In something of a coup for Wolves Blog, we were able to meet Sporting Director Kevin Thelwell recently for a chat about his role at the club, the part he’s played in this season’s unprecedented Championship success and the lofty ambitions of our owners.
Thelwell has always been something of an enigmatic figure at Molineux, going largely unnoticed when things are going well, but a target when the bad times cast a shadow. It was great to get his first-hand insights on the past, present and future of Wolves to make some of our own assessments on his tenure.
In a thorough, two-hour interview, the headline news is that he strongly believes Ruben Neves, along with his fellow match-winning stars, will still be here next season. Moreover he reiterated the ambitions of FOSUN, stating that they want to ‘win things’ and challenge the Premier League pecking order.
If Benik Afobe does sign permanently in the summer, then it shouldn’t surprise anyone either. While neither confirming or denying this, his ‘watch this space’ answer and subsequent smile suggested that this might well be a bit of business to take place.
It’s also clear that Thelwell himself played a much bigger role in recruitment than many might appreciate, with the Jorge Mendes link simply being leaned on when required to help get a foot in the door. Yes, the connection to the super agent helped facilitate meetings, but any accusation that he was dictating the transfer policy of the club is wide of the mark.
Tellingly, any other clubs interested in Neves and Jota last summer could have made an approach, but nobody came in for them! In fact, of our major recruits, only Willy Boly was courted – and those were Championship suitors. With hindsight, it appears that Wolves had a tremendous advantage when in fact they were simply the only ones brave enough to gamble on some of these talents, with the likes of Jota playing only 45mins of football in the entire 2017 under-21s championship in Poland and going largely under the radar.
I will split our interview into two blogs. Please see part one below, which concentrates on player recruitment and plans for the future. Part two will arrive in due course, looking at Thelwell’s role in more depth, and what a typical day in the life looks like for the sporting director.
WB: Will our star players – including Ruben Neves – be with the club next season? The worst-case scenario for us would be starting the Premier League season with a worse squad than we have now. Because they have performed so well, it makes us fear that someone could pick them up before we have had the chance to see what even this team could do in the Premier League. Is that a valid concern?
KT: “It is an interesting concern. I would hope that would not be the case. The reason I say that is because FOSUN are very ambitious. Uber ambitious. This club is in a very different space. I think FOSUN want to see the club become a very strong Premier League team and, on that basis, you don’t become a very strong Premier League team if you lose your best players.
“They are not in it for generating money off some transfers. It is all about being a successful Premier League team and winning things – over time.
“You can never say never because you don’t know what the landscape will look like going forward, but my hope is that we will build on what we have done so far.”
Specifically, Ruben Neves’ future
WB: But are we going to see another side of what people have referred to as the Mendes merry-go-round and we are sent new players from his stable as Ruben Neves leaves? Is that a valid concern?
KT: “It is not a concern that is on my radar. If I look at it logically and rationally, I would think it would do him (Neves) the world of good to do what he has done this season in the Premier League. If he went to Man Utd right now (for example), would he be a starter? Wolves fans would of course say yes, as we have seen him play and have a lot of belief in him, but actually, it does him no favours to leave Wolverhampton Wanderers before he’s had an opportunity to play for us in the Premier League.
“And FOSUN certainly wouldn’t want to lose him. No way in the world would they want to lose him. Of course, in the future at some stage he is going to want to move on. Football is a transient business and there are very few who have stayed for 10 or 15 years and played at that top level. The point is that you have got to be ready to replace him when that time comes, but I am hopeful that won’t be for a long time.
Jota, Boly, Neves, Cavaleiro and Costa
WB: Do you see this nucleus of this team being largely the same in the Premier League? Basically, Jota, Boly, Neves, Cavaleiro, Costa…would you expect in all likelihood that they will be here next season?
KT: Are we going to lose them? I would like to think that the answer is no. In fact, I am certain that the answer is no. FOSUN want to be challenging the pecking order.
WB: So Afobe…can we expect that he will sign permanently?
KT: Wait and see.
Getting it wrong last season?
WB: Has this season proved that you got it wrong last season when you said in a past Fans’ Parliament meeting that the best mix for Championship success is roughly a 70/30 split between domestic players and foreign players?
KT: “We’ve got a nice blend now. We’ve got British and European players, some of them have been here for a year already and have settled which has paved the way for others to come in.
The bit you mention about percentages (roughly 70% to 30% UK and foreign players) was correct in the past, but the league is changing massively. It is the sixth biggest league in the world, so why can’t it change? There are some great footballing teams in there as well, such as Fulham and Brentford. We have shown that the league can evolve.
Nuno and you
WB: Did you feel compromised when Nuno came in?
KT: “Did I feel compromised? The sporting director is not the rainmaker in my opinion. It is very much oil and glue really. When thing get sticky, you have to oil those wheels and get things moving again. If there are problems you have to stick things together and patch things up to get everyone together. It is not that role where you have one guy that makes all the decisions about football and recruitment. It just doesn’t work that way and I wouldn’t want it to work that way. Certainly not here. It is a collaborative approach.
The meeting was extremely uplifting and gave more reason to believe that we’re not in it to make up the numbers in the Premier League. Moreover, we can look forward to a brave new world in the top flight with this season’s star players in place. Thelwell is ‘certain’ of this. Of course, he did caveat this with the reminder that nobody knows what the future holds. But to hear so many bold replies to this line of questioning was extremely reassuring.
For part two of our interview, we will relay the answers to questions about Thelwell’s role, Nuno’s brilliance and other topics. We’ll also touch upon what I felt was a really interesting line about this season’s Championship success…
…More than the title, the clean sheets, the win ratio and everything else, Nuno and the club have been passionate about leaving a genuine Championship legacy that can be held as a beacon for future teams who participate in it. In short, they wanted to reinvent the way football is played in what is the sixth biggest league in the world. It doesn’t have to be kick and rush and blood and thunder, laden with domestic players with ‘Championship experience.’ There is a more beautiful way to succeed, and the club are proud to have been able to prove that.
More of that for another blog soon, but in the meantime, thanks so much for Kevin and Max Fitzgerald for sparing the time and allowing us in, it was massively appreciated.
Up the Wolves!