EXCLUSIVE Wolves Blog Meet Kevin Thelwell

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.

Player retention

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.

Benik Afobe

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.

Conclusion

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!

Bolton Wanderers 0 Wolves 4

Old gold, soaked in sunshine, securing the trophy that Stan Cullis made his own – at the home of an old nemesis.

Champions!

In much the same manner as the preceding 43 games, the script couldn’t have been written any better, with the ghosts of Burnden past and Reebok present fully exorcised once and for all, and that glorious swagger back in our stride.

Thank you Nuno and thank you to all you wonderful Wolves players for continuing to create memories like these, when we were thinking that you’d exhausted them all over the course of this never ending campaign.

This 4-0 drubbing might have lacked the furore and bitten fingernails of our ‘Boro, Bristol and Cardiff conquests, but for those fans too long in the tooth to forget the heartache of 1995, this victory will conjure the exact same blissful, fuzzy feeling when we wake in the morning – joyous in the knowledge that this hasn’t been a dream.

This was Nuno at his finest. Our adopted son and first bona-fide cult hero since Bully. Born 1,500 miles from Wolverhampton, but bearing the very DNA of our club on his shoulders like he’s been here all his life.

His three-at-the-back formation has been too tough a nut to crack for a perplexed league all season, but when you mingle his system with genuine soul, then you’ve got an otherworldly leader of men, who’ve recorded some ethereal performances as a result.

Did he know that we’d never won against a Mick McCarthy side since the old mule left? Or that we blew up back in 2002 in a similar position to where we’ve been? That we’d not won in Middlesbrough since the 1950s? Or how about never triumphing at the Reebok Stadium in a league fixture before now? Wearing the fabric of our very existence like a cloak across his back, how can anyone believe he didn’t?

Whether or not we now reach 100 points is secondary, thanks to Nuno cracking more millstones around our necks than opponents’ hearts. These are memories to last longer than a screengrab of a league table. These are the days my friends, consigning those miserable nights of the past to absolute irrelevance.

Somewhere, in a working man’s club where cigarette-smoke-stained-walls appal, John McGinlay loiters, regaling the spiritless locals about the time he punched David Kelly in 1995 and prospered. He shovels Monster Munch into his gob, ferociously licking his beef stained fingers, salivating over what happened next. The barmaid pours him another pint, rolls her eyes and looks to the poor souls who’ve heard the story a thousand times before. She nods wearily. Big John picks at his teeth, necks his Thwaites and foams at the mouth some more. Nobody hears a thing.

Like it ever really mattered. Thanks to Nuno and what feels like a magical stroke of his beard, all such heartache is void, as the Trotters spiral into a paradigm they laughed they’d never enter, and we majestically stride towards the Promised Land they once blackened.

Make no mistake, this 4-0 win is every bit as sweet as the 29 others we’ve chalked up, as it forcefully underlines the power-shift that so many old foes find so unpalatable.

We are the one and only Wanderers? You bloody bet we are.

Wolves 2 Hull City 2

One schoolboy receiving a raucous ovation for stealing the ball from a Hull City coach in the dying embers, and what looked like another stealing the headlines with an unlikely equaliser when the game looked lost.

It really was one of those evenings, where our dwindling energy reserves matched the levels of common sense around Molineux.

When 1-0 up, Helder Costa’s suicidal pass was followed by a similarly braindead foul by the recalled Miranda and a needless penalty resulted in the twitchiest of evenings. In truth, we looked absolutely shattered before Meyler had levelled from the spot and when Wendy and Wolfie looked the spriteliest in gold shirts all evening – beating a Cadbury’s cream egg in a mascot race – you knew this was a weird old night.

Tired bodies definitely gave way to tired minds, which made the impromptu actions of our ball-boy all the more impressive, as we all craved such quick thinking by the players way earlier in the evening. Suffice to say he was turfed out the ground.

This was a game we were supposed to walk against a toothless Tigers side, who looked so insipid against Villa a few days before. But in truth, they were as good a team as we have seen at Molineux for a long time, keeping the ball for what felt like an eternity during spells of the first half and creating the better chances in the second. Had we have lost this, we could have had few complaints, with Ruddy making a fine reflex save from close range and a Hull player heading wide from a free kick when everyone expected the net to ripple.

And while it is difficult to quantify such a claim, it did feel like every break, every panicked clearance from a corner or sliced hook from a free kick, landed on the lap of a gleeful player in white, with the referee exacerbating matters by seemingly giving the lions share of the decisions to the Tigers, once Adkins had berated the official continually once we were given our own penalty. In other words, it was one of those games.

Thankfully, after an unfortunate own goal by Bennett, the net did ripple at the other end when Oskar Buur Rasmussen stooped to score via the inside of the post. It was an equaliser few could have predicted we’d score in the context of the game, from the head of a player even fewer had heard of!

A late rally then ensued, with Gibbs-White looking lively off the bench, even if he was disposed too easily for the Tigers’ second goal, and Cavaleiro a bigger threat in his rightful position, rather than right-wing back in Doherty’s absence. It all got a bit crazy, as typified by the ball-boy incident when by rights, the sharper away side should have been pushing for a winner themselves in this ‘free hit fixture’, rather than killing the clock.

Having slept on it, this was most definitely a point gained, with commendable levels of determination ensuring that our useful unbeaten run remains intact ahead of our mammoth Cardiff clash in two days’ time. The worry is that Fulham look thoroughly unbeatable too, who look increasingly likely to win every single remaining game they participate in.

This is Wolves we are talking about, remember. Even if we are managing our own destiny way better than previous years, we still have the highest points haul never to make the Championship play-offs, and the highest tally to get relegated from the Championship (if memory serves). The nagging fear is that an all-time record total will be recorded to miss out, with something special brewing along the Kings Road.

But no matter, we go again on Friday night, when our tired limbs will be thrust into the breach once more, just seven days after they were laid flat out on the Riverside pitch.

But if the same levels of attitude and application are applied once more – as typified by the Buur and the ball-boy – then you sense we’ll be ok.