Wolves: Starting As They Mean To Go On?
After several which had felt somewhat eventful, last season was one of mists and mellow fruitfulness for Wolverhampton Wanderers. In 2009, the club had returned to the Premier League after an absence of five years and stayed there for three seasons before being relegated back into the Football League Championship. From here on, something of a rollercoaster period in the club’s history began to take shape. Wolves were relegated for a second successive season before being promoted back from League One with one hundred and three points, narrowly missing out on a place in the play-offs for a place back in the Premier League upon their return in 2014. Last season, by contrast, the club seldom troubled either of the extremities of the Championship table, finishing the season in fourteenth place.
The club’s manager, Kenny Jackett, had performed a solid job over the course of this time after arresting the club’s free-fall upon his appointment in 2013. Jackett may not have been the most exotic name, but he stabilised the club after two straight relegations – and Wolves supporters of a certain age will be all too aware of the last time the club tumbled through the divisions in the mid-1980s, a fall in successive seasons which saw the club go from playing top flight football in 1984 to being in Division Four in 1986 whilst only narrowly avoiding be wound up altogether – getting the club back on its feet, back into the Championship at the first opportunity and relatively comfortable in a highly competitive division.
This summer, however, has seen everything change at Molineux in a very short period of time. The club’s previous ownership of chairman Steve Morgan and Chief Executive Jez Moxey had not been particularly popular with supporters, with the two successive relegations coming as the club released financial results which showed it to be one of the few profitable clubs in the upper reaches of the Football League hinting at a lack of the investment which might have prevented those relegations from occurring. There will have been few tears shed around Molineux at the end of an era which brought strong results in the annual accounts but all too often a continuing sense of underachievement on the pitch.
The new owners, meanwhile, are continuing the recent trend for Chinese businesses to start investing their considerable resources in English football, as seen a little earlier this summer at Villa Park. The new owners are a company called Fosun International Limited, who are making their first inroads into the game after twenty-four years of investment capitalism. The company’s public face insofar as all of this is concerned is Jeff Shi, who will sit on the board of directors of the club, and owner held his first press conference last week, dutifully repeating all of the supporter-calming, tradition-invoking platitudes so common at this point in a takeover, although a good amount of what he told the press seemed to relate to what a good piece of business the club, rather than any desire to resurrect the days of Major Frank Buckley or Stan Cullis.
Shi’s first act was to end Kenny Jackett’s time at the club. Jez Moxey had previously stated that Jackett’s position within the club would be safe and that Shi would be working with the manager in order to bring between five and eight new players into the club before the end of the transfer window. It wasn’t a policy that lasted for very long. The announcement confirming Jackett’s departure from the club was released at the somewhat unusual time of eleven o’clock on Friday night, and by Saturday afternoon it was clear the club already had a replacement lined up for him. The giveway name had already been made public but had been largely glossed over in press reports. Jeff Shi had stated that a certain Jorge Mendes was “a friend”. Jackett never stood a chance.
The new manager is the former Italy national team goalkeeper Walter Zenga. Zenga had a reasonably distinguished playing career, playing more than three hundred games for Internazionale and winning almost sixty caps for his national team, but his managerial career has been somewhat more chequered. Over the course of eighteen years as a manager, he has found himself in charge of sixteen different clubs, mostly in Italy, Romania and the Middle East. All of the silverware that he has won as a manager was crowded into two years, a little more than a decade ago. In 2005, his Steaua Bucharest team lifted the Romanian league title and the following year he completed a league and cup winners’ double as the manager of Red Star Belgrade. Elsewhere, however, at Palermo, Sampdoria and Catania in Italy, at National and Dinamo in Bucharest, at Gaziantepspor in Turkey, and at Al-Ain, Al-Nassr, Al-Nasr, Al-Jazira and Al-Shaab in the Middle East and at New England Revolution in the United States of America, tangible success has been a little thinner on the ground.
The end of Zenga’s time in charge at National Bucharest made for a particularly curious tale. When he arrived at the club in the summer of 2002, he announced to the press that the fresh start would help him get over his split with the Italian actress Hoara Borselli, but he soon found himself in a relationship with the professional tennis player Raluca Sand, who is the daughter of the then-president of the Romanian Football Association, Mirceas Sandu, who was disapptroving of the relationship. Four months into his time at the club, he was out with assistance coach Alessandro Ciullini and two Italian TV journalists when, in an exclusive Bucharest nightclub, armed Romanian police suddenly swooped, finding a wrap of cocaine under the table and another behind his chair. He was released without charge the following morning by the police, a spokesman for whom confirmed that they had received a tip-off from someone inside National Bucharest. He left at the end of his first season, but would come to stay in the city, winning his first league title as a manager at Steaua two years later.
Overall, the impression taken of Walter Zenga the manager is of a moderate manager who, broadly speaking, has been hired by mediocre clubs with results that have been unsurprisingly middling. Wolverhampton Wanderers have been down the path of bringing in a sophisticated-sounding foreign coach before, but few at Molineux would likely want a return to the dismal days of Ståle Solbakken. And the speed with which this new name was confirmed leaves little doubt that whatever said about Kenny Jackett being in the club’s future plans was fallacious. But who made this recommendation? After all, the Football League Championship is a thanklessly punishing place to be a coach, with the Premier League just about visible on the horizon but with the threat of dropping into League One, with its FA Cup First and Second Round matches and its EFL Trophy, also a possibility. It requires, we might suggest, a certain and specific skill-set to successfully negotiate this particular division.
What, then, in the flotsam and jetsam that makes up Walter Zenga’s managerial career made him the ideal candidate for this position? To what extent did the new owners search and search before arriving at the decision that he was the right man for this job? Or… and these are thoughts that have been going around the heads of many Wolves supporters over the last twenty-four hours or so… has this appopintment got more to do with the silent hand of Jorge Mendes than anybody else. Mendes, as we all know, has many “friends” in football across the entire world. How did Jeff Shi and Jorge Mendes become acquainted? And how many Mendes players will be ending up on the payroll at Molineux? Many people have expressed concern at the level of influence that this one players’ agent has acquired over the last few years. The sudden and unexpected arrival of a Jorge Mendes client at a club now owned by a company that is being run by a “friend” of his will do little to allay those concerns.
Perhaps it will all come right for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Perhaps Walter Zenga will skilfully negotiate the transfer market and bring in the right balance of players to fire Wolves back into the Premier League and beyond. Perhaps Fosun International Ltd will make a killing on their investment, Jeff Shi will be promoted within the group and Wolves will establish themselves as a Premier League club in the same way that West Bromwich Albion have whilst players connected to Jorge Mendes shine and establish themselves as a new set of shining star players. It seems, however, like something of a gamble for the new owner of a football club to be taking, and there is little on the part of many of those at the centre of this story which allows us to believe that they have the best interests of anytbody or anything – up to and including Wolverhampton Wanderers FC itself – but themselves at heart. Wolves supporters have little choice but to go along for the ride, but it would be entirely understandable if they did so with a degree of trepidation, this time around.
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