Wolverhampton Wanderers: On Promotion & Agency
The last few years haven’t been terribly kind to the football clubs of the West Midlands. Aston Villa have been dragged down into the Championship and are finding getting back up out of it to be more a challenge than they might have expected. Birmingham City were relegated seven years ago and have only ever fleetingly looked like making their way back since then. West Bromwich Albion may have won at Old Trafford yesterday but seem to be hurtling towards the same fate. And the less said about Coventry City, the better. At the very top of the Championship, however, sit the outlier. After an absence of six years that have seen two relegations and one promotion, Wolverhampton Wanderers will be back in the Premier League season, and few will argue that this year’s team deserves no less – for its performances on the pitch, at least.
It was striking that the cherry on the cake that marked their promotion should have come through a moment of high drama that was really nothing to do with them. Going into Saturday evening’s match with Brentford, Fulham already knew that they needed all three points in order to prevent the league leaders from being mathematically guaranteed promotion. As the match ticked over into stoppage time they led by a goal to nil before a close range header from Neal Maupay silenced Craven Cottage and sent a corner of the Black Country into rapture instead. As such, there was no tension around Molineux on Sunday lunchtime as Wolves brushed Bimingham City aside with the minimum of effort to underline their return to the top flight. A single point from their final three league matches will seal the title, as well.
There has of course, been criticism of the way in which Fosun International, the Chinese group that purchased the club a little under two years ago, have bankrolled promotion to the Premier League, and in particular their close connections to Gestifute, the talent agency run by Jorge Mendes, in which a 20% share is owned by Guo Guangchang, the chairman of Fosun. FA rules on the matter state that, “[An] entity with an interest in a club shall not have any interest in the business or affairs of an intermediary or an intermediary’s organisation”, where an “interest” is defined as, “interest” as owning a 5% stake or more in said organisation or “being in a position or having any association that may enable the exercise of a material, financial, commercial, administrative, managerial or any other influence over the affairs of the club whether directly or indirectly and whether formally or informally.”
It is understood that the FA and the Football League were satisfied by this arrangement because the shareholding is held by Guangchang rather than Fosun International, and the ownership structure of the club was approved two years ago, prior to completion of the sale of the club to Fosun but after the company engaged the services of Mendes in order to identify a club in England to purchase. Complaints about the ownership of the club were low while Wolves were floundering towards the wrong end of the Championship table during the 2016/17 season, but their ascent to the top of the Championship has seen them become increasingly amplified over the course of this season, particularly from the owner of Leeds United, Andrea Radrizzani. It’s easy, of course, to dismiss the complaints of other Championship clubs as falling somewhere between gamesmanship and jealousy (the idea of any football club seeking to be a moral arbiter over anything financial is a somewhat laughable concept), but they become more difficult to dismiss when governing bodies become involved.
There is certainly something curious about the Premier League seeking clarification of FA and Football League rules when both bodies approved the takeover some time ago. Perhaps they feel that the links between all concerned were sufficiently loose two years ago but that they aren’t any more, but if that was the case, shouldn’t it have rested on the shoulders of the FA and the Football League to have investigated any changes and informed the club? Should the criteria by which a change in this relationship might be considered to have become problematic have been detailed at the time of the original approval?
The very fact that such a conversation needs to even be held after a club has won promotion hint at the possibility that the FA’s rules on this matter are at best not clear enough. The “relationship” is fairly clearly defined above. If that “relationship” has changed in practical terms, why hasn’t this been policed? Is it the responsibility of the governing bodies to police situations such as this, or does it ultimately fall upon the club to put a greater amount of clear blue water between itself and “intermediaries” such as Mendes than Wolves may have done?
It’s a complex and muddy issue, and the small matter of the risk of conflicts of interest which may arise as agents become more closely enmeshed into the fabric and structures of the game should be obvious. This is why it’s important that rules are in place regarding this matter. The Premier League’s intervention over Wolves’ ownership structure, however, is a little surprising. The league didn’t sanction Leicester City or Bournemouth over breaking Football League Financial Fair Play rules in order to get into the Premier League, after all. Might they be concerned that the complexities of this matter will attract the interest of UEFA? Could it be that there are Premier League clubs who are concerned at the promotion of a club that might have its sights set a little higher than just finishing above seventeenth place in the table?
It’s impossible to say, but what sticks out like a sore thumb is that this degree of confusion over ownership rules does not reflect particularly well upon the rules themselves. It’s unlikely that, in the event that some degree of wrongdoing is found on the part of the club, that Wolves would be denied promotion – that would be unprecedented in the Premier League’s twenty-six years – though it wouldn’t be surprising if the club ended up being required to sever all links and connections with Mendes – Geo Guangchang divesting himself of his shareholding in Gestifute would seem a likely upshot of all this – except players represented by him. The club consistently plays down Mendes’ influence at Molineux, despite confirming the signing of players “connected” to Mendes and officials more than once describing him again this week as an “adviser” or “close friend” to chairman Jeff Shi and the club having issued a statement in 2017 including the comment that, “It is a matter of public record that Fosun have a percentage stake in the Gestifute company headed up by Jorge Mendes.”
Fosun’s time in charge of the club hasn’t been without other issues of its own, either. Last season began with the baffling appointment of Walter Zenga as the team’s head coach and this, when that decision inevitably backfired, which was followed by the similarly lacklustre choice of Paul Lambert into the manager’s position, led to a distinctly underwhelming 2016/17 season. The team had its moments in the FA Cup, knocking Stoke City and Liverpool out away from home before finally succumbing to Chelsea in the Fifth Round of the competition, but league form continued to stall and the club still found itself hovering dangerously close to the relegation places before a run of five consecutive wins last spring finally hauled them up to the lower-mid-table respectability of a fifteenth-placed finish.
The club pulled its first true ace from Gestifute’s sleeve at the end of May last year, when the decision was made to appoint Mendes client Nuno Espírito Santo as its new manager at the end of May. Espírito Santo’s record – taking Rayo Ave into the Europa League for the first time, a fourth placed finish in La Liga with Valencia, and a single season with no silverware at Porto – was reasonably impressive over a period of five years and he’s has been an exuberant presence in the Championship this season, but few predicted the extent of his impact at that time of his arrival. Under his tutelage, Wolves arrived at the top of the table in the middle of October with a win against Aston Villa and, with only one small jolt a couple of weeks later following a defeat at Queens Park Rangers, has been there ever since.
A manager alone, however, cannot win a team promotion. Ruben Neves, the young midfielder who cost them £15.8m last summer from Porto and who has served as the creative dynamo through which so much of the team’s best football has been played this season (and who has widely been reported as a Mendes client even though he’s not listed one on the FA’s list of player signings), confirmed his desire to stay at Molineux at a point when he might have been forgiven wondering whether somebody bigger might come in for him, whilst Diego Jota signed on loan for the club from Atletico Madrid but agreed in January to make his signature permanent come the end of the season. The result has been a team as pleasing to the eye as it has been successful in terms of getting results, while the way in which it bounced back from a small wobble at the end of February – when they lost two out of three Championship matches, against Fulham and Aston Villa – hints at a strength of character that those who cling to such ideas might not necessarily have expected from “mercenaries.”
The Football League Championship is, of course, a battlefield littered with the corpses of those who believed it would be easy. Premier League parachute payments have softened the financial blows facing those relegated from it, and the performances of those relegated in recent years has been, on the whole, so abject that few even heavily critical of this form of subsidy for former Premier League members. Only one of the twelve clubs currently in the bottom half of the Championship has never played Premier League football, and that one club, Burton Albion, was playing non-league football less than ten years ago. Ambition has come to manifest itself in very different ways in this division in recent years, and there have been considerably more failures than there have been successes.
In other words, getting the peculiarities of the Championship right is difficult – as Wolves themselves found when their three seasons in the Premier League between 2010 and 2012 ended in two successive relegations, straight through to League One – and there has been plenty of proof of this all around them over the course of this season. Regardless of what happens concerning the club’s ownership and its links to Mendes, though, it seems unlikely that Wolves supporters will be taking too much for granted now that their club is – presumably – back in the Premier League.
This is, after all, a club with a very long history of relative ups and downs. They were runners-up to the champions of England in both 1938 and 1939, less than a decade and a half after winning the Third Division North championship. Their last English league championship came in 1959, but six years later they were relegated into the Second Division. In 1980, they finished in sixth place in the First Division and won the League Cup. By 1986, they were relegated to the Fourth Division and teetering on the brink of closure. Through various owners over the last three or four decades, from the infamous Bhatti brothers of the 1980s, through Jack Hayward and his largesse to the underwhelming ownership of Steve Morgan, this is a club that has been made promises of jam tomorrow more than once in recent years, and which has often subsequently felt a little weighed down by the successes of an increasingly dim and distant past.
Perhaps there arrives a point when that burden of history ceases to be the albatross around the neck of a football club that it so often seems to be. It feels entirely plausible that success from the past can create a sense of tension within a group of players that may, in a division in which the ability of the players can all form under the banner of “varying degrees of excellence”, prove to be the difference between picking up those few extra points over the course of a season. The number of people that can remember Wolves’ glory years of the 1950s is now starting to rapidly diminish, and this might even have improved the atmosphere around the club.
None of this is to say that the achievements of the past and those that delivered them – names such as Stan Cullis, Billy Wright and Ron Flowers are rightfully names whose significance within the history of football in England will continue to echo through the ages – should simply be forgotten. That should – and most likely can – never be forgotten. They do, after all, form a fundamental parts of a football club’s identity. But removing the last vestiges of pressure from the shoulders of players who represent the club seems likely to be healthy for all concerned.
Identity, however, is largely a matter for supporters. Football clubs have been passed around for the purposes of making a profit and the social advantages that owning one conveys for as long as the game has involved money, and this has only accelerated in recent years. Wolves have been walking a fine line over the issues now being raised over their ownership and their relationship to Jorge Mendes for the last couple of years, and it’s difficult to believe that no-one at all within the club would be that surprised by a renewed interest in the club once Premier League status had been achieved.
That said, however, this feels like an example of something that we’ve seen time and time again within European football – a football club pushing and pushing against the boundaries placed upon them by rules of competition – and it becomes difficult to take the complaints of other clubs terribly seriously after Andrea Radrizzani ended with him saying, “Not legal and fair to let one team owned by a fund who has shares in the biggest players’ agency with evident benefits (top European clubs giving players with options to buy)… why the other 23 teams can’t have the same treatment?”
The game’s governing bodies, however, are a different matter. The Premier League’s comments on Wolves’ ownership have thus far been oblique enough for them to be interpreted in any way that we choose. This may be little more than a box checking exercise. It could be something more. What is clear is that Wolves’ startling success over the course of this season has had an effect. It seems inconceivable that other clubs won’t be looking at what they can do to do mimic this model, and it has already been reported that Everton, who are currently looking for a new Director of Football, are interested in talking to Marcel Brands of PSV, who has close links to Mino Raiola, the agent who represents players such as Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mikhitaryan and Romelu Lukaku.
Perhaps what we’re now witnessing the beginning of what could become a perpetual game of cat and mouse between governing bodies and clubs as the latter seek out loopholes which allow them to avail themselves of the services of agents until such a point that said loophole is closed. All of this might lead us to the question of whether Wolverhampton Wanderers might end up being trailblazers or collateral damage in a battle of wills between club owners and those that run the game. At this time, though, it is difficult to avoid the question of how Mendes’ involvement at Molineux doesn’t constitute “being in a position or having any association that may enable the exercise of a material, financial, commercial, administrative, managerial or any other influence over the affairs of the club whether directly or indirectly and whether formally or informally”, and the conundrum that is in turn raises is this: if the links between Wolves and Jorge Mendes truly are as clear as it feels that they are… then why is this conversation even necessary, almost two years after the sale of the club? Wolverhampton Wanderers may or may not have questions to answer about this, but if they do, then surely both the Football Association the Football League do as well.