There’s a distinct sense that as Wolverhampton Wanderers fans, we’ve been totally desensitised to what it means to have a functioning forward line. Covering the 3 full seasons that have passed from August 2020 to June 2023, Wolves have played 127 games, scoring 121 goals. Most people would assume, that if you had a bloke many would have considered one of the most feared strikers in Europe in your ranks going into that 2020/21 season, that player was probably sold, with replacements finding it difficult to settle. The fact Raul Jimenez has seen out that period as a Wolves player until now, is a genuine footballing tragedy.
Cast your minds back. By the end of his second season at the club, which had taken in two consecutive 7th placed finishes and a run to the Europa League quarter finals, Jimenez had scored 38 goals. To contextualise that Marcus Rashford, Son Heung-min and Olivier Giroud couldn’t beat that number during the same time period. ‘Give the ball to Raul and he will score’ wasn’t an outlandish claim by any stretch.
The circumstances around his demise are well documented, but it’s worth considering just how high his stock was at this point. It’s no exaggeration to suggest this was a £50m+ player, especially in the context of Diogo Jota’s move to Liverpool in 2020 for a package worth £45m. But his arrival wasn’t met with the excitement we were to later experience. This was a guy who had been in Europe for 4 seasons, without tearing up any trees at Atletico Madrid and Benfica respectively.
When you looked at his output versus minutes played though, there were 34 goal contributions in just over 50 games. Nuno spoke of how this was a guy ready to deliver once given the regular minutes he craved. These were the conditions he would find at Wolves. And how he delivered.
The No. 9 shirt takes on mythical status all over the world, but it looms even larger over any of its incumbents at Molineux, in the very obvious shadow of a certain Steve Bull. The fact Bully is a living footballing memory for the majority of the fanbase means anyone who steps into those shoes is on the backfoot. A beloved striker is also just a rare thing. I caught the tail end of Bully’s career, but in the 25 years that have passed since, I can probably call out Sylvan Ebanks-Blake as the only one who I still have a genuine affinity for. For a club that has had three separate promotion winning sides in that time, it goes to show how difficult it can be for someone to harness that role and make it their own. Until Raul of course.
Raul was the Sun within our solar system. Omnipotent, omnipresent. Conor Coady’s run of appearances is well known, but for a central striker to be so well utilised is an almost alien concept given the level of competition and intensity required to sustain high performance. He played in 99 games in his first two seasons. His entire career up to that point had equated to 113 matches played in terms of minutes on the pitch. Jimenez was the reference point, the jack-of-all-trades and master of most. In a team notorious for sitting quite deep, he was responsible for almost an entire half of the field. There wasn’t a part of the pitch you wouldn’t find him angling for a pass, or making a run and when he got it, he kept it. He was also the ultimate partner for some of our more streaky players.
Football is of course, a team game and any player who has a multiplier effect on others is worth their weight in gold. Jimenez’s impact took the form of Jota, initially, to new levels when we first made the switch to 3-5-2, and during his second season, it was the turn of Adama Traore to explode into life. It showed the variety within his game, almost a Swiss Army Knife of a striker. The only thing you could perhaps point at him lacking was express pace. As we’re discovering now, a team without goals is barely a team at all, or at least not one that you can love. The greatest spell a Wolves team has had in over 40 years was punctuated by the Mexican sensation.
The equaliser in what was a turning point of a fixture versus Chelsea at Molineux. The opener in that iconic FA Cup Quarter Final versus Man United. The goal that gave us a 2-0 lead at Wembley. That sumptuous move to bring us level against Liverpool at home. The winner at Spurs in that final Premier League fixture before the pandemic robbed us of the joys of watching that team play. Raul was at the heart of it all. And then our heart was ripped out of our chest.
There’s no need to dwell on the incident. That time has passed and is no tribute to Raul the player, aside from displaying his commitment and bravery in playing for our club. But Raul’s absence spoke volumes. Because of his incredible availability levels, the club did not invest particularly in immediate competition for him. We were left with an 18-year-old novice to pick up that slack, an unenviable job for a seasoned pro, let alone Fabio Silva. At this point Jota had made the move that the Fosun business model is built upon, but Traore was loading up ammo for nobody to fire it. His career took a nosedive almost instantly. The figures being mooted that we could sell him were on a countdown to zero from that point on, resulting in his departure on a free this summer.
The most tangible impact was in the goals scored column and inevitably this affected the points tally. An entire team, that could conceivably have reached the final of a European competition had basically ground to a halt. Few reputations were enhanced. It’s no stretch to say Raul’s injury was the catalyst for all of this.
There have been moments since his return. That goal away at Southampton will continue to live long in the memory. I was sat in a bar in Manchester with my wife, one of about 4 people watching the game and felt zero embarrassment from leaping out of my seat at the sight of Raul returning to the kind of form that made us all fall in love with him. But it really has never been the same. 2021/22 was a season of toil, of trying to regain his form and fitness after a long period out and perhaps there is some slack you can cut Raul on that basis. Adjusting to the headband was a clear frustration and the fact he hasn’t scored a headed goal since that fateful night at the Emirates says it all and many will remember the discarding of his headband towards the end of a chastening defeat to Brentford. But towards the end of the campaign Raul was victim of his own frustration in trying to get back to his best. Two red cards, the visible attempts to do what he was doing so well at his peak and the failure to execute was hard to watch at times. There were times he should have been taken out of the firing line and given Silva the opportunity to release some of that pressure and develop himself.
2022/23 could have been a season of genuine competition between the pair. Instead Silva was allowed minutes elsewhere, Raul was committed to as the forefront of our attack and a false start in pre-season due to injury caused no end of problems to the team and to Raul, all coming to a head with the World Cup debacle. This will dissipate on his departure, but there was a genuine sense of fury with the way things were managed at his end. Perhaps exacerbated by the downturn in performance, Raul’s time at Wolves was coming to an increasingly bitter conclusion. His inability to displace an aged, increasingly immobile Diego Costa as Julen Lopetegui’s team managed to pull away to safety, was a complex scenario and personally I think Lopetegui’s treatment of Raul was incredibly disappointing. The results will bear out that he was correct, but I honestly think there were times when Raul was thrown under the bus with the wider team selection when he played.
His final performance was in a sorry 5-0 loss at the Emirates. His final goal, a tap-in as we were knocked out of the Carabao Cup by Nottingham Forest.
But we will always have Torino, Spurs (A) and all those wonderful Molineux moments.
Thank you, Raul Jimenez.