Wolverhampton Wanderers have only sporadically enjoyed European football since their golden era in the 1950s, but a controversial connection with Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes has made them a force to be reckoned with again.
The club’s three league triumphs are immortalised in statues to Wolves legend Billy Wright and manager Stan Cullis at either end of the club’s Molineux stadium.
The side they led came to be heralded “champions of the world” by the English press for winning a serious of glamour friendlies that ultimately led to the creation of the European Cup.
Sixty years on, Wolves could be back in the Champions League next season via a top-four finish in the Premier League – potentially fifth should Manchester City’s two-year European football ban stand – or by winning the Europa League.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s men host Espanyol in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie on Thursday and sit just five points off the Champions League places in the Premier League.
Just six years ago Wolves were a sleeping giant, rooted in England’s third tier, but a takeover by Chinese conglomerate Fosun in 2016 and their close links to Mendes have transformed the fortunes of the club.
The appointment of Nuno as coach and a steady drip feed of some of Mendes’ star-studded client list saw Wolves promoted in the Portuguese manager’s first season in charge and finish seventh in their first campaign back in the Premier League.
“For a lot of fans of my generation you feel like you are watching your game of Football Manager come to life,” David Evans of the Wolves Fancast told AFP.
Portuguese internationals Rui Patricio, Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, former Atletico Madrid and Benfica striker Raul Jimenez and Nuno himself are among the Mendes clients to become modern-day giants at Molineux.
“After many conversations, he convinced me that taking charge of the Wolves would be the right step for me. The project was very challenging and was presented in a very enthusiastic way,” Nuno told ESPN Brazil.
“He is my friend and a person I admire a lot. He is the best agent in the world.”
Wolves’ success has not been without its critics. Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani branded the relationship between Fosun and Mendes “not legal and fair” in 2018.
However, investigations from both the English Football League and Premier League concluded that as Mendes holds no official role at the club, no rules are being breached.
Wolves’ reliance on the Mendes production line shows no sign of slowing down. The signing of Daniel Podence from Olympiakos in January took the total number of Portuguese players in Nuno’s first-team squad to eight.
Earlier this month, sporting director Kevin Thelwell – the man credited for shrewd signings not connected to Mendes such as club captain Conor Coady and Belgium international Leander Dendoncker – left the club to become head of sport at New York Red Bulls.
Correspondence that came to light in the Football Leaks disclosures showed the pivotal role played by Mendes. One email from Wolves executive chairman Jeff Shi to Mendes’s Gestifute agency said: “You always know the reason for the investment of Wolves is mainly because of our bet and trust on Jorge.”
Premier League clubs spent more than £260 million ($336 million) alone on agents’ fees in the 2018/19 season, accelerating calls for a crackdown on that money flooding out of the game.
However, for fans who have lived through the hard times, hooking up with Mendes is a price well worth playing to chase the Champions League dream.
“Ninety-five percent of the players we have had from him have been fantastic successes, so we can’t argue with that,” said Evans.
“If you’ve got the option of tapping into the little black book of Jorge Mendes and his stockpile, why wouldn’t you do that?
“I’m sure other teams in the Premier League, if they had the option to utilise a relationship with someone like Mendes, they would.”