Enzo Fernandez will look to ease Wolves’ relegation worries when Chelsea meet Julen Lopetegui’s side on Saturday, but few realize how close the Argentina star was to a move to Molineux last summer.
Fernandez’s rise has been spectacular. River Plate to Benfica for £12.3million in July 2022. World Cup winner and Young Player of the Tournament in December. British transfer record of £106m to Chelsea in January.
The fee paid by Chelsea brought a few wistful smiles to the first floor of Wolves’ training ground in Compton, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, where the club’s senior executives have their offices.
When Fernandez was introduced as a Chelsea player, they dated back to last July and a flight to Buenos Aires which all but ended with Wolves signing one of the best young talents in the world.
Wolves’ recruitment team have been following Fernandez since he was loaned out by River to Defensa y Justicia, a relatively small club in the southern suburb of Florencio Varela in the capital. This tenacious midfielder, whose every pass seemed to pose a question to the opponent, deserved to be watched.
Enzo Fernandez will remember his close stint at Wolves when Chelsea face them
Thanks to their links with football agent Jorge Mendes, Wolves found out about Benfica’s move to Fernandez last summer and tried to hijack late
Due to their close ties with Jorge Mendes’ agency Gestifute, which also has a close relationship with Benfica, Wolves became aware at the start of pre-season that Benfica were close to a deal.
With the blessing of chairman Jeff Shi, Matt Hobbs – now Wolves sporting director but then head of recruiting – flew to Buenos Aires. After talking to River beforehand, Hobbs met with their senior executives at River’s headquarters. It soon became apparent that the transfer fee wouldn’t be the issue.
The River Chiefs explained that they had already given Benfica their word that they would sell Fernandez to them, and they believed the player had also decided to leave.
But as a courtesy they agreed to pass on Wolves’ message and if Fernandez wanted to hear what the Premier League club had to say he would get in touch. It turned out that he did. That evening, Fernandez and a consultant met Hobbs for dinner.
The encounter was doubly awkward as Benfica officials were staying at a hotel near the Wolves delegation in central Buenos Aires and the Portuguese had promised a response from Fernandez the following day. No wonder Fernandez’s adviser received several worried calls and messages that night.
For three and a half hours, the Fernandez and Wolves contingent, including a Spanish speaker, dined on prime cuts of steak and chatted football. Hobbs gave a detailed presentation on how Fernandez would become the kingpin of the Wolves squad under then-boss Bruno Lage.
The midfielder made 51 appearances for River Plate before catching the eye of Benfica
Although Wolves didn’t feature in the Champions League like Benfica, Fernandez was attracted to the idea of playing in one of Europe’s top five.
He was impressed with the presentation, as were Wolves with Fernandez’s manner and maturity. When they stopped, the wolves thought they had a real chance.
The next morning, however, came the call the wolves had always dreaded. There would be no Argentine star in old gold in the upcoming season. Despite Wolves’ best efforts, Fernandez would go to Lisbon.
If they failed, it wasn’t because the wolves failed their throw. After sleeping on it overnight, Fernandez, along with River, decided the deal with Benfica was just too far off to go. Wolves had come so close, but left Argentina empty-handed.
After a spell in Portugal, Fernandez completed a record £106m move to Chelsea
Wolves can at least take comfort in remembering that they found themselves on the safe side of a similar negotiation in January.
Wolves thought they had a deal with Brazilian giants Flamengo for midfielder Joao Gomes, only for Flamengo to accept a better offer from Lyon.
Still, Gomes’ idea had always been to move to Wolves and he did, for £13million. Lyon owner John Textor even sent Wolves a cheerful tweet after the transfer was complete.
But Wolves’ recruitment staff will always wonder what could have been, and it would be odd if they didn’t. Stopping Fernandez this weekend would ease some of the pain.
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