Wolves billionaire owners insist they will be bigger than Man City

Wolverhampton has a population on 249,000, so aiming to make it the No 1 football club in the world might seem fanciful. 
But Jeff Shi, Wolves executive chairman, born and raised in Shanghai where the population is 24 million, offers some perspective. 'If you are comparing Manchester to the cities in China, it is very small city to us,' says Shi. 'But they have two top football clubs.'
In fact, there are 40 cities in China bigger than Greater Manchester. 'If your goal is to have a global club, your fans will be around the world,' says Shi. 'In Wolverhampton maybe the population isn't so high and for every game 50,000 or 45,000 is the max: it's no problem for us. 
'Because you want an international club and fans in the US, in Canada, in China, in Europe. Football doesn't need a very big metropolitan [area]. It's more about the people and their love and passion. That I can feel here. And for that reason, I like Wolverhampton very much.' 
It is at this stage in the conversation you realise that Wolverhampton, long since a punchline in cheap jokes, and its football team, which has existed on life support at times in the past 40 years, is genuinely changing. 
And how quickly that might happen, bearing in mind that Manchester City were football's oldest running gag until 10 years ago.
Shi doesn't baulk at the suggestion that they want to match them. 'In the future? Yes, why not? I do hope we can be the top club in the world. But it's not so useful to talk too much about that now. It's step by step. If you ask me the long-term goal, of course, we want to be as good as Man City, even better than them in future.'
He will stress the need for humility, how they have to learn and adapt, respect the fact that they are newcomers in the Premier League. But the goals are clear. 'We know how much Man City have invested into their squads and personally I don't think if you give me ten years or 30 years, it's not impossible to match. And football is not all about money. Even for Man City. And they made a lot of mistakes on the road. And if they did everything perfect they could have achieved their status now sooner. 
'We don't think it's not match-able. We can learn from them. And maybe we can do better than them, with the people, the team, the coach, the players. If combine that, maybe you can do something sooner than them or invest less than them and achieve the same goals.'
Most people recognised that Wolves were stirring when Nuno Santo was appointed manager last year and they signed Ruben Neves for £15m. More heads turned when they were ran away with The Championship, which they won with 99 points. Still more when they spent £66million this summer after promotion.
Their opening four performances in the Premier League, including the 1-1 draw with Manchester City, suggest that they are here to stay. There are plans to expand Molineux, eventually perhaps to a 50,000 stadium if they can. 'Step by step,' insists Shi, though.
It was 2014 when Fosun, the Shanghai-based international conglomerate which Shi represents, turned their attention to football. Within a year they were being advised by Jorge Mendes, agent to Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho and a source of contention to some Championship club last season, who accused them of breaking the rules that prohibit owners of clubs investing in agents. (They have been cleared by the EFL and Premier League).
Fosun bought Wolves for £30m in 2016. 'Before that we had been approached by many clubs in Italy, France, the Premier League and the Championship,' says Shi. 'We were looking for a club that was clean, by which I mean no debts. But a club with history and fan base. As it's hard to buy a small club from scratch.'
Initially it would have been easy to write off as the usual naive overseas investors. They sacked the traditional, decent British boss (Kenny Jackett), brought in an expensive, unsuitable international replacement (Walter Zenga), relied extensively on one agent for advice (Mendes) and proceeded to end up in relegation trouble.
The difference is that Fosun, though unknown in the UK until they brought Wolves, are a respected international brand, initially a market research firm set up by a group of twenty-something post graduates from Shanghai University in the 1990s, who have risen to become one of China's major overseas investors.
And they have learned quickly. Shi uprooted his family – he has two daughters - from Shanghai to the nearby village of Tettenhall last year, after the first underwhelming season. His office now overlooks the training ground. When we met on Friday, he had to be dragged away from watching training. This is not remote leadership.
'I came to live here because the owner (Fosun Chairman, Guo Guangchang) told me to come,' said Shi. 'He said: "Wolves is too important." At that time I wasn't so sure I should come as it's a big change for my family. But now I'm here and it's proof he owners were right.
'We do think some fans of Wolves are sleeping. Maybe their grandfather or father were fans. But this club has gone through a tough period so we have a sleeping fan base and the target is to wake them up.'
John Richards, now 67, remembers the most-recent glory days: he played in the 1972 UEFA Cup final for the club with Derek Doogan and Kenny Hibbert; he scored the winning goal in the 1974 League Cup final and played in the 1980 League Cup final win along with the likes of England captain Emlyn Hughes and Andy Gray, who had been signed for a British record of £1.5m. That was their last major trophy. 
'We were a really good team, on the up,' he recalls. 'It was really exciting time in the city because people still remembered the great teams of the 50s with Billy Wright and Jimmy Mullen. We would see them around as they lived locally.'
Of course, the 1950s were the real glory years: Wolves won league titles in 1954, 58 and 59 and the FA Cup in 1960. Wolverhampton was a global urban hub: the glamorous Wright, a local Shropshire lad married to Joy Beverley of pop group, The Beverley Sisters, was England captain; the Black Country was still powerful, despite post-war austerity, with its iron and engineering base supplemented by more-recent arrivals, such as Goodyear Tyres.
The Daily Mail christened the team 'champions of the world' when they beat Hungarian team Honved in a friendly in 1954. That claim and the match led to the setting up of the European Cup, which Wolves played in 1959 and 1960. So their Champions League heritage is rich.
The 1970s team revived some of that hope amidst a very different economic landscape. 'It was quite difficult in the early 70s,' says Richards, who still lives near the city and a director of a local company. 'A lot of engineering places were closing down. It needed a boost. And the team gave the town a great boost.'
So ambitious was the club that they built a huge new grandstand, The John Ireland Stand, opened in 1979 at the cost of £2.5million. Bizarrely, it was set back twenty metres from the pitch, but looked magnificent and was intended to be the start of the complete rebuilding of the ground. Yet within three years though the club was in administration. From 1983-1986 the club imploded, dropping from the top flight to what was then called Division Four (now League Two) in successive season.

STORY BEHIND FOSUN
Fosun has bucked the trend among Chinese conglomerates, many of whom have wound down their massive acquisition sprees over the past two years amid a government crackdown on the corporate spending frenzy.
Fosun told its investors in August it had reviewed a staggering 9000 deals globally in the previous 12 months alone – 25 a day – before completing 100. 
Spurred on by its billionaire chairman Guo Guangchang – known as 'China's Warren Buffet' - it has snapped up Fashion businesses in France, Austria and even tried to buy Italian lingerie label La Perla in February. 
The sprawling £10 billion group's interests also include stakes in Cirque du Soleil, Thomas Cook, a dating website at home in China as well as technology, pharmaceutical, insurance and property assets around the world.
'The club just plummeted,' said Richards. 'It's unheard of. It was a desperate time. I lost count of the number of managers. That stand typified the period: isolated, lonely stand. The fans felt away from the team. As a player you felt in the middle of nowhere.' It wasn't just the club that was struggling either. 'Goodyear were starting to cut back,' said Richards. 'That was a big part of the town. Lots of places were shutting down. It was quite a desperate time for Wolverhampton.'
The stadium was decrepit, with two stands shut for safety reasons. 'They were getting crowds of a couple of thousand in a half-derelict stadium,' says Richards. 
In 1986 the city council bought the ground, guaranteed the future and fixed a deal with local property developers to sell of part of the ground, which is now an Asda. 'It would have gone out of business,' says Richards. 
With Steve Bull's goals and Graham Turner's coaching, a slow recovery began; Sir Jack Hayward bought the club in 1990 and rebuilt the stadium; Richards came on to the board in 1994 until 2000. But former England manager Graham Taylor couldn't get them into the Premier League until David Jones did in 2003. They lasted a season but returned under Mick McCarthy from 2009 - 2012.
This, however feels different, says Richards. 'Each time they've gone up it's been: "If we survive we'll be happy. And if we have the parachute money that will help us get back up again." A lot of clubs do that and see themselves as yo-yo clubs and I think that's how Wolves hoped to see themselves.'
Shi confirms that element of history has been consigned to the past. 'We don't need to survive,' he says. 'We want to compete. I don't want to struggle in the last games to try to stay in the league. It's only four games and still very early. And our squad is the youngest squad in the league so we need some time to know the league. But in the first four games, we have already played better than my assumption.'
And hope is stirring in Wolverhampton. 'The club, as in a lot of smaller cities, places like Leicester, Huddersfield, is the heart of the city,' says Richards. 'Suddenly, it revitalises the town at the same time and that's the feeling we're getting at the moment.'
Shi concurs. 'Every club with ambition should consider that they should win something. And our long term goal is to do something comparable to the 50s. That's what we're aiming for. But we also should be humble enough to know the Premier League is a very string league. There are many clubs that have been there a long time ahead of us. So, it's not so easy to challenge very soon. But we know our long-term goal. And we have to have a plan, year by year, to achieve it.'
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