Hungry Like the Wolves: Soccer Team’s Turnaround Is a Lesson for Your Crappy Team

| Filed From: Wolverhampton, England

Confession time: I’m a Wolves fan, and I can’t help it. I’ve been hooked since my dad dragged me as a pre-teen to my first football match under the Molineux floodlights. And I’ve lived through every mediocre season since: every playoff defeat, every premature cup exit, every sub-par performance. I was—and remain—attuned to every season’s what might have been. You support your local team. Kids at school laying spurious claims to Mancunian or Liverpudlian heritage were dismissed as glory hunters. But that grab at authenticity was just an attempt to deflect from a harsh reality: our local team was, really, nowhere.

Stuck in second tier

The terms “long-suffering” and “Wolves fan” are as inseparable as a Saturday afternoon pie and pint. The club has been routinely mired in England’s Championship—a league below the all-conquering Premier League (EPL) —seemingly forever; 35 years have yielded a paltry four EPL seasons. Investment came from the late Sir Jack Hayward, Wolverhampton’s favourite son, who bankrolled the club from 1990, rebuilding Molineux.

Property magnate Steve Morgan then took the reins in 2007. Despite the pots of money—football’s supposed lifeblood—success remained elusive. But now there is hope.

A whole new business model

Last season, Wolves were very Wolves-like—limping to a 15th place finish—but this year, they’re currently streaking away with the league thanks to performances matching attacking verve to defensive solidity. They’ve been dubbed the “Manchester City of the Championship,” and, fittingly, their defence even thwarted Sergio Aguero et al. in an October cup game. So how have the team’s fortunes changed so quickly? The answer’s not simply finances. Instead, it’s a new business model.

Wolves are now owned by the Chinese investment group FOSUN. Group ownership—calm, cool business heads making collective decisions—insulates against the exposure to a single owner’s whims. Good money is not thrown after bad. Typically, a local owner of a local team treats it as a passion project, or, even worse, a vanity one (see the feckless Mike Ashley at Newcastle United, or Ken Bates, wherever he’s been). FOSUN is showing a new path, and that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from.

Team-first mentality leads to first place

Due diligence is now the club’s defining feature. This season, young Portuguese manager Nuno Espírito Santo was appointed head coach. He has Champions League experience, but it’s his character that embodies the MO. The team comes first: every player is important, everyone knows their job. As per one of his favourite sayings, the strength of the wolf is the pack. When presented with November’s manager of the month award, for example, he posed for photos with his whole backroom team. The kit-man held the trophy. FOSUN investors made the decision, but they didn’t micro-manage.

They’re also shrewd investors. They backed the signing of Portuguese defensive midfielder Ruben Neves for £15.8m (a club and league record) but player outgoings totalled £12m. Other arrivals came at a snip—former England goalkeeper John Ruddy and defender Ryan Bennett for free, and set-piece specialist Barry Douglas for £1m. This is fiscal prudence should promotion not be secured and ensures the team keeps a home-grown heart. If the EPL does beckon—an increasing likelihood—then the coffers will swell with riches.

In any industry, contacts are key. FOSUN investors know this, of course, and are working with the best. They’re making the most of an arrangement with the super-agent Jorge Mendes, whose vast roster of talent includes Cristiano Ronaldo. Access to Mendes’ solid-gold Rolodex has enabled Wolves to attract top-tier talent who would otherwise head for the EPL, despite rival fans crying, ahem, wolf. Along with Neves, Willy Boly, Diogo Jota, and Leo Bonatini have all made telling contributions (and all on loan, again helping insulate against expense). All would be comfortable performing in the EPL.

The result is a rejuvenated team that’s inspired and drilled. It’s defied critics time and again. How will it cope in the white-hot atmosphere of a local derby? Near-neighbours Aston Villa and Birmingham City were both dispatched 2-0 and 1-0. What about a team desperately fighting relegation? Burton Albion and Bolton Wanderers were swatted aside 4-0 and 5-1. What about title rivals? Wolves’ opening three fixtures were against Middlesbrough and Hull interspersed by a daunting trip to Derby County— traditionally a drubbing. Wolves beat them all.

And all this progress in just six months.

Eyeing a promotion

FOSUN investors have covered all the bases: steady, group decision making, balancing financial risk and reward, steadfast planning, trusting in fantastic management, and using all available contacts. No resource has been untapped, no plan left to chance. The team no longer plays percentage football. Nuno’s modern, continental tactics applied to the muscularity the Championship means Wolves craft match outcomes like FOSUN has its business plan.

With fans purring at the football played, it seems that—at long, long last—Wolves fans can dream big.


Matthew Langham

I am a writer, editor and project manager living in the West Midlands, UK. I’ve written for several large music sites and platforms, and blog about sport, fitness and nutrition (I eat plants, not animals), plus gaming and digital culture. I’m fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and the redemptive power of a cuppa.