Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Wolves should plan for a future without Nuno
“I will never mention an issue that’s not a reality.”
When Nuno Espirito Santo was pressed into a comment this week regarding speculation linking him with the Arsenal manager’s job, he played the question with the straightest of bats.
Supporters should be neither reassured nor concerned by his response. He gave nothing away and is no likelier to stay or go based on those words.
Whatever the future, the issue that really needs addressing for Wolves is succession planning. Long before this week Wolves should have been mapping out a future without Nuno, so that when the day arrives they are not caught cold.
This has not always been a strong point at the club during the 21st century. Since Dave Jones – the first manager to take Wolves into the modern-day Premier League – there have been nine permanent appointments under three different ownerships, including Fosun. Only a third of those could be described as a success, a poor return for a club which has had solid foundations in place over the last two decades.
Wolves could have saved themselves a great deal of trouble if a long-term vision had been in place at various times during that period.
Succession planning does not have to be Machiavellian.
It is about more than ringing up unemployed managers while the current incumbent goes through a sticky patch.
Conversations have taken place at Liverpool about a future without Jurgen Klopp, a manager who has just delivered the Champions League and has an eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League. Klopp understands this, having indicated he wants a break after his current contract expires.
When exactly Nuno goes is anyone’s guess.
He has shown commitment to the ‘project’ at Molineux. He enjoys working with Fosun, building something from the beginning.
And he has been backed year on year in the transfer market. The facilities are improving around him and, with players like Joao Moutinho signing long contract extensions, there is every sign that the head coach is in it for the long haul. With the team through to the knockout stages of the Europa League there is further incentive to remain.
At Wolves if there is progress there is opportunity, but it is going to be increasingly hard for the club to satisfy Nuno’s ambitions with each passing season.
Wolves have made great strides under Fosun, but they are miles away from the bigger clubs when it comes to the sort of infrastructure the top coaches enjoy.
When Jose Mourinho arrived for his first day of work at Spurs last week and found himself still at the training ground late into the evening, he decided to spend the night there. The accommodation lodge at Hotspur Way contains 40 en-suite bedrooms, a restaurant, gym and hydrotherapy spa.
“If you are trying to find a six-star hotel, you could not find better than here,” he said. The first team and academy squads have 15 high-spec pitches to train on, compared to three at Wolves of a similar standard. Spurs’ home matches take place at a £1billion multi-purpose stadium.
It is unreasonable to expect Nuno’s head never to be turned by opportunity elsewhere. Especially when he has an agent as powerful as Jorge Mendes.
The void left behind when Nuno departs will be significant. He will take his entourage with him. Namely, assistant head coach Rui Pedro Silva, first team coach Julio Figueroa, assistant first team coach Joao Lapa, goalkeeping coach Rui Barbosa and fitness coach Antonio Dias. First team coach Ian Cathro has chosen his own path away from Nuno in the past, but there would be no guarantee he would remain, or be asked to. Such a high turnover of staff requires a thorough recruitment structure to be in place when it comes to replacements. What makes the choice of the next head coach and backroom team a fascinating one is the process involved.
Because of the Mendes connection, there are two strands to the recruitment process. The last manager appointed before Fosun, Kenny Jackett, was principally brought to the club by chief executive Jez Moxey and head of football development and recruitment Kevin Thelwell.
When Jackett departed, Thelwell was not utilised as the new owners – on Mendes’s advice – identified Julen Lopetegui, only to be left high and dry at the 11th hour by the Spaniard, before turning to Walter Zenga.
When that did not work out Thelwell, by now sporting director, led the recruitment of Paul Lambert. The Scot was not given much opportunity, and was replaced six months later. Thelwell played no significant part in Fosun’s next move as the owners turned to Mendes once more, with the agent identifying Nuno.
Since then Thelwell’s role at the club has been strengthened with his appointment to the board of directors alongside Fosun’s representatives; chairman Jeff Shi and director Sky Sun, who comes from a sports marketing industry background. Respected local businessmen and supporters John Bowater and John Gough make up the board.
Under any normal circumstances, Thelwell would be expected to drive the recruitment process, working closely with Shi.
But the influence of Mendes will likely be more significant.
Will Fosun rely solely on his input – as they did with Nuno - or will there be a more holistic process with the sporting director and others?
In one sense it does not really matter if the outcome is successful. But it is hugely important that the discussions about a future direction have been taking place for some time. Wolves cannot afford to be reactive on this matter.
With Unai Emery sacked at Arsenal, the noise around Nuno is getting louder. For now, it is speculation. But he will leave at some point in the future. After a faltering start, Fosun have shown they can get it spectacularly right when choosing a head coach.
The next pick will be the truest test of their ownership yet.