Little over two years ago, Wolves were seen as nothing but another team. Another club, from another West Midlands city. Stable in the Championship, but nothing more. Industrial in nature, best known for coal mining, steel production and car manufacture.
A place inhabited by blue collar, salt of the earth citizens. People who love their team, and support no matter what. People who dream of success, but never expect it. People who got given one surreal, yet totally tangible shock.
Fosun International. To those who knew no better, it seemed like another ponzi scheme. An Asian conglomerate and investment company. Wolves fans could cite QPR, Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth. Alarm bells that didn’t sound off until it was too late. This time however, there was nothing to fear. Owner Jeff Shi wasn’t here to mess around, and he could prove it.
After the first season in charge Wolves sat in a lowly fifteenth place. Fans began to murmur. A summer of discontent would not be tolerated. Jeff Shi decided to make a decision, one to show the Wolverhampton faithful he was for real. He was tired of emails and phone calls from across the globe, this needed a hands on approach. No longer wanting to be a main director, Jeff Shi changed his title to chairman. Then he moved. From Shanghai. To Wolverhampton.
The boardroom was changed. Jeff Shi wanted a tight-knit group, who knew what was best for the club. He appointed lifelong Wolves fans John Bowater and John Gough to help with the running of the business. A new manager was in order.
Nuno Espirito Santo was called for. Investment was necessary for a promotion challenge. Wolves started to buy. Barry Douglas and John Ruddy came in to stop the leak of goals. The signing of wonderkid Ruben Neves for a fee of £15.8m got the Wolves faithful dreaming about a Premier League return.
The blueprint was set. The plan was in order. If Wolves could go out and play to their potential, then they had a chance to reach the big time. An experienced coach, skilful players and an ambitious owner were determined to reward the fans loyalty.
Forty-six games later, Wolverhampton Wanderers had amassed 99 points. Jeff Shi’s plan had worked. The Championship had been ravaged.
After a six season stint in the lower divisions, Wolves are back at the Premier League table. Summer investment suggests that they don’t plan on going anywhere but up. Turning loanee signings into permanents has been of top priority.
Willy Boly, Leo Bonatini, Ruben Vinagre and Diogo Jota have all been snapped up for this year and beyond. Next up was Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patricio, a statement of true intent. In a bizarre state of circumstance, Wolves bid £16m, but got him for free. Sporting CP accepted, and then wanted more. Wolves took it to the court of arbitration on the grounds of freedom of contract. They won. At least for now.
Some question Wolves’ hold on financial fair play, but managing director Laurie Dalrymple recently told the Express and Star that the club is “not in danger”. With further ambition to invest in elite talent, they best not be. Rumours of AC Milan’s Andre Silva for £33m have been thrown around. A three way tussle with Southampton and Newcastle for Stefano Sturaro seems to be hotting up. Speculation or not, the Fosun Group mean business.
Why Wolves? Many would ask Jeff Shi what his motivation was for buying a football team in middle England. Was it a shared history in industrial management? An unmissable investment opportunity? To allow his primary group of Fosun International to garner greater global attention?
I doubt the people of Wolverhampton care. In an Express and Star exclusive, the Chinese businessman explained his long term goals, stating: “It’s a ten-year plan. It’s an achievement to have a small Premier League club but it’s not our (ultimate) target.
“We want to build a strong team and it will take time with ups and downs…It’s a different methodology and personally I think it’s different from most other clubs. That’s a new way. Some fans want to compare us with Manchester City or Chelsea but it’s different.”
On 11 August, Wolves will host Everton in their first Premier League game for six years. It will be match one of 38, and there will be ups and downs along the way. There might be a dismantling by Arsenal at the Emirates, or a surprise for Liverpool at Molineux.
Whether Wolverhampton Wanderers make European football, or are relegated bottom of the division, Jeff Shi will be there for the ride.