Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: A golden era ends at Wolves – now Fosun have to get it right

A week on, and the dust has not settled on Nuno Espirito Santo’s exit from Wolves.

Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo after his final game in charge
Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo after his final game in charge

Supporters grieved a loss, players and coaches moved to tears, and staff left shell-shocked at the sudden departure which brought a close to a remarkable four-year spell in charge.

Not since Steve Bull changed the face of the football club in the late 1980s has one man had such an existential impact here.

Very few managers get to leave their position through the front door, head held high, as Nuno did last Sunday. There will never be another farewell like that.

With the head coach’s office cleared, and a certain emptiness at Compton Park, the search for a replacement continues. For all Fosun’s success so far, their reputation going forward may hinge on this appointment and the summer transfer business that follows.

After the emotional scenes of last weekend, now is the time for a pragmatic and thorough recruitment process.

A number of intermediaries representing UK-based managers have privately expressed disquiet that the eventual appointment will be a Mendes-led Portuguese. Their concern is that even if their man got in front of Chairman Jeff Shi and the senior management, they would not be competing for the job on level terms.

The club would be wrong not to consider other options, and the recruitment process this time will not be the closed shop it was when Nuno arrived four years ago. There are other high profile European and British managers out of work as well as several more occupying other posts who would be open to an approach.

There are strong arguments in both directions. Should Wolves continue down the Portuguese route, with the influence of Gestifute, then disruption will be minimal. Nuno and his backroom team put down strong principles during their four years here and this is now a club with the infrastructure in place to thrive under Portuguese management, with a strong representation of Portuguese players.

In these times the odds compilers go to town on potential targets, whether they have expressed interest in the job or not.

Frank Lampard, Eddie Howe, Maurizio Sarri and Rafa Benitez all have Premier League experience, are out of work and have been priced up. But the four have such different styles of management, they could not possibly all be in the running.

Consideration has been given to Lampard but it will take a substantial shift in the sands for some initial enquiries to turn into anything more concrete.

The current thinking is unlikely to move away from either Bruno Lage, who met with Shi in London on Monday, or another candidate with Mendes’s fingerprints on the paperwork.

It is a fluid process, though, and life moves quickly in this industry. As each day passes, the waiting and debating becomes more intense for supporters.

The new head coach will work under the current structure in place, where he will be expected to coach the players in front of him rather than have a strong hand in the recruitment process. Nuno never quite managed to find contentment with that. As the 2020/21 season drew to a close, it became clear the role would not be as he wanted going forward.

The rebuilding of the first team is arguably just as important as the managerial appointment itself.

With a major international tournament taking place, and a need to generate transfer funds through sales, Wolves’ business is likely to be done late in the window.

Several core first team players, like Rui Patricio, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho and Romain Saiss are expected to move on if the terms are right. This will generate income but leave a significant void on the pitch.

The new manager will have his own targets but Mendes will have an influential hand in summer signings again.

The agent rubber-stamped trust from the moment he placed Neves and Diogo Jota in front of Fosun in the summer of 2017. There were no reasons to doubt the wisdom of the link up from that moment onwards. As if to emphasis the point, Joao Moutinho arrived for £5million the following year. Wolves fans could not believe such a world class player had arrived at that price, in the same week that Stoke City paid a higher fee to West Bromwich Albion for James McClean.

But those phenomenal deals appear to have dried up. Shi argues that Wolves are still receiving value for money in their business, with young recruits arriving full of potential and not yet at their peak. Fans see it differently, with many looking for more instant hits.

The loan market is again seen as a sensible and practical option for reshaping the squad, and with so many of Wolves’ current employees out on loan there will be no shortage of discussions.

With the expected departures this summer, the club have confirmed there is a genuine willingness to look at proven English players, too. We may be about to witness a more collective approach to recruitment.

It is unrealistic to expect enough players to step up from the junior levels. While Nuno appreciated utilising those from the Under-23s in his daily training sessions, there was never that same trust in first team matches.

There are hopes for Theo Corbeanu, Christian Marques and Owen Otasowie but they do not get a game in a Wolves side with ambitions of European football.

Dion Sanderson has made a favourable impression with League One Sunderland, and has attracted firm interest from other clubs, but he is nowhere near Premier League standard yet.

That side of the club serves another purpose, with the aim to create a self-sustaining business that can generate useful income, if players do not break into the first team.

Financial regulations are an issue on two fronts. The Premier League’s profit and sustainability rules are ongoing for all 20 clubs, but qualifying for the Europa League in 2019 put Wolves into UEFA’s financial remit too.

The club failed to comply with a break-even requirement during the 2019-20 season, although settlement agreements are in place with UEFA to meet this criteria down the line to avoid a further fine. In that continent-trekking 2019/20 season Wolves posted a £39.3million loss.

With the added burden of the pandemic costs and the complication of new post-Brexit transfer regulations – Pedro Neto could not have been signed if Brexit had happened two years earlier – this promises to be the most challenging time for the club since Julen Lopetegui reneged on an agreement to become Fosun’s first head coach back in 2016.

The chaotic transfer dealings that followed that summer will not be repeated. Shi stresses that Fosun and those in charge of the football side of the business should be trusted to get on with it.

Technical director, Scott Sellars, and general manager of football operations, Matt Wild, have many years’ knowledge and experience. They will need every ounce of that to help plot a path which ends with a stronger Wolves first team in August.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, the next managerial appointment will take some getting used to. The end was always going to come one day for Nuno, but the break still feels raw and clinical, especially as it was not of his own instigation.

“I’m at home now” he said in January, after donating £250,000 of his own money to Feed Our Pack, literally putting food on the plates of this community’s most vulnerable.

There were others in Nuno’s backroom team who spoke of Wolverhampton as home, too. A unique bond formed and strengthened over four years.

It was desperately sad that this season played out with a physical barrier between Nuno and supporters. Each losing their driving force and inspiration.

The sterile behind-closed-doors existence sapped the joy and imagination from our game.

With life on hold through the pandemic, there was only consolation in memories of better days.

The last time Wolves won in front of their supporters was away at Tottenham Hotspur on March 1st last year. A swashbuckling 3-2 victory, capped with a stunning Raul Jimenez winner. The match took place just three days after fans had turned La Rambla gold and black in Barcelona.

Those trips symbolised everything Nuno achieved. Adventure and thrills on and off the pitch. Treasure the memories. Nuno gave players, staff and supporters the days of their lives.

Top Stories

More from the Shropshire Star

UK & International News