If the last fortnight of being a Wolves fan has reminded me of one thing, it’s that honourable club mottos – however virtuous they might sound at face value – are to be taken with a pinch of salt.
‘The strength of the wolf is in the pack’ sounded nothing short of Churchillian when Nuno was fist-pumping an adoring South Bank under the Molineux floodlights; cheers bellowing across the city from the place we all call home.
‘Together we are stronger’ was even more succinct in La Rambla in February, when Wolves were in Europe, you know?
Yet in the 11 months since drinking the lager in Barca, some are calling for the head of the bloke who masterminded our first European adventures like these since the days of John Barnwell?
With a third indeterminable lockdown upon us and a Beast from the East predicted in the near future, the warm Spanish sun on our backs feels like a million years ago.
Times change alright, just like some opinions are regarding the man we all agreed was the best manager we’d been blessed with since the days of Stan Cullis.
An increasingly vocal minority seem to have made their minds up on a stubborn, obdurate Nuno, who is unable to change his defensive mindset which has overseen a meagre 18 goals from 17 games (level with a painfully dour Newcastle United and worsened only by Burnley in those sides outside the bottom three).
Such statistics are hard to argue against but in an attempt to do so, I’ll revisit Nuno’s quote after the Leeds United game, when we finally looked to be breaking through that glass ceiling of pragmatism during a second half showing of real intent.
When referring specifically to the second half at Elland Road, the man so infamous for saying so little said: “We were better with the ball and created more chances [in the second half]. It’s about the identity.”
In that second half, Nuno could call upon Boly, Dendoncker, Podence, matchwinner Jiménez and even Marcal for the final throes of the match.
While you can argue the whys and wherefores of such a small squad, losing the spine of it in recent weeks has put the kibosh on that new identity which was threatening to bear fruit, which we also got a glimpse of at Arsenal in a memorable 2-1 win (albeit one featuring more shocking game management like we saw at Brighton, but managed to get away with).
Right now, we look betwixt and between; neither as good as last season’s counter attacking side nor plausible enough as a possession based one with so many first teamers missing.
As a result, we are where we are (13th) and if Nuno is a victim of anything, then it is not his defensive mindset but circumstance itself, as his blueprint for a new style of play has been scrunched up with the loss of so many key players.
When replacing with kids – who Neil Warnock once rued will give you ‘one performance in three’ as was the case when blooding Scannell, Clyne, Bostock and Moses at Palace in 2008 – it’s no wonder we’re so inconsistent. Rayan Aït-Nouri, in particular, would seem to adhere to this old equation.
Sure, the small squad hasn’t helped, but with Jose Mourinho remaining the biggest influence on Nuno’s managerial career, anything other than this was always going to be a departure from what he’d always known. “21 players plus the goalkeepers and no more,” said Jose in his first press conference at Chelsea.
To then manage Porto years later meant Nuno understood more about the need to create an attack-minded team, for fear of getting lynched by a fan base that demanded this as standard.
“I learned a massive amount from my time there,” he once said. “First of all, that a draw was not something that you considered as good!”
While a healthy dose of criticism is to be welcomed, it’s surely unfair to be aiming anything other than a few questions in our manager’s direction, rather than a demand for something more severe?
I have one or two myself, including the sale of Pedro Gonçalves to Sporting CP, who is now being dubbed the next Bruno Fernandes after scoring 11 league goals already. Then there’s the summer transfer activity, which was underwhelming at best and absolutely mind-blowing at worst.
Levelling this one at Nuno is arguably unfair when considering the agent behind the deals, but one look at Vitinha and Fabio Silva would have told most fans that they were the most inappropriate additions possible for the squad we had at our disposal.
On the flip side, it was only two years ago that Nuno had identified Tammy Abraham as his ideal number nine, who was a whisker away from signing if rumours were to be believed, before finishing his Championship season with Villa instead. When watching him score a hat-trick at Molineux a year later from the dug-out with passive indifference, it’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy towards the manager and the one that got away? Now 23 and his contract expiring in 2023, maybe we could make another Abraham approach, although it’s hard to see Chelsea selling when Werner and Havertz look so average instead.
Harder still to envisage Diego Costa in old gold, but the exciting principle remains that a physical presence at the top end of the pitch – and a man of substance in midfield behind him – is all that’s stopping us from transforming a season that seems to be mirroring life right now.
In an old gold parallel with Lockdown 3, it’s a pretty depressing time but things could be a lot worse. And while it’s hard to picture at this very moment, the good times will return, of this I’m certain.
Maybe Jez Moxey’s much-maligned motto was the right one all along, albeit eight years too soon…
…‘Tough times don’t last…tough people do.‘