It was the summer of 2016, Wolverhampton had just been taken over by the Chinese conglomerate Fosun and Kevin Thelwell was left in no uncertain terms that life at Molineux was about to change beyond all recognition. “Fosun had a very clear plan right from the very start,” he says. “’What does ‘great’ look like? That’s where we’re going, you’d better get your mind around that pretty quickly. We’re getting out of this league, into the Premier League and then we’re heading in that direction.’”
Thelwell is Wolves’ sporting director and, for the avoidance of doubt, pointing upward as he finishes that sentence. The man outlining the vision was Jeff Shi, who is Fosun’s representative and the executive chairman at Molineux, and it is tempting to think that he could just have quoted the city’s motto. “Out of darkness cometh light” are the words under Wolverhampton’s coat of arms.
Less than three years down the line and Thelwell is sitting in an executive box at Molineux, gazing out on to a pitch where Wolves have just beaten Manchester United for the second time in the space of little more than a fortnight, talking about the club smashing their transfer record to sign Raúl Jiménez for £30m, and excitedly looking ahead to Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against Watford at Wembley.
Thelwell puffs out his cheeks. “The trajectory has been nothing short of incredible,” he says. “Nuno [Espírito Santo, the manager] and Fosun have got to take a huge amount of credit. Nuno because that’s his own work on show – the team is producing an unbelievable level of football. And Fosun because they supported him. There are many [owners] who come in and say they’re going to do something. Well, Fosun have put their money where their mouth is.”
Shi has spoken candidly about Fosun’s long-term aim, which is to win the Premier League and surpass Manchester City, and, although nobody at Wolves is under any illusions about how difficult that will be, it is clear that the club’s owners are deadly serious. “It’s a dream and an ambition worth waking up for, isn’t it?” Thelwell says. “Why shouldn’t we achieve something as bold as that? If you can get the whole organisation to believe in it, then you can do it.”
That is a challenge in itself, bearing in mind Wolves’ recent history. Six years ago Steve Morgan, then the club’s owner, was moved to apologise for “failing our supporters and the city” after Wolves slipped into League One.
Thelwell, who joined Wolves as academy director in 2008, had not long taken on the position of head of football development and recruitment at the time of that second successive relegation and that means he knows all about the doom and gloom that have enveloped Molineux at times.
The shift from years spent in the doldrums to now requires a change in the way that people think at Wolves, not just how they go about their jobs.
Essentially, it is about creating a totally new working culture. Full staff briefings have been introduced so that, as Thelwell explains, “everybody can see exactly where we’re going, what the vision is and why they’re here”.
Shi, Laurie Dalrymple – the managing director – and Thelwell address everyone twice a year to get those messages across.
“We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity to be successful that lots of clubs haven’t got, because people are supporting us, and we should grasp that,” Thelwell says. “We have to embrace the ambition of the owners and match the ambitions of the people who are driving success on the pitch.
“Fundamentally that is Nuno, because we don’t want to lose him, and that is the players, because the moment we don’t succeed on the pitch they’ll want to be playing Champions League football, Europa League football, top-six football somewhere else.”
A former apprentice with Shrewsbury who ended up playing semi-professionally, Thelwell comes across as an affable and engaging character. He sounds proud of a lot of the work that goes on behind the scenes at Wolves and makes a point, for example, of flagging up the contribution made by Antonio Dias, the fitness coach, and Phil Hayward, the head of the medical department. “We’ve got a 98.5% [player] availability record for this season,” Thelwell says. “That is just ridiculous for this level.”
Thelwell’s own role is all-consuming. Appointed sporting director when Fosun took over, the 45-year-old has responsibility for the key football operations, including contracts and negotiation, sports science, medical, performance analysis, the academy and recruitment. His office is at the training ground, next door but one to Nuno’s, and he is on call 24/7. “My phone can never be switched off,” Thelwell says. “The last transfer window I slept on my couch and Jeff was ringing me at quarter to three in the morning.”
More intriguing is how often Jorge Mendes is at the other end of the line. Mendes is a close associate of Fosun and represents half a dozen of the Wolves players as well as Nuno. The popular perception – and this is a source of frustration for Wolves and Thelwell – is that the world’s most powerful football agent is controlling the club’s transfer strategy. “There’s a strong cooperation with us and I see that as a real benefit,” Thelwell says.
“Is he dictating and defining transfer policy? No. Has he got an office at the training ground? No. Do we speak to him? Yes. Do we speak to other agents? Yes. Does he come to some of the games? Yes. Do other agents come to some of the games? Yes. But the profile of the guy, and what he’s achieved, makes him a big story.
“My view is it gives us really good opportunities in that we’ve been able to reach some of the clients that he has and some clubs that we probably wouldn’t have been able to reach before, so it’s opened doors for us because he’s been able to facilitate meetings and conversations which has allowed us to sign some very good players. And there’s also business that we’ve done where he’s not been involved at all.
“But to say that he is sat at home worrying about Wolverhampton Wanderers, and worrying about what players we are going to sign in the summer, is just not true. Of course he’s thinking: ‘There’s some players that might be interesting to Wolves.’ And of course I’m feeding into him: ‘We’re looking for these profiles in the summer’, but I’m doing that with a lot of people and working hard to find the right option.’”
Thelwell revealed at a fans’ forum this season that Wolves are gathering reports on 5,000 players a month – an assessment that was on the conservative side. Either way, there is a feeling that Wolves are serious players in the market now. “I don’t think we’re getting Ronaldo and Messi and people like that. And let’s remember [Fosun] are an investment group, so if we are going to spend money, they want it spent wisely and they want resale value – you can see that in the make-up of the squad. But as they’ve shown with Raúl Jiménez, they’re willing to be supportive for the right players.”
It all feels a world away from those League One days, when Thelwell remembers Wolves struggling against Carlisle and panic setting in after a home draw with Coventry. “You have to pinch yourself really,” he says.
“We all recognised that we had a very good squad last year in the Championship, when Nuno found the ability to create that momentum, team cohesion and style of play, and now we’ve carried that on into the Premier League. But I don’t think anyone thought we’d have the season that we’ve had. We’re all daring to dream.”