Wolves vs Manchester United: Life as the underdog reaping rich rewards for Diogo Jota
Interview: The Portuguese made the leap of the faith in 2017 to join a then-Championship club from a Champions League one – and he hasn't looked back since
There is something about the underdog which has always appealed to Diogo Jota.
“I like to play Football Manager – and I like to start with the lower teams,” he explains in response to a question about the challenge faced by Wolves – FA Cup quarter-final opponents for Manchester United on Saturday evening – to keep together their most exciting squad for a generation.
“For example, I started a game with my first club, Gondomar (in the Portuguese third tier), where I was in the academy. I like to reach big levels. I won the Champions League. It went to penalties and I scored – I had signed myself! It was 2031 – I was 35!
“From one season to another, you have to always keep key players. You have to be your identity on the pitch. That is what a club is. You can’t build the squad from zero every season. You have to know you have someone there who already understands the project, the game, to be a success.”
The good news for Wolves is their prized Portuguese forward is a football romantic, one who believes in building from the bottom up – precisely the narrative surrounding the Black Country club during a whirlwind five years which has seen them rise back from League One to currently seventh in the Premier League.
“During my childhood in Portugal, I would always go to my grandfather Alberto’s house to watch the Premier League games – I was supporting the small teams trying to beat the big teams, no matter who,” he recalls.
“I loved the games at the difficult grounds. I would watch the Saturday and Sunday matches and dream I would be part of it one day. I remember Everton always being a tough one.”
The 2018/19 equivalent are Wolves. Despite this being their first campaign back in the top flight, Nuno Espirito Santo’s team are currently the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League.
Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool – the latter in this very Cup competition – have been on the receiving end of defeats the season; Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs have all been held. Saturday’s duel with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United is, without question, the tie of the round.
“One of the reasons I came here was to play in big cup matches against teams like United,” Jota continues. “It’s an important stage now.
“We’ve had success against the big teams. We know we will have to be at our best to get to the semi-finals.
“Will we have support from the rest of the country? Maybe because they like the underdog! Everyone wants to support, like me as a kid, the small teams because they can trust they are going to give their best against the big team.”
Perhaps the former Atletico Madrid and Porto attacker’s attraction to an odds-defying story traces back to his own early footballing experiences.
“I was always very small, especially at the beginning when I between 10 and 14,” reflects the 5ft 10ins forward, who alongside his intricate interplay has contributed six goals this season, becoming only the second Portuguese player after Cristiano Ronaldo to score a Premier League hat-trick after scoring three times in the 4-3 triumph over Leicester City.
“I was always the smallest guy on the pitch. That’s never affected me, I’m used to it. I will find other ways to get through. Now players realise I am not an easy shot.
“The physio used to ask me if I did weights, I’d say no, it’s in my DNA. I’m the worst at lifting in the gym. I never did that specifically and in Portugal, it doesn’t have as much value.
“I knew before I came here what I was going into. The Championship is one of the hardest competitions, there are many games, but being kicked helped me to grow up as a player.
“Now here in the Premier League, sometimes it’s the same, but in terms of the quality, you can’t compare, it’s much better, and here is where I want to stay for a long time.”
Holding onto Nuno – not to mention Jota’s close friend, Portuguese playmaker Ruben Neves – will be just as crucial to the next phase of Wolves’ evolution as it is attracting further stellar names.
Jota’s relationship with Nuno – “he is a father figure to the younger players” – cannot be underestimated. What with those references to projects and identity, he is a fully-fledged disciple having previously played under him at Porto. “Every player here trusts him and he knows he can trust us.”
Another influence, albeit brief – he was loaned out in his two seasons when registered to Atletico Madrid – is Diego Simeone.
“I worked there a month,” Jota recalls. “Simeone is one of the hardest people to do a pre-season with. We woke up at 7am – small breakfast, then the golf course. No one was playing! You just have to run, run, run. Then a proper breakfast before 20 stations in the gym. There was training in the afternoon – tactical touch and go drills, but in your position. There was a guy throwing up in the first training session. That happens if you are not ready. He helped me understand the way Atletico works. Of course, you cannot like the way they play but what they do, they do very well.”
Jota tuned in to watch his old club face Juventus in the Champions League in midweek. The stage, predictably, belonged to compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo, whose hat-trick sent the Italians through.
“I was excited to see what would happen as with Ronaldo everyone gets ready for the comeback. I wanted to see it. You have to appreciate what he does on the pitch,” says Jota, who himself has made the transition from a wide position at Molineux in a three to a more central role – a change which has “benefitted” him having started his career as a striker.
“It’s true, Ronaldo was mostly a winger and now he’s mostly an area man. He is a reference not just for me but for all people because he’s a goal machine. We have to look at him to learn something. He’s Portuguese so he was already a reference.”
The potential of the project awaiting at Molineux was not so apparent to all back home– including in his own family – as Jota made the leap of the faith in 2017 to join a then-Championship club from a Champions League one.
“Many people in Portugal criticised me – and Ruben,” Jota, whose season-long loan was made permanent for around £12m last summer, adds. “My uncle (Ricardo) tried to say ‘Why are you doing this?’ but it is part of the game.
“They were saying you are going from a Champions League club to a lower division in another country, are you crazy? I said ‘no, I believe in the project and then, if everything goes well, like I expect, next season you have the reason.’
“Fortunately everything went well and everyone understands now. Now no-one doubts our qualities.”
Uncle Ricardo will be jetting in, along with his father Joaquin for the visit of United to Molineux.
Wolves will find themselves once again assuming the role of underdog. Not that it will be of any concern to Jota.
“You can compare (Wolves) with what I was saying (about my childhood). I’m doing what I liked to watch as a kid. “You have to be a happy man if you can do what you dreamt of.”