With the clock ticking, Wolves still need to strengthen their playing squad but what do they need to do for it to be deemed a success.
Track back to July 21st, 2016. A Chinese conglomerate called Fosun International had been announced as Wolves’ new owners and fans were dreaming of the good times ahead. Four years later, and the dreams from that day are now a reality, but this is only the beginning for Wolves under the stewardship of the Chinese investment firm, headed by Jeff Shi. Fosun chose Wolves after Shi had examined approximately 15 clubs to invest in. He said in his very first interview that Wolves fits Fosun’s criteria for a club with impressive features such as the academy, infrastructure, and no debt left by previous owner Steve Morgan.
After a shaky first season in which Shi admitted he knew little about football and the credentials needed to run a successful football club, the then ‘main director’ learnt many lessons and moved full time to Wolverhampton, swapping the shining lights of Shanghai for the battered chips of the Black Country and made himself ‘Executive Chairman’. This meant Shi taking over on a full-time basis which has ultimately led to the meteoric rise to the Premier League and ultimately European football, with there now seeming to be a clear progressive plan and identity at Molineux as they work towards Fosun’s dream of becoming a powerhouse in European football. After the disappointing end to the unprecedented 2019/20 season, Jeff Shi communicated with fans via a series of posts across the club’s social media and website in which he outlined his thoughts and plans for the future.
Wolves’ 2019/20 Season
‘At the beginning of the last season, my personal goal for the first team was to surpass the points tally of the 2018/29 season
I’m happy and proud of our team because they have achieved it and we’ve also got to the last eight of the Europa League
We have seen many unforgettable moments, some obvious improvements from our players, and, clearly, we’ve had a more balanced squad than before’
Despite a disappointing end to the season, almost every Wolves fan will echo Shi’s pride in the 2019/20 campaign, achieving more points than the previous season would have been an impressive milestone in itself. But to do this in conjunction with a deep run into the Europa League in which players and fans alike made memories to last a lifetime, is ultimately a fantastic achievement. As he stated, many players did improve across the season and will be better prepared for European football in the future having had their first season under their belts and be more motivated to go further next time following the bitterly disappointing late goal in their Quarter Final against tournament winners Sevilla.
‘The pace of our progression has been really good, but it will be a challenge to maintain that pace, or even speed it up. From the Championship to the Premier League there was a challenge there, but from now to the next step, it will be another challenge and maybe even tougher’
It is a notion that many fans do not like to dwell on, however, sometimes a period of reflection on past achievements is needed. No one could have foreseen the rapid progression of the club on the field in the past three seasons, an achievement made possible after the harsh lessons of Shi’s first year at the helm. He rightly acknowledges the importance of looking forward and understands that Wolves face an incredibly difficult task to break into the elite of English and European football.
In the top half of the Premier League, you almost have to invest and improve just to stand still, meaning continued progress will be extremely difficult and is likely to happen at a much slower pace than the previous three years. Despite this, no one would have said that European football would have been achievable in the clubs’ first season in the Premier League. If they have a strong transfer window and good start to the season, aided by a favourable first two months of fixtures, you wouldn’t bet against Nuno’s men going that one stage further next season.
‘We’ll keep working hard, but we will stick to our principles and not rush into anything that isn’t right for us
We will wait and when the time comes, we will go for it, but if we don’t see a perfect target, we have to wait – we still have two months’
The area that will be of the most concern for Wolves in the next two months will certainly be first team recruitment. There is no hiding from the fact Wolves have had a poor record in the previous three windows, having shown great promise with the signings in the summer of 2018. Since then, no player has made a substantial impact on the first team, although Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence certainly look like they will have something to offer. One thing Wolves did do well is make a number of successful loan signings into permanent deals, a trait that has proven to be extremely successful since Fosun have taken over.
However, with the levels Wolves now aspire too, the loan market is unlikely to offer the quality needed to strengthen. Gone are the days of loaning players and having a free six to twelve-month trial before spending big money on them with confidence. Shi comes across as extremely relaxed here, this is certainly not the feeling mirrored by the Wolves faithful at this present moment with the surprise departure of Matt Doherty looking increasingly likely. However, given their track record when it comes to judging player sales, Wolves have a near-perfect record in recent years and have perhaps earnt an element of trust despite the baffling nature of the Irishman’s imminent departure. If Wolves are to let Doherty leave what is already a wafer-thin squad, Shi may not be able to afford such patience in this transfer market, especially after Nuno’s plea for players in the final game of the season against Sevilla.
‘Our recruitment team are not resting, they are working night and day, and I’m deeply involved in any transfer discussion and decision. For the next two months, 50% of my job will be about recruitment’
While there is no doubt Wolves’ recruitment team are working hard to bring players in, there is an understandable concern among Wolves fans with less than three weeks to go until Wolves face Sheffield United in the opening game of the Premier League season. Shi is clearly taking an active role in the transfer window, far more active than in previous windows where Wolves’ recruitment was headed up by the largely unpopular Kevin Thelwell. Whether or not Shi has the knowledge to take on such a role remains to be seen. If the possible departure of Doherty for a minimal fee is Shi’s decision, then that would suggest not. Yes, there are still two months left until the transfer window closes, but time is running out if Wolves are to start the season strongly under what are already challenging circumstances.
Following the departures of Laurie Dalrymple and Kevin Thelwell during the 2019/20 season, Jeff Shi has decided to assume the responsibilities of both the football and commercial side of operations, forming a committee to aid him in both departments. Shi is joined by Russell Jones and Vinny Clark in running the commercial aspects of the club, while Matt Wild and Scott Sellars have teamed up with the Chairman to oversee all football-related matters. Crucially, Shi has overall responsibility for all aspects of the club.
‘I’m in charge of strategy and will map my view for the commercial side… the three of us (Shi, Jones and Clark) talk very often, where we formulate plans and execute them, together with our strong senior management team in each department
Our ultimate goal is to try building a top brand. People can change, but the brand is always there – almost like Conor Coady, he’s always there!
Our fashion brand WWFC has won a lot of loyal fans in China, some of them are football fans too, some are not
We are 143 years old indeed, but our heart is still so young, full of curiosity to the times and courage to the adventure’
In addition to the progress made on the field, Wolves have accelerated their ‘brand’ off the field too, while aiming to maintain their relationship with the hardcore fans that are at Molineux each week.
The latter has not quite been up to standard since Laurie Dalrymple’s sacking last summer, but perhaps Wolves fans were in a privileged position with a member of senior management interacting with fans openly on twitter. He was a breath of fresh air having had to put up with the suborn Jez Moxey for many years previous.
Despite his surprise departure at the time, when you think about it, Dalrymple’s exit was only a matter of time once Jeff Shi became Executive Chairman and took on a full-time role at the club. It was inevitable the pair would have a conflict of ideas and Shi would ultimately want full control. However, Dalrymple’s positive interaction with fans is certainly missed, despite the impressive progress made on commercial matters at the club in the previous twelve months.
The pre-season tour of China was a huge success, made even sweeter as Wolves claimed the Asia Trophy following a penalty shootout win against Manchester City. What was a relatively insignificant moment for fans watching on back home, was a huge marketing ploy for Fosun and the commercial team trying to grow the Wolves brand in China. It was no secret Wolves planned to travel across the Atlantic this summer and arrange a friendly with Club America, Raul Jimenez’s former club. This was yet another enormous marketing opportunity that has unfortunately been side-lined due to the pandemic. Despite this, Shi and his team will take every opportunity they can to innovate and improve, growing the brand and ultimately increasing revenue along the way.
On footballing matters
‘I work with them (Sellars and Wild) every day to discuss and make all football-related decisions
I’m the leader for both sides, but the new structure means I receive strong help and support from my colleagues. It gives me more clarity and greater teamwork inside the whole club, as well as providing us with more energy and new ideas’
There is no doubt Shi will have learned an awful lot in his time at the club, but whether that’s enough to take control of a club trying to push for the top four/six of the Premier League as previously mentioned is another matter. Many Wolves fans would have preferred Thelwell to have been replaced directly but Shi opted to surround himself with people from within the club who will advise him on decisions. One notable aspect of Shi’s management is his willingness to make changes when things are evidently not working, meaning the hiring of a Director of Football or a similar role should not be ruled out if the new structure fails to produce adequate results in the forthcoming season.
His reference to the need for ‘more energy and ideas’ was interesting to say the least. Perhaps a suggestion that both Dalrymple and Thelwell, who had been at Wolves for a large number of years in a variety of roles, were coming to the end of their service and the management needed freshening up as Wolves look to move on to the next level. Another important point from this part of Shi’s communication to fans is that he is very much now in control. From a man who was merely a figurehead for Fosun’s takeover, overseeing club operations from Shanghai, to a supreme leader from within the club, the responsibility firmly lands at his feet from this moment onwards.
COVID-19 and Wolves’ future prospects
‘We’ve tried to make the staff safe; not only about their health but also financially’
The COVID-19 outbreak in the UK was unwelcome but expected by the time the lockdown was announced, and in dealing with the challenges in which it possesses, Wolves did it better than most with Shi very much taking a hands-on role. Fosun too were generous in their donations, supporting New Cross and other local hospitals as well as supplying the club with masks and other relevant PPE. Wolves staff were paid in full, regardless of which department they work in, throughout the entire lockdown. This is definitely something Shi and Wolves as a club should be commended for, especially when you see the despicable actions of other wealthy clubs in England’s top flight.
‘In the long-term, our aims are still the same. There has not been any change. Even in a really big pandemic that could go on for more than a year, that time frame is still a small part of our 10-year, 20-year plan
I’ve repeated it many times, we want to be an elite team in the world, and also a top brand in the world, but we are not in a rush. We want to do things steadily, step-by-step, to build the club to that level
Time is not our enemy; in fact, time is our friend, our best friend’
It is certainly reassuring to hear Fosun are in the project for the long term. The pandemic has caused issues across the globe and quite how it will affect football at the elite level remains to be seen, but the future is certainly bleak for clubs in the lower leagues of English football.
Shi is most certainly right when he references the very small-time frame in which these uncertain times will take up in terms of the long-term plan. We all hope to resume ‘normal’ as soon as possible, but it is very much business as usual behind the scenes as Fosun plan for the future.
Shi referenced ‘time’ many times throughout his recent communications and has done so regularly when talking to the press in his time at Wolves. Fosun are not shy in sharing their ambition to be the best, but they acknowledge this does not happen overnight. There will be setbacks along the way and Shi will have to accept that, fans too will have to accept the process of establishing a club in the top end of the Premier League, and in European football takes time and will not be plain sailing.
Shi also admitted he had been to see the Academy train while the first team took a well-earned break. ‘It’s been a long time to get back, the grass smells so good, and only when you put your feet on the pitch, you feel normal life is getting real’, showing just how hands-on and involved he is in the day to day running of the club, and how he has developed a love for football as a sport and as a culture as well as a business.
‘They are now 100% independent
The Wolves Academy is a unique brand with their own philosophy, their own strategy, their own dream, their own finance, a company run by itself and, in the future, will have more partnership academies across the world
I see the Academy as parallel to the first team’
Since his first interview following the takeover in 2016, Shi has made no secret about his admiration and excitement when it comes to the academy. This latest update is possibly the biggest change to the academy at Compton since its creation. The academy now operates as a separate business to Wolves and create their own finance through the sale of players, which could be to the Wolves first team or elsewhere. If a player is signed up to the first team from the Wolves Academy then the Wolves first team now pays a fee to the academy to help keep it sustainable.
This is not an uncommon format in Europe however there are not many examples of such academies in the UK. Chelsea’s academy, notoriously known for loaning out and selling vast amounts of players who have never played for the first team, is a good example of a self-sustained academy, but they are not independent from the club itself as Shi has done here. Viewing the academy as ‘parallel’ to the first team emphasises the importance of the academy and its development going forward, clearly, something Shi sees as crucial as the club continues to grow and progress.
‘Certainly, the Wolves first-team is currently their biggest client for them. They try hard to sell their players to first team, meanwhile, they can also develop players, loan or sell the players to other clubs in the world. We are proud of every single graduate of the Academy, no matter where they go
The Academy’s goal is to help and support all the players with our knowledge, experience and hard work, and give them the best career they can reach’
It is good to hear Shi talk in such a way about the young players at the club, understanding that they are more than just a number and taking care of them and their futures, even if it becomes apparent it may be away from Wolves.
This again shows Shi has become far more than an executive who wants Wolves to become great and produce revenue, he is a caring individual who is keen on being active in all areas of the club. When discussing recent academy graduates, many will reference Morgan Gibbs-White as an example. However, Oskar Burr, Taylor Perry and Owen Otasowie have all made first-team appearances in high profile fixtures this season, along with many players from the under-23 squad who played in the Carabao Cup defeat at Aston Villa. Wolves may have suffered a defeat that night, but many gave an extremely good account of themselves against a strong Villa side.
‘It wasn’t fair what happened to Wolves Women last season
I’m not happy about it and would rather they have finished the season with something better like points per game, but the past is in the past, and we can say the success last year has given the women’s team a strong, solid base to go again this season. I am very confident they will try their best to win the league
They know that is they need any help; I am here to support them. Last season, they trained ay Compton Park’
In addition to the academy, Shi also mentioned Wolves Women in his very first interview at Wolves, and while openly admitting the men’s first team was the priority, he spoke of his desire for long term success for the women’s team. Last season, Wolves Women were on the verge of securing promotion when their season was unbelievably cut short and declared null and void following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the UK. They have moved to train at Compton in the past year, giving them access to the excellent facilities while also feeling part of the club. The future is certainly bright for the women’s side and following numerous arrivals in recent days and both moral and financial support from the club’s Executive Chairman, they’re certainly in with a chance of gaining their deserved promotion this time around.
Molineux Stadium Redevelopment
‘We have a long-term plan for the stadium. Eventually, we hope to have a larger stadium, but to expand, we need to be cautious. We don’t want to put ourselves into a financial dilemma by doing too much too soon
What I’m planning to do is a step-by-step plan. We will not rebuild the stadium from zero, we want to expand some of the capacity here and rebuild some parts there. Expanding gradually will be safer
What is more crucial is still the 11 players on the pitch. A new stadium is nice to have, but it’s a long-term ambition. Now my mind is clearer, we have already a solid plan for Molineux, and hopefully from next season we can start to make improvements and expansions year-on-year and eventually we will reach that point’
FAO Steve Morgan. Many fans have been extremely frustrated in the past two years when it comes to Molineux redevelopment. In the past, Shi has spoken of his desire to have a large multi-purpose stadium, with both Molineux expansions and new stadium builds having been discussed with various stakeholders. However, the move has clearly been put on hold and Shi does not feel the need to re-build even part of Molineux anytime soon. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a brand spanking new Steve Bull stand currently in development? Well, yes. But far more important is that Fosun’s investment goes into the first eleven and Wolves continue to progress on the field. Steve Morgan’s Northbank nightmare is evidence of stadium redevelopment that was completed at the wrong time which had disastrous on-field effects. Some have suggested that the lack of willingness to rebuild Molineux shows a lack of long-term commitment from Fosun. This is simply not true. Fosun are an investment firm and are on course to establish a club they paid just £30m for as regular European contenders and they do not plan to stop there. If Wolves strengthen in the required areas this summer and start the season well, the redevelopment of the stadium is likely to be the last thing on fans’ minds as they dream of European trips once more.
Jeff Shi’s communications were very welcome, having not heard from him at length on club matters since the end of the 2018/19 season. He learned some harsh lessons very quickly and has done a fine job overseeing Wolves’ rise in the past three years. However, with his role becoming increasingly active and hands on, whether he has the footballing knowledge and expertise to guide Wolves to the next level remains to be seen. There is an understandable cause for concern at this present moment. Wolves must sign a number of first team quality players or face losing the greatest manager in their modern history, an unthinkable blow to their chances of progressing to the next level. But, with the progress of the last three years, you’d back Shi and his team to deliver when it really matters and fulfill Fosun’s ambition, Nuno’s dream, and far more importantly, the fans’ dream.
After brushing past some of the basement dwellers of the Premier League over the first week of post-lockdown football, everything seemed set for Wolves to make a sustained assault on the top four and the riches on offer with that. However, two disparaging defeats in the space of just five days seem to have brought everybody back down to Earth with an abrupt bump.
The major success of the three successive wins achieved by Wolves (and in general through Nuno’s reign) is the defensive solidarity that Wolves have shown, nullifying the opposition to few or no chances and then taking the few opportunities that they have been able to create to settle these matches by the odd goal.
Yet in the last couple of games against better opposition, Nuno’s conservative nature is something that seems to have backfired. A mixture of slow tempo, ponderous passing and numerous uncharacteristic mistakes now have Wolves looking over their shoulder rather than above them in the league table.
Nobody at Wolves is immune to criticism – even Nuno
As much as we’re all happy to call Nuno “The Special One” and rightly laud him for the outstanding work he has done over the past three years, this should not make him exempt from any criticism when it is deserved. Whilst the players have not covered themselves in much glory over the past two matches, it is the over-cautious nature of Nuno and his side that has irked the majority of the fanbase. The decision to replace Adama Traore for Leander Dendoncker against Sheffield United was especially baffling, especially when a win was needed to keep pace with those above. Even more so when talented substitutes such as Ruben Vinagre and Daniel Podence have been surprisingly underused since lockdown.
Every Wolves fan still has painful memories of Wembley last year, and how Wolves’ approach to try and sit on a two-goal lead which ultimately backfired. But it should be remembered that Nuno is not averse to springing an offensive tactic from the offset, such as against Cardiff City at home last season. In that instance, Vinagre and Traore were brought in at wing-back with Morgan Gibbs-White operating as the more advanced midfielder. And it reaped the rewards as Wolves were 2-0 up in the first twenty minutes, with Gibbs-White, Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota especially combining brilliantly for the opening goal.
As a head coach renowned for making minimal changes from game to game, it would be nice to see Nuno break the mould and try something different. Whether it is to give Gibbs-White a final chance to show that he is ready for Premier League football, or the aforementioned Vinagre, Podence or Pedro Neto (injury permitting) getting some game time, it would be good for Wolves to show an actual impetus from the get-go and force Jordan Pickford into making some saves. If a player such as Jota is dropped it may also fire him up, knowing that he has a fight on his hands in order to get back into the side. The team at the moment feels too predictable, and some players’ position in the starting eleven seems too secure for some of the performances being delivered but that is one of the problems with having a small squad. The unit may gel better and feel more of a team but players pretty much know that their places are safe even if they’ve had a series of bad performances.
With just over two weeks of the season remaining, Wolves’ fate is still very much in the air, and also very much in their hands too. Whilst a top-four finish now looks a bit too far away now, a top-six finish would still be a fantastic achievement. However, a continuation of such a ‘safety first’ approach and reliance on individual brilliance could end up costing them dearly, come the end of the campaign.
Callum Rose is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team – you can follow him on Twitter here.