Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Wolves golden days should be celebrated
It is almost unthinkable that something so recent can seem like a lifetime ago.
Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez combining for one of the goals of the season at the awe-inspiring Tottenham Hotspur Stadium at the start of this month. Thousands of Wolves fans lining a vibrant La Rambla in Barcelona just three days before that Sunday in north London. The possibilities that lay ahead. Nine games remaining to push on in the Premier League. The Europa League down to the last 16 and the very real prospect of progression to the final. But here we are, living in a different world to the one Wolves left on such a high.
If, as Arrigo Sacchi aptly put it, ‘football is the most important of the least important things’, then the least important things are receding into the distance every day. This is an epoch-
defining moment. As the schools shut and a national lockdown becomes ever closer, football supporters have far more consequential concerns. Their homes, their jobs, their families and their lives. Those still arguing about whether the Premier League season can or cannot be finished appear more out of kilter with society with each passing day.
Yet even though our heads tell us that football is not important, our hearts still nag away at that assertion. Even in these most difficult times it is hard to get on board for a life without football. Sacchi’s quote almost covers it, but not quite. As individuals we all have our own relationship with football. It is a unique and personal connection. For some it is more complex than others. There is an element of loss now. The purpose, companionship, structure and sense of belonging that football provides for so many has been whipped from under our feet. That is important.
Wolves fans have waited more than a generation for this. It was all coming together so beautifully. A hugely-gifted and tightly-bonded squad moulded by an elite coaching staff. The domestic and European competition opening up for them. Just look at what had already been achieved this season. A league double against champions Manchester City. Which was more impressive – the win at the Etihad Stadium on the back of a midweek trip to Istanbul or the comeback at Molineux when City were restricted to the lowest percentage possession of any team Pep Guardiola has managed in his career?
The European campaign has been a delight, with supporters compiling an unlikely travelogue watching Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. They have been sent to all corners of the continent and returned as victors. That the players have done it without taking a hit to their domestic form is even more impressive. Wolves have stood up to every test. The only side to get the better of them over both home and away Premier League fixtures has been champions-elect Liverpool. Even in those defeats Wolves more than matched Jurgen Klopp’s side, and in the Molineux meeting played arguably their best football of the season.
At Spurs, Wolves had the strut of a group who belong together, who know how to win against the top teams when not at their best. Class told. It was so enticing; all pointing towards a thrilling final three months of football. And then it stopped.
The thing is, if this season ever does restart – and restarting from where we left off is a best case scenario – then it will not be in the same circumstances as it has been halted. Everything has changed now.
Each club tries to get its players at a certain level of fitness according to the stage a season is at. Just a week into the break, all the Premier League squads have changed their training, with rest and recuperation the order of the day. Their schedules will need to alter significantly in preparation for a return several months later, not the weeks many hoped for.
Speaking with one first-team coach elsewhere this week, he admitted plans were being drawn up on a daily basis in response to the latest developments and that nobody really had much idea about what to do next.
Many Premier League training grounds are on lockdown already. Players can only do so much at home no matter how detailed their personal programmes are. Replicating a team training session is impossible. Sharpness will have dropped already. These will be different players when they return.
For many of us, lives are seemingly frozen in time as we wait helplessly to be told we can move forward again. But it is not really frozen is it? Life will be different for us all and the same is true of footballers. They cannot pick up where they left off. They cannot stop the clock. Joao Moutinho, the most gifted player to pull on a Wolves shirt in the modern era, is halfway through his 34th year. Time is not on his side.
If and when this does resume, Wolves may well have the same personnel, but they will be in a different environment. There is a chance that the Premier League and Europa League campaigns can be finished, and there is a chance that Wolves will be able to find the form they left behind. But, given the daily change to the landscape, there are other outcomes to consider. Nothing will be the same again.
In a football sense, it is hard not to feel saddened. It is a great shame that supporters have been left hanging like this. Wolves were on to something and their fans sensed they were in a special moment in the club’s history.
There could yet be something tangible at the end of the tunnel, but we should be aware that come the time it all resumes life will have moved on in a different way.
Whatever happens, perhaps the important thing with this Wolves of 2019/20 – the truncated version, the one we watched from August till March – is to appreciate everything for what it was. The way they played their football. The smiles this team put on the faces of supporters. If not another ball is kicked this season, then of course it will all have been worth it. Every minute of it. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.