Wolverhampton Wanderers playing European football is a throwback to a golden era.
Their 1954 match with the crack Hungarian outfit Honved predated the original European Cup. And in 1972, Wolves played in the first-ever UEFA Cup final, losing to Tottenham over two legs.
The time between that and Willy Boly scoring a Europa League winner at Beskitas on Thursday has been one of frequent turbulence for the Black Country club.
The mid-1980s saw the club plunge to the old Fourth Division and go close to extinction.
The road back to the top has been long, and circuitous, from the Steve Bull-inspired revival of the late 1980s and 1990s that never resulted in a return to the top division. It was not until the 2003-04 season that Wolves got to play in the Premier League after years of hitting the glass ceiling.
Mick McCarthy took Wolves into the Premier League during his six years at Molineux and managed to keep them up on a limited budget before being sacked midway through the 2011-12 season as the trapdoor opened.
He had been the first boss to keep Wolves up in the top division for fully 30 years.
At that time, it felt like Wolves would forever remain one of those clubs for whom fans’ greatest satisfaction lay in looking backwards. Followers of Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and Nottingham Forest to give just three examples could sympathise with that sensation of never being able to escape the vortex that pulls a provincial club down.
Wolves, though, have managed to escape that gravitational force, and by just about the only means that delivers success in modern football, the sugar daddy who has the resources and contacts to pull off an escape from the Championship.
Foreign owners are the norm in England now and they provide the hope to many fans’ keening eyes.
It could be your club rescued by an oligarch whose Swiss bank accounts bulge with petrodollar cash.
It worked for Chelsea, and then it transformed Manchester City from a comedy punchline to the centrepiece of a gold-plated, planet-straddling franchise structure with the world’s best manager tempted to a previously forgotten corner of the Mancunian conurbation.
There is a price for that success, though.
City fans have struggled with the searching questions their club’s success have engaged, tied themselves in knots to defend things like Abu Dhabi’s involvement in war in the Middle East, and the Emirates’ treatment of homosexuals and human rights.
These were overriding themes in the days that followed last season’s Treble being completed by a 6-0 FA Cup final defeat of Watford.
Are the pyrotechnics that David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne have produced so glorious when they are underpinned by those real-world factors? Football fandom has become a moralistic tightrope to walk. Supporters of clubs find themselves having to justify geopolitical issues and financial jiggery-pokery way beyond the ken of anyone but the highest level of experts.
Back when their team were taking the Championship by storm two seasons ago, Wolves fans had to perform similar defences. However, the rarefied atmosphere of the Premier League, where many a club has owners of questionable provenance, has dampened that down.
Wolves’ route back to Europe was not a fairytale of a tattered institution pulling itself up by the bootstraps. Far from it.
Fosun International were in the UK news quite recently. As high street travel agent Thomas Cook was breathing its last, the Chinese conglomerate had been circling the distressed assets of the venerable business, having already owned a significant percentage.
Previously, they were best known in Britain as the backers of Wolves, who in tandem with ‘super-agent’ Jorge Mendes, had transformed the club of Billy Wright, John Richards and, yes, Steve Bull, into a Portuguese enclave, a team of Mendes-advised talent, managed by the Mendes-advised Nuno Espirito Santo with a smattering of the likes of Conor Coady and Matt Doherty keeping things real.
We have our own problems but we should play in a fair competition. Not legal and fair let one team owned by a fund whom has shares in the biggest players agency with evident benefits (top European clubs giving players with options to buy ..why the other 23 teams can’t have same
— Andrea Radrizzani (@andrearadri) March 7, 2018
The 2017-18 season, where Wolves took the step up to the Premier League, saw Championship peers criticise a club soon to be disappearing over the horizon. Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani called the Mendes factor “illegal and unfair”.
How could a player with the talent of Ruben Neves, wanted by Europe’s elite, be found playing at Rotherham and Burton Albion? With third-party deals illegal under FIFA rules, agents like Mendes sought other ways to make revenue from clients and forged links to clubs prepared to be advised in return for the use of that talent.
Neves and the likes of Rui Patricio, Joao Moutinho and Ruben Vinagre have become part of a team that pushed itself into Europe, and after a slow start to the campaign, looks to have recovered its step.
Claims that the involvement of Mendes had bent the rules have been swept aside and no action has been taken against the club despite a Football Leaks release suggesting a conflict of interest.
Fosun has a stake in Mendes’s agency via two subsidiaries. An alleged email from Jeff Shi, the Wolves executive chairman, read: “Such an arrangement is entirely for the purpose of tax avoidance and circumventing restrictive regulations.”
“Nuno had a dream” sing those fans in Old Gold faithful, but it is doubtful that the reverie of Mendes’ first-ever client, the former goalkeeper, included working for a Chinese investment company in the West Midlands, but such is modern football. And within the Premier League, the Wolves model is hardly unusual compared to the way other clubs are run.
Certain fans of Manchester United and Arsenal, their clubs owned by bottom-line conscious American business families, would not much mind a similar arrangement to that in place at Molineux.
Ahead of Wolves in the quest to compete with the biggest clubs are Leicester but now rebuilding a squad of rich talent funded by the Srivaddhanaprabha family’s King Power duty-free billions. The impact of that money was controversial in the lower divisions as Leicester hauled themselves up but was barely mentioned when the Premier League title was secured in 2016.
The realities got lost in the romance.
So far, similar has been the case for Wolves in the Premier League, though success might one day reintroduce the question of how they have come so far after so long in the doldrums.