Wednesday - April 25th, 2018

Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: It’s been a journey to savour for Wolves at Molineux

A proverb found throughout history, from the early pilgrims to the present day.

This season began with Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters keen to avoid a repeat of the previous 12 months. What appeared to be a scattergun approach to recruitment had reaped no rewards during a desperately poor 2016/17 campaign. There had been sporadic highs, specifically under the management of Paul Lambert when the chips were down, but there had also been some appalling lows that remained etched in the memory.

No game served those concerns greater than the 4-0 home defeat to Barnsley in September, one of Walter Zenga’s early matches in charge. Under Paul Heckingbottom’s astute management, Barnsley provided the definition of a team performance with a final flourish of goals that left Wolves dead on their feet.

What took a tight game away from the home side was the second-half introduction of their summer recruits and supposed match-winners. Helder Costa, Joao Teixeira and Ivan Cavaleiro were out of their depth and dragged the rest of the team down with them. Supporters left Molineux downbeat and fed up with this supposed bright new dawn. It’s not going to work is it?

It is easy to forget amid all the euphoria now but, despite some optimism going into the current campaign, unease and uncertainty remained. Costa came good towards the end of last season but was out injured for the opening months. Cavalerio had still not shown the consistency required and the new arrivals were unproven in England. What would Nuno Espirito Santo – the fourth manager in a year – make of this fresh challenge?

The Championship is defined as much by every club’s desperation to leave it as the gruelling, competitive nature of the league itself. Get out by any means possible. But eight months on from those first tentative steps taken during the narrow opening-day victory over Middlesbrough last August, supporters have banked enough golden memories to last a decade.

When Ruben Neves unleashed his early thunderbolt at Hull City, three games in, it was the first entry to a goal of the season competition he is running on his own. His latest, on Wednesday evening against Derby, drew gasps of shock and appreciation in equal measure. Molineux has never seen anything like it. The quest for perfection from the 21-year-old is evident by the hours he puts in at training. Watching the goal back in the analysis room the next day, he probably came away thinking the first touch needs a bit of work.

At Nottingham Forest in September, Diogo Jota, not for the first or last time, was kicked from pillar to post but kept going back for more. His late, deciding goal in front of the travelling support was celebrated as if it was a cup final winner.

Benik Afobe, so happy to be welcomed back into the fold in January, had to bide his time. The long wait for a goal tugged at his heart. But that delightful lob at Leeds to emphatically end a three-game winless streak put the widest of smiles on his face.

The victories gained through dogged determination have been as characteristic of Nuno’s team as those won through flair and enterprise. Backing up 4-1 and 5-1 home routs over Leeds and Bolton, respectively, with a one-goal win at Birmingham on a Monday night in December put to bed any doubts about the side’s temperament.

A sterner test came at Bristol City. Christmas fixtures always come with a character of their own but here was a match that lit up the night sky with its firecracker atmosphere. When Danny Batth was dismissed with less than a quarter-of-an-hour played Wolves’ cause appeared lost, but after conceding early in the second half they hung in and fought back. Ryan Bennett’s injury-time winner prompted delirium in the away end and a visceral roar from the manager exiled among the home fans.

It felt like the defining moment of the season back then. It still might be, but springtime victories at Middlesbrough – with nine men – and then at Cardiff seven days later must also come into the reckoning.

More expletives hit the airwaves in injury-time of that Cardiff tussle than in an entire series of a Gordon Ramsey reality show. And that was just from the neutrals watching on television. By the time Neil Warnock had marched across the turf at full-time and coloured the air with his own brand of British class and respect, social media had shared the events around the world. Wolves’ in-house match commentary went viral. As Sir Alex Ferguson so perfectly opined, “Football, bloody hell.”

Those who have passed through Molineux’s turnstiles should not let the exceptional events of this season pass quickly. Nor should what has happened be defined by the future.

“It will never stop, the football is officially going on forever. It will never be finally decided who has won the football. There is still everything to play for, and forever to play it in.” Mitchell and Webb’s brilliant parody of the media hype gets to the crux of why supporters must live in this moment and not the next one.

New-found optimism will bring dreams of bigger achievements and a fresh influx of talent. But who knows what the 2018/19 campaign will produce? A different side of the same coin that saw Neves, Jota and Willy Boly brought to the club may be the one that sees them depart.

Nothing that happens going forward should detract from what has gone on these last few months. The Premier League awaits, but what Wolves are about to achieve is so much more than a place in it. The 2017/18 season will stand the test of time as a fine accomplishment in its own right.

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