With Wolverhampton Wanderers quickly establishing themselves as a top half of the table European competition contenders so quickly after gaining promotion to the Premier League, Glenn Entwistle looks at whether Rovers where ahead of their time with their experiment with a Portuguese contingent back in 2012.
As I run out of new series to watch on Netflix during this current lockdown, I thought I’d revisit the “Sunderland ‘Till I Die” documentary series – partly because I’m fed up of them busting my accumulator every week in League One, partly because I lived in Sunderland for a few years and have many friends who are die-hard supporters of the Black Cats, and partly because it is a great documentary. I often console my friends from the North East by telling that although it must be a tough watch, but had they done a similar documentary around Blackburn Rovers between 2010 and 2013, it would probably have been listed as a comedy rather than a sports documentary.
It’s difficult to believe that as I write this, Sunderland find themselves just in the play-offs in League One, in their third season in the division – they are a club with a massive fanbase and massive potential, and an example, similar to Rovers, that if not run sensibly on a day-to-day basis, of what can go wrong. Perhaps more difficult to believe in hindsight is that Sunderland’s last win in the Championship was a 3-0 victory at the Stadium of Light over Wolves, in 2018. Since that game, Wolves have gone from strength to strength and I’ve just watched them win 2-1 away at Southampton to put them in 12th place, following on from finishing 7th in their first season back in the top flight (qualifying for the Europa League) and then 7th again last season. In comparison, Sunderland have finished 5th and lost in the play off final, and then down in 8th last season. Somewhat polar opposite journeys.
Looking at Wolves, they won the Championship comfortably in 2017-18 by nine points finishing ahead of Cardiff, in Nuno Espirito Santo’s first full year as head coach. In the previous year they finished 15th and got through five managers – Kenny Jacket, Walter Zenga, Rob Edwards, for Rovers manager Paul Lambert, and then Nuno Espirito Santo. Only four years prior to that Championship title, Wolves had found themselves in League One. Some will look at this and see parallels with Rovers – relegated to League One in 2017, promoted at the first time of asking – and next season will be four years since that season in League One, so working to the Wolves narrative, we should be looking at promotion to the Premier League next season (2021-22). If we follow that narrative, perhaps most worryingly for Tony Mowbray, Wolves hired Kenny Jackett for that League One season, stuck with him for two seasons, decided to move on and despite a year of turmoil seeing managers, eventually settled on Espirito Santo who got them promoted. There is every chance if Rovers changed managers now (which, for the record, I don’t think they should), we could end up with a merry-go-round akin to the 2012-13 season before we settled on our next manager. For me, it is too great a gamble.
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However, the Wolves and Rovers narratives aren’t straight comparisons – in 2016, Wolves were bought by the Fosun Group, a Chinese multinational conglomerate, and that is when their fortunes started to change and they started to look upwards towards the Premier League instead of mid-table in the Championship. Buying the club in the summer of 2016, they made an immediate change by replacing Jackett with Zenga, this didn’t work and three months later Zenga was replaced by interim manager Edwards, who held the fort until Lambert was appointed who then lasted to the end of the season when he was relieved of his duties and replaced by Espirito Santo, former goalkeeper and more importantly, the first client of then nightclub owner and now football super-agent, Jorge Mendes.
Mendes had been involved with the club since the Fosun takeover in 2016 and was said to be a “friend and advisor” to the Chinese conglomerate and before that, the two had a relationship outside of football with one of the subsidiary firms of the conglomerate owning a percentage of one of Mendes’ companies.
International football agent plays an advisory role at a club – this sounds all too familiar, right? However, Wolves appear to have benefit very well out of this relationship.
In their first season as owners, Fosun spent £29.2m on transfers (a net spend of £26.7m), including £13m on Helder Costa from Benfica and £7m on Ivan Cavaleiro from Monaco – big fees for players from big clubs, arguably dropping down a level. Of the 11 players they signed, 27% were Portuguese (and 9% was Ben Marshall).
This is a pattern that has followed ever since and if you look at the Wolves squad today, nine of the 36-man squad are Portuguese, the most of any nationality, with the second most being six English players. Five of their starting eleven against Southampton today come from Portuguese. It helps when those players are of the quality of Pedro Neto, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Nelsen Semedo, Rui Patricio, Daniel Podence, and Fabio Silva.
New owners look to exploit a relatively untapped market in Portugal by signing youngsters with potential and supplementing them with experienced players from the same homeland? This also sounds a bit familiar, right? To a degree, the difference is the quality of youngsters Wolves have brought in and the money they have invested in them. Under Fosun, Wolves have broken their transfer record no less than six times and only once did these transfers not involve a Portuguese player.
Time for a history lesson and maybe a lesson in almost doing the right thing, but not quite.
In 2012, Rovers had just been relegated to the Championship, had relatively new owners, and were looking for an immediate return to the topflight. They spent a significant amount of money both in transfers (Jordan Rhodes (£8m) and Leon Best (£3m)) and also on wages (Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Jordan Rhodes, Leon Best, and Nuno Gomes (more on him later)); but they also decided that Portugal was the place to go for young players with plenty of promise. I like to think this was a deliberate ploy based on statistics and scouting that Andy (@andywatsonsport) and Joe (@AnalyticsRovers) would be proud of, but I fear it was more likely based on something along the lines of “United bought Ronaldo from Portugal when he was just 18 and look how good he turned out to be”.Embed from Getty Images
Whatever the thought process and scouting behind the decision, Rovers decided to plunder the Portuguese market and bring in six players from the Iberian Peninsula believing they could steal a march on the rest of the division and they would be the secret key to a promotion campaign. For many Rovers fans, the following names may bring on a cold sweat, or perhaps more likely, a deep forage into the memory for any sort of recollection of them on the pitch:
It started with such optimism as the first man through the door with his Portuguese passport was experienced striker Nuno Gomes, joining on a free from Braga at aged 36. Before joining Rovers, Gomes had played for European giants such as Benfica and Fiorentina and had represented his country 79 times scoring 29 goals. During his second spell at Benfica I recall numerous strong links with Gomes joining Rovers and at the time this generally excited me as I liked him as a player – so when he finally joined in 2012, I foolishly got a bit carried away, not helped by the signings of Murphy and Etuhu, and it looked like we had a solid squad with quality and experience. As it turned out, Gomes wasn’t actually that bad for Rovers, scoring four goals in 18 appearances, and was, Jordan Rhodes aside, probably our best bit of business that summer. However, he was most likely towards the upper echelons of our wage bill and as the reality of an immediate return disappeared and the worry of financial fair play appeared on the horizon, he was released from contract the following summer, and ultimately retired. As I’ll come on to though, I don’t think he was signed just for his goals, I think he was the first part of a plan to tap the Portuguese market, and he was going to be the familiar pro and role model to take the following players under his wing.
Next in was 20-year-old Fabio Nunes – joining from Portimonense for an undisclosed fee (believed to be around £90k), where he had made just one first team appearance coming off the bench. Nunes stayed at Rovers for a year longer than Gomes but during his time, he made only seven appearances scoring zero goals – my main memories of him are that he looked as though he had bags of potential, loved a step-over and went to ground perhaps a bit too easily. Since leaving Roves on a free in 2014, he joined Latina in Serie B before heading back to Belenenses in Portugal, and at the last count he’d played 110 games and scored 9 goals during his career and was plying his trade aged 28 at Farense who are in the Primeira Liga after securing promotion in 2019-20.
Third in was Paulo Jorge, a 19-year-old central midfielder who joined from Porto’s B team on a believed to be free transfer (officially it was undisclosed). Having only played for Porto and Braga’s youth teams when he joined Rovers he had yet to make a senior appearance, and this didn’t change much after he joined us as he made just two appearances during his three years at the club. Of the young Portuguese contingent, he lasted longer than all the others but still rarely featured and spent time on loan at Bulgarian side Beroe before being released in July 2015. Since leaving Rovers, he has spent time at Erndtebruck in Germany, Gaz Metan Medias in Romania, before returning to Portugal for Trofense and currently for Espinho (who reside in the third tier of Portuguese football), making 92 appearances and scoring twice during his career to date. I actually remember seeing Paulo Jorge in a pre-season friendly at Accrington in 2012 and he looked a technically good player and I was actually disappointed we didn’t see more of him – on that day he looked like a younger version on Danny Murphy whilst playing alongside him, he was good on the ball, composed and could pick a pass.
Signed on the same day as Jorge was Edinho Junior, who joined us for a nominal fee from Olhanense aged 18. Like Jorge, we didn’t get chance to see much of the forward as he made only one first team appearance during his 18 months at the club before he was loaned out to Shillong Lajong in India (I’m actually surprised we haven’t seen more of this type of transfer during the Venky’s reign) and Whitehawk in the Isthmian League, before leaving on a free in January 2014. After leaving Rovers; he signed for Harrisburg Islanders in the US (Second tier below the MLS) before going on to Farense, Erndtebruck, Almancilense, Gaz Metan Medias, and now Farense. To date he has made 104 appearances and scored 14 goals.
A bit of Google research suggests that Edinho Junior and Paulo Jorge were at Erndtebruck and Gaz Metan Medias at the same time, or at least very nearly, however that’s where any sort of link goes cold. Gaz Metan Medias where managed Cristian Pustai in the Romanian topflight and Erndtebruck by Florian Schnorrenberg in the fifth tier of German football. For anyone looking for a link to agents or managers, I can’t find one, the only link I can find is that they went to play for far less notable clubs than Rovers much further down the football pyramids in respective countries, which probably tells you more about the quality of the player than it does about any conspiracy or agent involvement.
The first of two deadline day signings in August 2012 was Diogo Rosado, joining from Sporting Lisbon on a free. The 22-year-old hadn’t featured for the Sporting first team but had spent time out on loan are various Portuguese clubs between 2009-11 appearing 40 times and scoring three times – so at least there was a body of work to scout. Rosado made two appearances for Rovers during the 2012-13 season and didn’t find the net. However, my memory of him will be of the game away at Huddersfield in November 2012, Rovers sat 2-1 up and the game was deep in to injury time, and instead of taking the ball to the corner, or even booting it high and wide for a goal kick, Rosado attempted the feeblest shot which the keeper gathered easily before launching an attack which Lee Novak ultimately equalised from in the 95th minute – I might be wrong, but I think that was the last time we saw him in a Rovers shirt. Since having his contract terminated by mutual consent (I’d have terminated without mutual consent on the way back down the M62 that night) he’s gone on to play for no less than ten clubs in seven years and has scored nine times in 121 appearances, and like Jorge and Edinho Junior, he also found himself at Gaz Metan Medias at around the same time. He can currently be found playing for Concordia Chiajna in the second tier in Romania.
For anyone keeping count, with one player to go, that’s a total of 30 appearances and 4 goals from the five players so far, and Gomes taking credit for all four of the goals and 60% of the appearances.Embed from Getty Images
The last man through the door and joining on deadline day was Nuno Henrique, for me, the biggest enigma of the lot. The defender joined from Academica in the Portuguese topflight, on a free but at the age of 25 – this wasn’t someone we were buying for ‘potential’, at age 25 he should arguably have been a first team starter. For context, Darragh Lenihan is currently 26 and has been a first team regular for 3-4 years; and at the time he signed, Grant Hanley was 20 and had already played 31 times in the Premier League. Before joining Rovers, Henrique had made 98 first team appearances, with a chunk of those coming in the first team in the Primeira Liga, yet during his two years at the club, he made no appearances, before being released in February 2014. Since leaving he went on to Jagiellonia Bialystok playing in the topflight in Poland, the Ekstraklasa, although he also never appeared for them, before eventually finding a more regular game at Boavista, appearing 48 times in three seasons in the Primeria Liga. He currently plays for Portuguese third-tier side Lusitania. Of all the transfers that have been made during the Venky’s ownership of the club, this is the one that baffles me the most.
So, the final standings of the Portuguese experiment: six players signed for a transfer cost of around £200k; 30 appearances and four goals – and if you take Nuno Gomes out of that, it’s just 12 appearances and zero goals. So, did we buy them too young? Looking at the clubs these players have turned out for since leaving Ewood and the number of appearances made since we bought them over the last 8 years (an average of 106 appearances per player and an average of 13 appearances each per year), I’d argue they were never going to be up to the quality needed to make a mark on the Championship – the only saving grace is that we only spent the equivalent of a fifteenth of a Leon Best on their transfer fees. Perhaps a more revealing review of their transfers and time at the club would be to look at the wages they were paid and who brokered the deals.
So, in comparison, how have Wolves’ Iberian imports got on? I probably don’t need to tell you, but, much better than ours. Since buying the club in 2016, Fosun have overseen the signing of 22 Portuguese players for cost of £100.8m (not including undisclosed transfer fees, so this number is likely to be much higher) and have sold some on for £61m. Those 22 players have made a total of 799 appearances for the club scoring 99 goals. Even if you break it down to just the one season (which is probably the most we can argue any of the 6 imports Rovers signed made), that still equates to an average of 200 appearances and 25 goals, per season.
So, what’s the point of this? I’m not really sure there is one, other than Rovers were arguably thinking along the right lines and looking for a market which was either un-tapped or under-valued, but hindsight shows us we probably signed the wrong players, and this was probably as a result of either poor or non-existent scouting, or trusting the wrong agents and intermediaries. In comparison, Wolves cosied up to one of the biggest agents in world football and have reaped the rewards. Yes, they have spent considerably more than Rovers did, but they’ve got quality and contributions from those players – Wolves have shopped at John Lewis, whereas Rovers did their shopping at wish.com.
As to why Rovers chose Portugal, it is difficult to see other than the recent form and success of players such as Ronaldo, Nani and Carvalho who had all made an impact upon the Premier League, and Portugal were always talked about as one of the best national teams in football. The only link I can see is that then manager Steve Kean spent three years at Academica (the same club Rovers signed Henrique from) and made nine appearances – maybe during his time there he saw something they were doing over there that was different and he thought it was worth a go; but then again that was more than 20 years prior to the summer we decided to buy Portuguese, and who’s to say Kean was even involved in the transfers, their lack of playing time would suggest as much.
As with most things going on at the club at that time, perhaps the most accurate response to the question of why, is god knows why.
All statistics were correct at the time of writing.