Wolverhampton Wanderers 2017 – Part III – Let The Games Begin

Wolves Fans

To say it has been a year of contrast for us Wolves fans is a one hell of an understatement as we’ve gone from Paul ‘Did I tell you I played in Germany’ Lambert to Nuno Espirito Santo, Nouha Dicko to Diogo Jota and Dave Edwards to Ruben Neves to name just three changes which shows you how much has changed at Molineux in twelve months. In part three of four, we will be looking at Nuno’s first transfer window of the club and an astute start to competitive football which includes a rare run in the Carabao Cup.

July

There was a sense of optimism in the air as the transfer window opened because it was a complete unknown entity because Fosun took over in late July in 2016 meaning the club was in a state of limbo for the first three weeks of July and no one really knew whether they were coming or going. This time around though, they had a full window with their first choice manager, so the possibilities were quite literally endless.

On the opening day of July one of the biggest issues we had been having for a number of years was a lack of a natural left back was finally addressed as Scotsman, Barry Douglas, was brought in from Konyaspor and I like many others was wondering who the hell he was, but, as would become the norm throughout the transfer window, you’d learn to trust Nuno. On the same day as Douglas arrived, a fringe player, Ibrahim Keita joined Finn Harps on a free transfer so it was a case of one in and one out on the opening day, more of the same, please!

With all the transfer talk and what have you, it can take you away from what’s important at times and on a very sobering day, our first choice goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia, which slapped everyone around the face and made people realise what was actually important as if someone who is as fit as Ikeme can be diagnosed with something as harrowing as that, then it can happen to anyone. It really made everyone step back and think. He’s on the mend, thankfully and I think I speak on behalf of every Wolves fan when I say nothing would make me happier than seeing Carl on the pitch at the end of the season lifting the Championship trophy.

We had to wait a full week after the Barry Douglas transfer for the next one, but my word was it worth waiting for. We spent over FIFTEEN MILLION on one player. What a club, making a complete mockery of financial fair play, although it isn’t all dealt with on one transfer, which some people seem to struggle to comprehend. Anyway, back on point, the player we signed was Ruben Neves, who was again, not a name I was particularly familiar with, but he arrived as the youngest ever captain in the UEFA Champions League and there were rumblings that teams in the Premier League were after him, but, Porto’s financial irregularities allowed us to get him at a snip of what he is actually worth. I tell you something, he is mustard. We also signed Willy Boly on loan on the same day from Porto, again, no idea who he was. However, we had signed five players so far and four of them were defenders. Easy to see which part of the team Nuno was prioritising.

On the back of the Ikeme news, we needed to address the goalkeeping situation as I don’t think anyone could cope with another season of Andy Lonergan in between the sticks. Two keepers followed within two days and first up was England international (yes he’s only got one cap, who cares?) John Ruddy who became the second player after Ryan Bennett to join from Norwich on a free transfer; he came with a wealth of experience and was exactly the sort of keeper we needed. He was then followed by the highly rated Will Norris who arrived for an undisclosed fee from Cambridge United, he was first brought to our attention when he saved a penalty at Molineux the season before.

The 12th of July saw our preseason campaign kick off in Austria as we faced Werder Bremen and I’m not going to go into the details of the friendlies as they are just that friendlies, but a strike from Nouha Dicko saw us win 1-0 and Neves make his debut and some of his pings were unreal. On the same day, James Henry left for Oxford on a free transfer, such is how far we’ve progressed, he was one of our best wide players in seasons gone by, but I didn’t even bat an eyelid when he left. A couple of days later, there was a trio of departures as Bodvarsson left for Reading after a mediocre at best season for us, Iorfa left for Ipswich on loan and Ebanks-Landell left for MK Dons in what was also a loan move.

Next up in our tour of Austria was Czechoslovakian side Viktoria Plzen and again, Dicko was on the scoresheet as we came away with a 2-1 victory, Doherty getting the other goal. Nuno had really hit the ground running as he was trying to implement a 3-4-3 or 5-2-3 dependant on which way you look at it and it was a breath of fresh air in comparison to the shower of shit we had to watch under Lambert. We did, however, lose the next two games against FK Jablonec and Shrewsbury respectively but Nuno was keen to stress that it wasn’t the results that were important, it was more to do with the performances, which on the whole, weren’t too bad. In between the two defeats we made our second loan signing of the window as Ruben Vinagre, who was yet to play a game of first-team football, signed on a season-long loan from Monaco.

Despite the activity in the transfer window, there was still no sign of the elusive striker which was beginning to make me worry again, as I’ve said though, I trust Nuno to do the right thing, despite it dragging on and on. On the 25th of the month, we made a signing that was just ridiculous and on par with the Neves coup. Diogo Jota came from Atletico Madrid on a season-long loan after plying his trade on loan with Nuno’s Porto the season before, we were in the process of building something of a superteam, yet still without the striker. On the same day that Jota signed, we played Peterborough at London Road and sixteen-year-old Austin Samuels scored off the bench to give us a 1-0 victory, maybe he was the answer to our striking problem?

The day after the win at Peterborough saw two more departures as Niall Ennis left for Shrewsbury and Mike Williamson left on a free to join James Henry at Oxford; on that weekend, we saw off Leicester at Molineux in what was our final friendly. Ivan Cavaleiro got the only goal of the game in a match that we dominated and thoroughly deserved to win. The football on show in WV1 was a far contrast to that which was being played on the final day of the previous season and left Wolves fans filled with promise.

August

August began in the best possible way as we finally signed a striker! Hallelujah! Leo Bonatini arrived on loan from Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal and yet again, I had no idea who we were signing, but, I was just happy that we signed a striker, he could have been a reincarnation of Emile Heskey for all I knew. He came with a pedigree of having a half decent record in the Portuguese league and also flirted with the Juventus academy, so he must be a bit of alright. Our opening game of the Championship season would see us up against Middlesbrough who were new to the league after getting relegated from the Premier League, so it was going to be a tough game.

Bonatini was chucked straight in the deep end as he started up front which Dicko would have found harsh especially considering his scoring record during preseason, but Nuno’s decision was shown as the correct one as Bonatini scored the only goal of the game on his debut to give us three points in what was a tight game that could have really gone either way. A statement of intent was issued with the win though as it would make people sit up and take note.

The Carabao Cup was next on the agenda and Yeovil arrived at Molineux on the back of an 8-2 defeat so it was thought that we should get a few goals under our belt, that wasn’t the case, however. We had 81% of the ball, but there wasn’t that many clear-cut chances as we ended up winning the game with a solitary goal for the second game running; Nouha Dicko netting midway through the second half. It was a much-changed Wolves side as Nuno was looking at his squad, but it was nice to progress to the next round as opposed to going out to Northampton which always seemed to happen in previous years.

We travelled to Derby next time around and were on a mission to rectify the abortion of a performance that we had put in on the final away game of the season previous and we did just that as Barry Douglas got off the mark in after his effort from about twelve yards out was deflected past Scott Carson in the home goal. Following on from that, a smart save from Ruddy kept us in the lead and Bonatini should have really made it 2-0 to us after some smart interplay with Diogo Jota saw Jota hit the post and Bonatini blazed the rebound over the bar when he should’ve done better.

An electric counter-attack saw us double our lead as Bright played it to Jota who drove forward with the ball and instead of going for the glory himself, he squared to Cavaleiro who finished with aplomb to make amends for his red card in the same fixture last season. It was a game where our quality really shone through and it was only Nuno’s third competitive game, it was rather exciting, to say the least.  

Hull were the next opponents as we travelled to Humberside, it was our first game in our sky blue third kit, which I have to say, is gorgeous. So is our away kit actually as we did rather well with our kits this season which makes a refreshing change. We got off to a fantastic start as Neves put one in the top bin from thirty yards out to put us one up. The ghost of last season came back to haunt us later on in the game as we conceded from a set piece which was of farcical circumstances as we failed to clear our lines and Dawson drew Hull level. Before the half was over and done with, Jota put us back in the lead after some terrific wide play by Bright saw him give it Jota on a plate where he couldn’t really miss. 2-1.

Another blistering counter-attack made the game safe in stoppage time as Cavaleiro set Dicko free who coolly finished under McGregor in the Hull goal, the counter-attack would become part of our game throughout the season as we had pace to burn in the final third. There was still time for Hull to get a goal back in the 100th minute of the game as we gave a downright stupid penalty away and it was put just out of Ruddy’s reach, but we held on for a superb 3-2 win.

Blips are always going to happen. It’s just not that good when the blip comes at the hands of Cardiff and Neil fucking Warnock. Midfield man Joe Ralls put the ‘Bluebirds’ one up and it could have been a lot worse had Ruddy not continued to prove he was part man, part octopus in the Wolves goal as he kept Cardiff out. Bonatini scored at Molineux again as he looked to have given us a share of the spoils but the in-form Mendez-Laing had the last laugh as the ex-Wolves player gave Cardiff the three points and maintained their 100% start to the season whilst getting rid of ours.

Joe Mason was the next player to depart Molineux as he left on loan for Burton Albion as we got rid of yet another striker, yet we had still only signed Bonatini who could play up front, as I keep saying though, I trust Nuno. On the same day Mason left, we travelled to Southampton in the Carabao Cup as we fielded a much-changed side with Nuno obviously prioritising the league. Captain, Batth gave us the lead after the interval and then in the dying embers of the game Donovan Wilson finished like a seasoned pro to double our lead and claim a Premier League scalp. On the charge.

The month closed off with a trip to London and Griffin Park as Brentford were our opposition; there’s not an awful lot to write about when it comes to that match as we fired blanks in a 0-0 draw on what was a tight pitch. We should have come away with the three points, but the Brentford keeper performed very well meaning that we finished the month with ten points from five games which kept us on course for the magic two points a game.

There was the normal antics as the transfer window come to a close, we let Dicko join Hull as everyone thought that must mean we must be signing a striker and Edwards finally left Molineux as he went to join Reading at the Madejski. Our only incoming transfer was N’Diaye who joined on a season-long loan from Villareal on deadline day meaning that Bonatini was our only senior striker going into the campaign which was slightly alarming, but Nuno know what he’s doing, I think… August Final Position: 4th | Points from the top: 5 | Points from the bottom: 8 | Total points: 10.

September

Another London side were our opponents for our first game of September as Millwall came to the Black Country and the Jota, Bonatini combination worked its magic again as Jota finished brilliantly to put us one nil up and that was that for the game as it fizzled out after Millwall were reduced to ten men. The Millwall keeper made seven saves to keep the score at one and always make it so that Millwall had the chance to get back into the game. Ruddy, once again, made more than one smart stop to keep them at bay and it ended up being a good, strong start to September.

We had another home game shortly afterwards as Bristol City came to town and a topsy-turvy encounter saw the spoils rightly shared at Molineux in what was an entertaining six-goal thriller in the first league game of the season under the lights at Molineux. Bonatini gave us the lead in what was becoming typical Bonatini finish as he tapped home after being in the right place at the right time before Flint, who was clearly going to be a threat then as well, scored after we failed to clear a set piece which should shock no one.

Jota, who reacted first to a flick on from Bonatini after a corner, tucked it away to put us back in the lead after having a belting shot saved in the first half. Bristol City were then awarded a penalty as Vinagre forgot what sport he was playing and whacked the ball away in the penalty area which gave the ‘Robins’ more than ample chance to level for the second time. Diedhou did Ruddy with the eyes as he sent the England International the wrong way to make honours even once again.

The ball was then back up the other end as Jota was once again causing havoc in the Bristol City penalty area and this time it was the crossbar that was preventing him from doubling his tally for the evening after his rasping drive cannoned back off the bar before City dealt with the danger. Down the other end, Flint was causing bedlam again as he leapt highest from a corner and we once again forgot how to defend as the ball ended up at the feet of Bobby Reid who gave City the lead for the first time.

Ironically, with five minutes left, Batth equalised from a set play of our own as he was left completely unmarked as he headed smartly past Fielding in the City goal. That was that shortly afterwards as the referee called time on the game. Four points from two games so far in September, not too bad at all. A date with Midlands rivals Nottingham Forest was next up as Nuno would be hoping for a similar performance to the one that saw us come away from Derby with all three points.

Jota was the star of the show as he and Bonatini combined with each other yet again which made sure that we came away from the City Ground with all three points; the first of his two goals saw him convert after a fantastic cross from Cavaleiro and the second goal was all to do with Diogo’s desire to get to the ball first as Bonatini was cruelly taken down after laying it off to Jota whose composure was there for all to see as he put it beyond the keeper. In between Jota’s brace, Forest scored with a goal that Ruddy was hopelessly caught out by, but in the end, it made no difference as we moved up to second in the league.

We were back to cup football yet again as Bristol Rovers travelled from the West Country to Wolverhampton and they gave as good as they got as Will Norris, who continued his run of cup games, played out of his skin to prevent Bristol Rovers from scoring. In the end, it was goalless after ninety minutes which meant that an extra half an hour was on the cards and penalties if the deadlock could not be broken. Bright got the solitary goal of the game after being played through by Barry Douglas in the eighth minute of extra time in what turned out to be a very good workout for our second string. I tell you what though, maybe we’ve got a chance if we get a decent draw in the next round. Who did we get? Man City away. Shit. Maybe next year.

Our last home game of the month and of this part of the review was against Barnsley and the first half was really a case of what might have been as we didn’t force Davies in the Barnsley goal to make a single save and it was, in fact, Ruddy at the other end who had to make a smart save down to his right to keep the score at 0-0 as the game reached halftime. In the second half, Nuno earnt his pennies as he brought on Enobakhare and N’Diaye and it was those two that made the difference; in N’Diaye’s first action of the game, he crossed to Enobakhare who made it two goals in two games with a clever finish, that was with ten minutes left. If you think that was the end of it, then you are mistaken.

Some awful defensive work from a set piece (AGAIN) let Barnsley equalise just as the clock passed the ninety-minute mark which looked set to give the ‘Tykes’ an impressive away point, but that was not all, not just yet. Bonatini passed without looking to N’Diaye who slid home to send Molineux into raptures in the 94th minute to give us a win in a game we would have drawn under previous management, cough, Lambert, cough. A superb victory in a game where we went at our best,

Bramall Lane was the next venue, but we are not going to dwell on it too much as it was a night I’d rather forget because Coady got sent off after fifteen minutes, ex-Wolves striker Leon Clarke scored twice and Neves missed a penalty in a game we lost 2-0. That was that; we move on.

Nuno has an uncanny ability of getting us to bounce back after defeats, though and when we arrived at Burton, I actually felt quite sorry for them, not only because they had our ex-CEO Jez Moxey at their club, but also because they were going to be dealt a backlash of all backlashes after the Sheffield United game. The first half was football porn at its vintage best, Jota, Saiss and Vinagre scored in the first half to have the game all but won at halftime and we were playing some superb stuff without really getting going. Vinagre’s goal was his first ever in senior football and the sheer delight on his face was plain for all to see, it was also excellent to see the way that everyone came together to celebrate it as well.

The fourth and final goal was the best of the bunch and a divine way to end the month. Doherty drove up the right-hand side before playing in Cavaleiro who sold their defender down the river with a superb Cruyff turn, then gave it back to Doherty who laid it off to Bonatini who arrowed it into the roof of the net. It was a masterpiece. That sees the end of this part of the review as we finished September second in the table. September Final Position: 2nd | Points from the top: 1 | Points from the bottom: 21 | Overall points: 23.

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