By Chris Dunlavy
Superstar players. Promotion to the Premier League. Wealthy owners, soaring ambitions and contacts to die for – Wolves are going places.
But as long-serving defender Matt Doherty painfully remembers, it wasn’t so long ago that everything was heading south.
In the spring of 2013, Molineux was a wasteland. Mick McCarthy was gone. So was Premier League football. Steve Morgan, the owner, built a stand instead of a team and was vilified by supporters.
Saddled with a bloated squad of complacent big-timers, things swiftly went awry in the Championship. Neither Stale Solbakken nor Dean Saunders could arrest the spiral.
By April 27, their final home game of the season, anything but victory over Burnley meant Wolves would become the first side since Swindon to plummet straight from top tier to third. They lost, 2-1.
“I played that day and it was horrendous,” recalls Doherty, who had just broken into the first-team following a move from Irish side Bohemians as an 18-year-old.
“Even now, it’s probably my worst experience on a football pitch. I remember sitting in tears in the dressing room while the fans tried to break into the stadium. They’d invaded the pitch at full-time and I think they were trying to get at the owner.
“I was only a young lad, just finding my feet. That experience hit me hard and it wasn’t a nice feeling at all.
“So, to sit here today with all of this going on – it’s a different world. There are no splits, none of the egos that we maybe had back then.
“There’s just an ambitious owner and a great bunch of lads. The fans are excited. When you’ve been here for the bad times, you appreciate an atmosphere like this, let me tell you.”
Wolves fans certainly share those sentiments. Back then, most dreamed only of ditching the bad eggs, of retrieving a modicum of dignity.
Now, following a 2016 takeover by Chinese conglomerate Fosun, that brought wealth, promotion to the Premier League and the favours of Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes, they can genuinely aspire to European football.
“There’s a feeling that anything is possible,” says Doherty, now 26 and a veteran of 200-plus games for the Old Gold.
“The sky’s the limit and I wouldn’t be surprised to see any player come through that door in the summer.”
That much was obvious last summer when Ruben Neves rejected the captaincy at Porto and offers from Inter Milan to join Wolves’ promotion bid.
Arguably the finest playmaker the division has ever seen, the midfielder’s class – and long-range screamers – have illuminated a season of unparallelled dominance.
“He’s top class,” says Doherty. “Honestly, you can’t overstate it. He’s in the Portugal squad, he’ll probably go to the World Cup. And he won’t be out of place.
“He controls the whole tempo of the game. If you just watch us on TV, you won’t really see what I mean. You’ve got to see the whole pitch to appreciate what he does.
“When we need to lift the pace, he’s the one who injects it. When we need a breather, Ruben slows it down. The game is basically played at whatever pace he chooses.
“And most players: you see them lining up from 30 yards and you’re thinking ‘Don’t do it’. Him, you’re hoping he does shoot because he’s so accurate.
“He puts his foot in. Gets about the pitch. You just have to look at the number of yellow cards he’s picked up to see he doesn’t shy from a tackle. He’s the perfect midfielder, and he’s only 21 as well.”
Not everyone has been so enamoured by the arrival of Neves and Diogo Jota, with rivals pointing to a potential conflict of interest between Mendes and a Fosun subsidiary that owns shares in the agent’s company. Has that bubbling controversy frustrated the players?
“It didn’t bother us,” insists the Dubliner, who made his debut for the Republic of Ireland in March. “We didn’t care one little bit. We just assumed there was nothing wrong. Jeff Shi (the CEO) even met up with our captain and said ‘Listen, don’t worry about everything you read. Everything is above board’. It didn’t have any bearing on our performances at all.”
And it wasn’t all about Neves or Jota. They may have provided inspiration, but the home-grown core of Doherty, Conor Coady and stalwart skipper Danny Batth underpinned Wolves’ triumph.
Boss Nuno Espirito Santo, who dispensed with a host of old favourites last summer, was savvy enough to retain a trio who’d completed a combined 15 Championship seasons.
Nevertheless, did Doherty ever worry – like pal Jed Wallace, who left for Millwall – that his face would not fit among the glamorous new signings arriving by the week?
“No worries,” he insists. “I’m quite a confident person and I always believed I’d be good enough to compete with anyone who came in.
“But I’m realistic. No matter how good you are, you might not fit somebody’s eye. I could rate a player really highly, but you might not.
“That doesn’t mean he’s bad or good, it’s just your opinion. And when that opinion belongs to the manager, it matters.
“When Nuno came in, there was every chance I’d not fit the mould. But, thankfully, I suited the formation he wanted to play and here I am.
“I’ve been here eight years now. I’ve had a double relegation, a promotion, three seasons in the Championship. We’ve had ownership changes, managerial changes, but I’ve managed to survive it all. That’s something I’m very proud of.”
Nuno would have liked to use the services of another Wolves veteran.
Keeper Carl Ikeme, who made his debut for the club in 2005, was diagnosed with leukaemia in July and has missed the season to receive treatment.
“Even with everything happening, hardly a day goes by when we don’t think of Carl,” says Doherty.
“I’ve spoken to him a few times. It’s a hard one, because you don’t want to ask too much. But I’ve kept in touch with his doctor and he came to the game when we played Birmingham. We all had a chat with him then.
“Kemes is the man. He’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known and he’ll get through this. He’ll pull that shirt on again and it’ll be a very special day when he does.”
Like everyone else, Ikeme was glued to a TV last weekend as a last-minute equaliser for Brentford against Fulham ensured promotion with four games to spare.
“I’m sure people felt it was an anticlimax, but it certainly wasn’t for us,” says Doherty. “It just felt that everything we’d worked at and sacrificed this season had paid off.
“We were in the hotel watching it together, and there are some good videos of us all waiting for the final whistle.
“Unfortunately, our game against Birmingham kicked off at 12 the next day, so all we could drink was water! It was so hard to sleep that night as well.
“As the weeks have gone on, everything’s fallen for us. Brentford scoring last minute against Fulham, the two missed penalties against Cardiff, us holding on with nine men against Middlesbrough. I think it was just meant to be for us this season.”
And next? “Anything’s possible,” says Doherty. “The people who’ve been here a long time, the people in the stands, they’ve seen some tough times. So let’s enjoy it and let’s get excited – because these are exciting times.”