Tuesday 20 March 2018

Doherty shining in Wolves' league of nations

Dubliner's displays help Mendes-inspired Wanderers surge to top of Championship

Dubliner Matt Doherty has been a key figure in Wolves’ promotion charge. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Dubliner Matt Doherty has been a key figure in Wolves’ promotion charge. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Last week, an English newspaper ran a story asking if the current Wolves side are the greatest team to ever play in the Championship.

That's a big call for the first week in December, but if they can maintain the performance levels that have brought them to the top of the league then they will have earned their place in the discussion.

Sky viewers get another chance to watch the Wolves machine tonight, with a Midlands derby with Birmingham at St Andrew's presenting the away side with the opportunity to extend their lead over the chasing pack.

And there is an Irish angle to the story, with Dubliner Matt Doherty starring at right wing-back in a fluid 3-4-3 formation after being energised by a change of management and formation over the summer.

This is not a typical promotion story, though. For the ascension of Wolves from the peloton to a breakaway is tied in with a Chinese takeover and the influence of super agent Jorge Mendes, the man behind Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

In July 2016, Wolves were taken over by a company named Fosun International, who have business links with Mendes.

Football agent Jorge Mendes. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Football agent Jorge Mendes. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The first campaign was inglorious with new boss Walter Zenga replaced by Paul Lambert less than a third of the way through en route to a 15th-place finish.

Lambert left in the summer, and the reportage in the aftermath suggested the Scot was unhappy that player recruitment would essentially be out of his hands.

A number of foreign purchases which he inherited had struggled, and it was said that Lambert had concerns about their ability to adapt to the physicality of the Championship, a gruelling division which is a marathon rather than a sprint.

He was evidently working under the impression that Wolves would be going after the same type of player again.


But the powers that be had a plan and, while they have been coy on the extent of Mendes's involvement, the fact they turned to his first client was telling.

Nuno Santo Espirito met Mendes in 1996 and is still represented by the man who was a nightclub owner when they first encountered each other.

Mendes started his journey to a new level of stardom by brokering the goalkeeper's move from Portuguese outfit Vitoria Guimaraes to Spanish giants Deportivo La Coruna.

The dealmaker would move on to bigger and better things, but Nuno is beginning to write his own history in Wolves as an innovative manager.

Local reporters in Wolverhampton recently asked the 43-year-old about Mendes's influence. The response was typically guarded. "I am the client of the best agent in the world," he said, "I do my job; he does his job."

But it's evident that Wolves now have the connections to bring in high-class talent that appears to be too good for their current level.

Ruben Neves (who is suspended tonight) was linked with Chelsea and Liverpool in the summer and the midfielder fitted the profile of a target for a major force - a 20-year-old playing with Porto who is in the record books as the youngest Champions League captain of all time.

At 18, he skippered Porto in a game with Maccabi Tel Aviv. It's unlikely that he imagined himself pitching up in Wolverhampton a couple of years later, but a £15m fee made it possible.

The summer spree also saw his compatriot Diogo Joto land on loan from Atletico Madrid, while striker Ivan Cavaleiro - formerly of Monaco - has come to life under Nuno.

Brazilian Leo Bonatini is on loan from a Saudi Arabian club, while Porto and Villarreal are the parent club for other loanees in a diverse squad.

That's a contrast from Mick McCarthy's time at Wolves where the capture of Doherty from Bohemians was in keeping with the markets where they sought talent.

His cut-price promotion achievements were remarkable. Nuno's side are starring in a different way - cash and contacts have driven them, but he can take credit for the style.

And it is striking how the coach has managed to take an existing player such as Doherty and find a role for him that has brought his performances to another level.

The 25-year-old is the only squad member that was part of the previous Premier League adventure under McCarthy and he had morphed into a makeshift left back in recent campaigns.


Now he's an attacking right full who showcased his talent with a brilliant individual goal in a win over Reading last month.

On the opposite flank there's a Scot, Barry Douglas, who was brought in from Turkey and also contributed assists and goals.

Ex-Liverpool youth Conor Coady is another survivor from the pre-takeover days and he has been converted into a key cog in a three-man defence.

They are a terrific side to watch, with their technical quality and speed of movement setting them apart in a challenging division.

Another interesting Irish thread here is English-born youngster Connor Ronan who declared for Ireland before the European U-17 Championships in 2015 and starred in a playmaking role.

He broke through under Lambert before injury stunted his progress, but the 19-year-old shone in an EFL Cup cameo against Manchester City earlier this season.

When Kevin De Bruyne agreed to hand over his shirt in the tunnel after an extra-time win, the youngster was stunned when the Belgian asked for his in return. It may well have been politeness, but Ronan has skills that have earned him respect.

On one hand, it's not ideal for the Rochdale native to be at a club where there are so many players ahead of him in the queue. The flip side of that is that he's in an environment where the brand of play suits his approach.

That's a name to remember as this Wolves story gathers pace on what appears to be an inevitable journey to the highest level.

Tonight's TV fare may be from the second tier, yet it will feature a side with superior quality to some of the Premier League outfits that will fill the schedule over the winter.

Birmingham City v Wolves, Live, Sky Sports, 7.45

Irish Independent

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