.

Fosun International: Just another Cash Infusion?

The ace up Fosun’s sleeve would turn out to be its ties to super-agent Jorge Mendes. Jorge represents some of the best talents in the football world, one small example being Cristiano Ronaldo. His ability to attract talent to play for a club in the Championship, (the second division of English football) would prove to be vital. It did so with the signing of a prolific young midfielder in the form of Ruben Neves.

Ultimately, talented musicians do not make an orchestra; it is the conductor that binds them together. Wolves got that in the form of Nuno Santo. Another genius pull, thanks to super-agent Jorge Mendes, who represented Nuno early in his playing career. Bringing a tactical approach that was fluid and adaptive meant they battered championship opposition cruising to promotion with only four losses.

Promotion to England’s top division of football, The Premier League, meant that their squad would need more depth, more talent, and more heart. They would find themselves to not lack in any of these departments with a very efficient transfer window. This is harder than it seems. Case in point, fellow promoted club Fulham’s spending of over 100 million pounds only to be relegated back to the Championship. The transfer window just proved how well Fosun’s management worked.

Nuno’s Brilliant Tactical Decisions

Nuno’s side fielded an unconventional 3-4-3 formation, which could adapt to most situations on the pitch. Three defenders in the backline ensured a rock-solid defence. The middle consisting of two pure midfield players flanked by wingbacks on either side completed a four that could overload the opposing midfield. The front three, being pure attack were aided by the wingbacks from midfield. This meant that they could outnumber opposition defences easily, and have a multitude of attacking options. They could convert into a front-five on counter-attacks or attacking situations since the midfielders would not require the support. These wingbacks would also help to defend in the wings falling deep making it a back five, thus limiting options. It’s easy to see how a tactic that was so versatile could be a huge advantage, given the mindset of the players and their awareness was on-point. This is precisely where Nuno and his Wolves held their greatest strength, discipline to follow the game plan, and the heart to back it up.

While somehow inconsistent in their performances against weak and mid-table opposition, they won back these points playing bigger sides. They bested five of the ‘Big Six’—Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Tottenham—at least once, except Manchester City with whom they tied. Having reached the FA cup semifinal to only lose to Watford in a close extra time scrap, the Wolves had a season to cherish. They finished best of the rest in the Premier League at 7th position.

The Wolves managed to snag the same outcome the following season, albeit using a different route. The team consistently won its easy fixtures and managed to beat only Manchester City of the ‘Big Six’. Yet they managed to finish tied on points with Tottenham, who edged ahead on a goal difference, which is goals scored against subtracted from goals scored for. The Tottenham Hotspurs were up by a difference of just 3.

Joy Cometh in the Morning

After lying dormant for nearly four decades, to coming back to winning the Championship in style, getting promoted and giving every premier league side a run for their money, you could call the Wolves’ a resurgence. More often than not, wealthy owners have often been on the firing end of the fans when it comes to progressing the club. Fosun International, however, has given Wolves fans far too little to complain about. 

Who knows, had they not struggled the way they did at the end of last season, we could have even heard the Champions League anthem play at the Molineux next season. It’s safe to say, for the time being, that the Wolves are a force to be reckoned with. If Fosun keeps working for them the way they have, the Premier League could be looking at a ‘Big Seven’ in the future.

Written by Gautam Marathe for MTTN

Featured Image by Suhash Pokuri for MTTN

Images Sourced from The Shropshire Star and The Wolverhampton Wanderers

Edited by Avaneesh Jai Damaraju for MTTN

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