“When we had our first competitive match against Crusaders, I didn’t expect to be playing a year later in the same season,” said Wolverhampton Wanderers captain Conor Coady.
Having started the 2019-20 campaign on 25 July 2019 with a Thursday night Europa League second qualifying round tie under blue skies in the Black Country, Wolves’ marathon season is one year old.
Match number 57 takes them to Chelsea on Sunday for the final game in what has been another highly impressive Premier League campaign.
After the final whistle at Stamford Bridge, Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo’s thoughts switch to the Europa League and a delayed last-16 second-leg tie at home to Greek side Olympiakos on 6 August.
The previous longest campaign for a Premier League team in terms of days was Bradford City’s 2000-01 season, which lasted 321 days because of their involvement in the now defunct Intertoto Cup.
Should Wolves make it to the Europa League final in Cologne on 21 August, a season suspended for three months because of the coronavirus pandemic will have lasted nearly 400 days and featured 61 games.
“It’s not as though the players were able to go away on holiday and relax when there was no football between March and June,” club legend Steve Bull told BBC Sport.
“It’s been mentally and physically exhausting for the players. I’ve been waiting for it to tell on the pitch. It has not happened.”
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From Shanghai to Bratislava via Yerevan
After finishing seventh in their first season back in the Premier League since 2012, preparations for the 2019-20 campaign started on 27 June 2019 when players reported back for training before a pre-season tournament in Shanghai.
The 6,000-mile trip to China for the Premier League Asia Trophy, which Wolves won, was perfect preparation for long midweek journeys that lay ahead in the Europa League.
Having visited Armenia, Slovakia, Turkey, Greece, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy in the Europa League, Wolves have covered 29,000 miles in round trips to domestic and European games.
Last August, 48 fans made the 6,370-mile round journey to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to see their side beat Pyunik 4-0 in a third qualifying round tie.
Russ Evers, who was at Bolton’s old Burnden Park ground in 1986 to witness Wolves’ humiliating 3-0 FA Cup defeat by non-league Chorley, was one of them.
Soon after Evers returned to the West Midlands, a letter arrived at his home in Chapel Ash, Wolverhampton.
“When I saw it was from Wolves I thought ‘what have I done?’,” said Evers, a season-ticket holder in Molineux’s North Bank. “It was Conor Coady saying thanks for going to Armenia to support the team.”
‘Lockdown was tough’
Having played every minute of every Premier League game since Wolves were promoted from the Championship two years ago, Coady’s body ought to be screaming for a break.
“I’ve never once thought about a holiday or being off,” the former Liverpool player told BBC Sport.
“This is what we live for – to play games. We want the season to carry on for as long as possible because we are still in the Europa League.”
Coady admitted he struggled during lockdown when players were ordered to train alone at home away from team-mates due to social distancing rules.
“It wasn’t a break like some people imagine,” he added. “We didn’t know when we would play again. We had to stay fit in case they said ‘we’re back next week’.
“We’ve all got our set routines and all of a sudden that stopped because of something horrible that was happening in the world.
“I’ve got three boys and my wife, Amie, and I tried to get into a routine with the kids. We tried to do home schooling with my eldest, Henri, as well as the Joe Wicks online PE classes every morning to keep him active.”
Losing at Crawley to Europa League final?
For much of the past 12 months, Wolves have been relentless with their 3-4-3 formation. They have completed the league double over Manchester City, while no club has won more Premier League games this season having trailed at half-time.
|Wolves have won four PL games when losing at half-time this season, more than any other side|
|21 Dec: Norwich (a)||0-1||2-1|
|27 Dec: Man City (h)||0-1||3-2|
|18 Jan: Southampton (a)||0-2||3-2|
|1 Mar: Spurs (a)||1-2||3-2|
After Leander Dendoncker’s winner at Aston Villa on 27 June, they were two points off a Champions League place with six games to go.
Their top-four hopes have since vanished but Nuno’s sixth-placed side head into the final league game with a chance of securing the club’s highest top-flight finish since 1980 – and can still qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League.
“We haven’t had this much excitement for years,” added former England striker Bull, Wolves’ record scorer with 306 goals in 561 appearances between 1986 and 1999.
“Some fans are starting to get a bit greedy. Six years ago we were in League One. After a second season in the Premier League, they want the Champions League.”
No club has used fewer players than Wolves in the Premier League this season, Nuno sticking with a tight-knit group of 20. Nine have made 30 or more league starts while six – Coady, Dendoncker, Raul Jimenez, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Rui Patricio – have featured in all 37.
Jimenez, who has scored 30 Premier League goals in two seasons, has not had a proper break for three summers. Having represented Mexico at the 2018 World Cup, he helped his country win the Concacaf Gold Cup last summer.
Injuries have been rare – Willy Boly’s fractured fibula, which forced the defender to miss 21 matches, is the most serious. Coady believes the backroom team’s forensic attention to detail is the reason the squad has remained so fit and healthy.
“It’s been a bit more hectic this season with the Europa League but the players have got used to doing recovery work with foam rollers and stretching exercises on the plane back from away games,” he added.
If Wolves make it to next month’s Europa League final, which will be played behind closed doors, there is chat among some fans about travelling to Germany to be close to the team.
“When Wolves lost at Crawley in 2014, the thought of a top-six Premier League finish and playing in the Europa League was a pipe dream,” added Evers.
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