Wolverhampton Wanderers should be the envy of every football fan who supports a team outside of the top six, dreaming of better but never quite getting there. Why? Because they back themselves.
Nuno Espirito Santo has worked a minor miracle in the West Midlands, his Portuguese revolution has provided a potent blend of flair and pragmatism on the field, but it’s the mindset, the confidence he injects into his players, that may be his finest piece of work.
Wolves have reached the knockout rounds of the Europa League, not by blowing away their opponents, not by over-exerting themselves or by spending mega-money, none of that. They’ve done so by simply showing up – in body and, predominantly, in mind.
Each season brings a fresh crop of ‘not top six teams’ scrapping away for a place in the Europa League, only to completely neglect the prize they strived to earn.
For too long, teams outside the established ‘elite’ have greeted the Europa League with sheer apathy, treated it as a pest or a threat to the insatiable desire for Premier League survival.
In just the past few years, tens of thousands of fans bubbling at the prospect of European football under the lights at St Mary’s, Turf Moor or the KCOM Stadium will have left soul-crushed as cowardly managers have fielded weakened, unrecognisable XIs, barely hiding their utter contempt for the Europa League.
Burnley. Burnley. Burnley brought European football to Turf Moor in 2018, yet Sean Dyche’s heavily-rotated team selections led to uncomfortable, squirming extra-time victories over Aberdeen and Istanbul Basaksehir before he finally got his wish and the Clarets were dumped out by Olympiakos.
A year earlier, Everton finished third in a group consisting of themselves, Atalanta, Lyon and Apollon Limassol.
In 2015, West Ham secured European football but bottled it against Astra Giurgiu – only the fourth best team in Romania at the time – in the play-off round prior to the group stage.
In a twist of fate, the Hammers were provided with the opportunity to exact vengeance for their fans one season later in the Europa League third-qualifying round.
They dropped Enner Valencia, Mark Noble, Arthur Masuaku, James Collins, even goalkeeper Adrian, from a winning line-up against Bournemouth the week before and were defeated 1-0 at the London Stadium by the titans of Giurgiu. Pathetic.
The list could go on, with Southampton humiliated by Midtjylland and Hull toppled by the mighty Lokeren all in the name of non-competitiveness.
The ‘not top six’ teams are so busy trying to qualify for tournaments they forget to compete in them.
Staying afloat in the Premier League is important, but the moment a team downs tools in a European competition they rarely qualify for – or have never qualified for – is the moment the whole spirit of the game dies.
This brings us back to Wolves. Wolves are different. Wolves back themselves.
As a result, their adoring fans are going on an adventure that they’ll remember far longer than the 7th to 14th place finish they will no doubt achieve this season.
It wasn’t an easy start to the campaign for Wolves as they perhaps did struggle with the thick flood of games at the beginning of the season, yet they remained solid, recording draws as opposed to wins or losses.
Now they’ve won two domestic games on the spin, Santo’s men are fifth in the Premier League table, unaffected by reaching the last 32 of a major European tournament.
Squad rotation is an increasingly necessary part of the modern game due to the sheer number of matches to be played across the globe, but any manager of a ‘not top six’ club who doesn’t set his side up to compete in the Europa League should be run out of town.
Wolves have taken Europe seriously and have rewarded their fans with a European tour that has so far included trips to Turin, Istanbul and Bratislava.
Now they have the promise of more, the promise of big knockout matches under the floodlights, and the promise of knowing they’re in it to win it.
They’re not turning up for the sake of it, half-hoping a defeat will swat the fly, banish the distraction, to focus on achieving a mind-numbing 13th place Premier League finish and not a tilt at glory in either competition.
Even in the unlikely scenario Wolves do fall short of a top-half finish and take a beating in the Europa League Round of 32, they will have done their fans proud, made memories to last a lifetime and toured the continent soaking up the reward of qualifying in the first place.
Isn’t that what football is all about?