Nuno just got it
Tim Spiers May 24, 2021 134
“I like a challenge. We’ll bring commitment, try to make players better. I hope I can help build a new future… I really want to build something.”
Nuno Espirito Santo, June 1, 2017. He was true to his word.
Like pretty much every new Wolves manager, he said he’d be inspired by the club’s 1950s heyday and attempt to get the club back to where it belonged. But this time they weren’t platitudes.
Nuno turned down Champions League clubs to move to the Championship, buying into Fosun’s vision but, crucially, and as opposed to the chaotic disorder of 2016-17 (which should always be remembered in the context of Nuno’s early achievements), partnered with his old friend Jorge Mendes.
What followed was the most invigorating, inspiring and exhilarating three years the club had experienced for decades. Nuno had a dream, to build a football team.
It’s hard to imagine now but at the beginning there were self-doubts.
Nuno was concerned that fans may not take to his style of football. In Wolverhampton, they’re bred on direct, fast football and wingers sending over cross after cross, usually for Stevie Bull to get on the end of. Nuno wanted a slower, methodical approach with a foundation built on rigid organisation and trying to control games without the ball as much as with it.
He was also acutely aware of the need to get fans onside. A Molineux that’s with you can add 10 points to your season. If they’re against you, players go hiding.
Nuno may not come across as the shy, retiring type but he was no fan of the spotlight. At Porto, he used to hate switching on the TV at home and seeing his face plastered over the screen.
He was informed that his two predecessors, Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert, achieved similar results but contrasting levels of popularity. Zenga, for all his faults as a manager, was endeared for his at-times hysterical touchline melodrama and tub-thumping post-match demeanour on the pitch (even getting down on his knees to worship them after a win at Birmingham). He played to the crowd. Nuno was advised that a simple gesture of applauding the fans after a match went a long way, something he’d never done at Porto where he was perceived to be cold and emotionless. After a notable pre-season victory over Leicester City, he took to the Molineux turf and reciprocated their affection. A bond began.
With so much money spent, there was pressure to hit the ground running but for Nuno, after the intense scrutiny he was under at Valencia from media and fans, where his remit was fourth or nothing, this was nothing. He knew that if his players bought into his idea, they’d have a good chance of promotion. For some pre-match press conferences in those early days, there were only two reporters present (myself at the Express & Star and Radio WM’s Mike Taylor).
After a short while, it almost seemed beneath him. The opening few weeks when Wolves started to take the league by storm meant Nuno knew he was destined for greatness and was building something special, even stating as much. To him, it was just a matter of time before everyone caught on. It didn’t take long.
Previous boss Lambert had said there was no winning mentality at the club. Nuno sought to address that immediately, generating a fearless attitude among his players by providing them with short, basic, simple messages, or “their tasks” as he put it. “Do what I tell you and you’ll win” was his mantra. He didn’t overload them with long speeches and complicated tactical instructions. Instead Nuno, a man at his best on the training ground, showed them how to play during an intense pre-season training schedule. His “idea” was imprinted in the players’ minds during 10 days in the Austrian hills.
“It’s not all about talent and quality,” he once said. “What supports everything is the way that you have a clean sheet, the way you support each other and react to loss of possession, the way you keep your shape and run back. This is football.”
Nuno, who was taken aback by seeing hundreds of Wolves fans travel to Austria to watch them play, began to work incessantly on the team’s shape. They’d work on their shape, then work on their shape again, then think about what to do and decide to work some more on their shape.
There were two or three sessions every day but they weren’t fitness-based.
“He was relentless in the details,” midfielder Dave Edwards told The Athletic last year. “He would speak as we were playing. If something went wrong in the build-up or the shape, he would stop us, then we’d repeat the move again and again. It was often moving a player a yard here or there, to be in exactly the right position. He drilled it in every single day.”
Nuno also started to generate a strong fellowship between his players and core backroom staff. Outsiders, such as staff who were already at the club, or even the club’s own media team, weren’t included. Unusually for a new manager, he did no interviews with either the club or the local press in those early weeks. It was part of creating a siege mentality — us against the world, no outsiders allowed.
(Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
“Nuno makes the player think they’re all that matters, regardless of any noise from outside,” Edwards added.
“He has that perfect blend between respect and fear,” Edwards says. “You don’t want to get on the wrong side of him but you want to play for him, too. He united everyone.”
Either players were on board, or they were out the door. Back at Compton he wrote in big capital letters “NUNO’S WAY, NOT YOUR WAY” aimed specifically at one who wasn’t adhering to his instructions. There was no room for manoeuvre. It was his way, his philosophy, his idea. And at the heart of it was attention to detail and world-class expertise from his backroom team, who introduced new methods in injury prevention, rehabilitation, fitness and psychology.
Intrigued by this new style of play and a mythical, beard-stroking manager, fans immediately signed up to the Nunolution. Molineux’s biggest opening-day attendance since 1980 saw them beat promotion favourites Middlesbrough 1-0.
By October it was clear something special was happening. Wolves were top of the table and playing stylish football not witnessed in this part of the world for years. They reached the fourth round of the EFL Cup for the first time in 22 years, knocking out Premier League Southampton and then pushing Manchester City all the way to penalties at the Etihad.
“The best thing I can say about Nuno is, from a coaching perspective, coaches, managers, etc, they tend to say, ‘I need more time to build a philosophy. I need more time to build my team and the way it looks’,” Kevin Thelwell told The Athletic last year. “Sometimes, that can be nine or 12 months. Nuno was able to build that in five weeks in pre-season. It was incredible.
“We were very lucky. We had a group of players who bought into the new philosophy but in five weeks of him being at the club, it looked like we’d been playing 3-4-3 for about 10 years.”
Players knew the system like the back of their hand. And if someone came into the XI he generally did so without disrupting the flow of the team. Everyone knew where to be on the pitch and what tasks they had to complete. It was the same at half-time: basic, uncomplicated instructions, small tweaks. They often performed better in the second half than the first as a result. Players exuded confidence and self-belief.
Whether it was converting Conor Coady into a ball-playing centre half, transforming Matt Doherty into one of the best attacking wing-backs in the country, or assembling a host of new players (yes, they were expensive and belonged at a higher level, but the “money equals success” argument won’t wash with any Wolves fan who witnessed Sir Jack Hayward chuck millions at top-level players and managers in the 1990s and continuously fail to win promotion) into a cohesive, winning unit, almost instantly, Nuno could do no wrong.
Some of the goals that season came with an NSFW warning. Ruben Neves did things with the football that would be banned in 47 American states. Coady to Neves, back to Coady, out to Doherty or Barry Douglas, draw the opponents in, then unleash the red arrows down the flanks, one-twos, combinations, work the ball into the box, play between the lines, isolate defenders….and pounce. Goal. Game over. No one came from behind to beat them. Few teams could live with them. Watch the team goal finished by Diogo Jota against Sheffield United. They were like nothing the league had seen before.
With the additions of Joao Moutinho, Jonny Castro Otto and Raul Jimenez, they got even better in the Premier League, playing the same way every week (opposition teams and managers often remarked how damn difficult they were to play against… they were particularly devastating on the counter-attack), beating Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs, finishing seventh and reaching an FA Cup semi-final, before embarking on a European jaunt, the club’s first for 40 years, that will never be forgotten.
The feelgood factor of those first two-and-a-half seasons was extraordinary.
In the stands they adored him. My goodness, it was something to be watch, to hear, to feel. This correspondent has been watching Wolves since 1991 and there’s been nothing in three decades that came close to the universal devotion they gave him. Men, women, young, old, they didn’t just admire and love him, they trusted him. Unequivocally.
Even after defeats he would ease their jitters with his carefully-chosen simple words. “We will bounce back, we will improve.” And they always did.
His frenzied passion in victory only endeared him to them further. Bristol City away in the Championship season, sent to the stands for arguing with the referee, he celebrated with a lion’s roar cry, blissfully ignoring local club legend Alan Dicks’ plea to “kindly move, old boy”.
Pissing off Tony Pulis and Neil Warnock after successive logic-defying victories on their way to the title (with nine men at Boro and then surviving two injury-time penalties to win 1-0 in Wales) only lifted his status to that of a demigod. Warnock told him to #### off six times after Nuno stormed the pitch to celebrate the second penalty miss instead of stopping first to shake his opposing manager’s hand. Supporters lapped it up.
(Photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images)
That was Nuno, he didn’t care much for authority. Referees felt his wrath (Lee Mason may wish to reconsider his retirement now he knows Nuno is leaving), he wasn’t one for rules or authority. His discarded cigarette once caused the evacuation of Compton Park. On transfer deadline day, no less.
It was the beard, the grin, the passion, the philosophical statements, the upsetting the English football status quo, everyone else moaning about Nuno’s behaviour, or Mendes’ influence — in the stands they couldn’t get enough. No victory was complete without him taking to the field and leading a chorus of cheers.
Away from the game, he remained intensely private, travelling home to Portugal to see his family whenever he could. When he was in Wolverhampton he didn’t do much away from Compton Park, just playing a lot of golf and spending time with his trusted backroom lieutenants. Occasionally he could be spotted in The Crown pub in nearby Wergs, sometimes on his own, collecting his thoughts and getting away from the intense days of training where he’d channel all his energy.
His wife and family were at Wembley to watch Wolves beat Spurs. At full-time, he giddily waved to them. When asked in his post-match press conference who he was waving to, he wouldn’t answer.
He was a different man when around them in the corridors of Molineux after matches. That beaming grin never left his face. Nothing could divert his attention.
He could be moody too, to put it mildly. If you weren’t in that inner circle, he could be terse, direct, grumpy and aggressive.
In training he shouted at his players if they put their hands on their hips while listening to his instructions, seeing it as a sign of them not being alert.
“When I’m upset I can be the worst guy in the world,” he once said. “I don’t speak to you one day because I have everything in my mind. Next day I’m hugging people. It’s natural, we have good and bad moments.”
He’d been burned by the Spanish press and had little or no interest in generating relationships with journalists, certainly in those opening two or three years. Press conferences would be notoriously terse, he’d snap at reporters or bite heads off in reply to reasonable questions, for no discernible reason. Journalists quickly learned which subjects he would never entertain (the league table, prospective transfers), but sometimes he’d generate a dark atmosphere simply in the manner he sat down. He’d occasionally apologise, he knew he was being difficult, but he didn’t care. You always got the impression he felt he didn’t need the press. His team were winning, so what was there to be gained by currying favour. He played the game by not playing the game, never giving anything which might motivate the opposition.
In his fourth year he mellowed and began to open up. The pandemic seemed to change him. There was sorrow (he missed seeing his family) behind those eyes at times and the devastation and disruption the pandemic had caused weighed heavily on his shoulders. It also robbed him of the control, organisation and detailed preparation that Wolves’ success had been built on. He often didn’t know what team he could pick a day before a game (due to an increase in injuries, yes, but also awaiting COVID-19 test results). Not the Nuno way. At around Christmas time that glint in his eye was gone, his energy seemed sapped. A toll was taken on a sensitive man who takes things to heart. You wonder if that transmitted to the players.
Would he and they have got that back after a well-deserved break and come back for a 5th year with renewed vigour and purpose? We’ll never know.
But the fourth season, when Wolves took a step back and fans began to question him for the first time, doesn’t damage his legacy.
In fact those first two and a half seasons remain frozen in time. When the pandemic began — and therefore the last time the vast majority of his adoring public saw him in person — Wolves were fifth in the Premier League and in the last-16 of the Europa League. His demigod status was undimmed. His team had never once been booed off during his tenure, his name had been sung every single week, they graffitied his name and face on the city’s streets, his judgment wasn’t questioned.
In the eyes of the majority of supporters, his legacy remains untarnished. Some compared Friday’s news to a bereavement.
Appropriately his curtain call came at Molineux, back in front of fans, against Manchester United, the fixture which defined, more than any other of his 199 matches, what he did for this club. FA Cup quarter-final. March 16, 2019. Men openly sobbed that night and they did again on Sunday afternoon as they lined Waterloo Road to greet him for one last time, bellowing out his name, striking flares and creating clouds of gold.
There were only 4,500 at Molineux for his farewell but it felt like far more. They sang for him throughout, he waved at them, they told him they loved him. At full time he performed a lap of honour to resounding applause from every single one of them.
The players and staff, some of them in floods of tears, gave him a guard of honour as he left the pitch for the final time. The whole day was completely surreal. No manager leaves a club like this, it felt more akin to retirement.
Did he achieve everything he wanted to? “Definitely,” he tells The Athletic. “When you want to work with a group of players, first you have to create a really special bond among themselves; with you, with the club, with the fans, with the city. Then comes the sporting achievement. But more important is the love and respect we have for each other.
“I think you are one of the first journalists I met, I still remember the first interview in Compton, I think you didn’t even know me. But we arrived and we came from a club that means a lot to us as professionals, from Porto. We arrived not knowing what we were going to find.
“We found a club that since day one has given us all the support. There was not one decision we didn’t make together. Always dialogue, always respect and this will stay forever.
“(Wolverhampton) really means a lot. You don’t find out that you’re going to fall in love with something until you really feel it. You cannot expect it. But it will stay forever, with me, my family, the coaching staff. Wolverhampton is a place that I love.”
Happy to be leaving? Absolutely not. Content he achieved all he wanted to in four years? Absolutely.
It’s not been the season he wanted to end on, or the manner in which he will have wanted to say goodbye, with a full house at Molineux, Raul Jimenez on the pitch, a victory, etc.
And yet still, amid all the problems and issues, he managed to present his greatest gift to the city; £250,000 of his own money to help impoverished families in Wolverhampton, donated in January.
Nuno’s money has meant hundreds of crisis families could put food on the table. It’s provided tablet computers for homes that couldn’t afford technology for children to learn during lockdown.
He came back from Portugal last summer after the first lockdown and said he wanted to do something for the city, feeling passionately that people who were suffering should be helped. Discussions were had as to the best way to channel his money and the notion of kids simply not having food on their tables resonated most of all, with food poverty a huge problem in Wolverhampton.
He kept in regular contact with staff from the Wolves Foundation who rolled out the Feed Our Pack campaign across the city (the Premier League matched Nuno’s donation and there has also been £80,000 come in from supporters and other donations, with money also going to help food banks, plus school holiday activities and education), who have updated him with details of its vital work for crisis families.
One member of the team called his contribution “unique and unprecedented”. A bit like his time at Wolves.
He just got it. He understood what this sleeping giant needed, he understood what success meant to the club, to the city. He left his home country to reside for four years in an impoverished, deprived, unfashionable, working-class area in a small corner of the West Midlands. And he fell in love.
He ends with the best win percentage of any manager in the club’s history (48 per cent) but it was about so much more than numbers. He changed the entire culture of a club, he put smiles on the faces and in the hearts of thousands and thousands of people. He made them proud. He made them dream. He made them believe. The story he created will be told to sons, to daughters, to grandchildren, to great-grandchildren.
“When I came here it was to build something and create an idea and a philosophy, to build an identity,” he once said. “It’s more than a football pitch — it’s a club, it’s a city… it goes beyond prizes. I’m proud of our work.”
The songs will turn to silence, the graffiti in Chapel Ash will fade, the T-shirts with his big, beaming face on them will be thrown out. But the memories will last forever.