At 21 years of age I was a university student working in a department store in Walsall. It was a job that involved me putting prices on packs of socks and untangling coat hangers – the glamour!
I was on a massive anti-climax having spent four months living in Florida and struggling to come to terms with the sobering reality that Wolverhampton was no Disney World.
I lived at home with my mom, would go out drinking in town every Saturday and despite wrapping up my degree I still had no idea what I wanted do with a career. My biggest responsibility back then was making sure my car was taxed, insured and full of petrol as well as ensuring the lads holiday to Ibiza was booked without any dramas.
In a nutshell, life at 21 was carefree for me. It’s an age where people don’t look at you as a kid anymore and yet you’re still taking shuffling steps to being a fully functioning adult.
I look at Ruben Neves, ‘our Ruben’, and it’s difficult to imagine he’s just 21-years-old.
Like most football fans we form our opinion of a player by their actions on the pitch and with such commanding and stand-out performances last year our Ruben looked beyond his years in presence and football ability alone.
As the chants of ‘we’ve got Neves’ rang around Molineux and away ends of England since his arrival, a messiah-like figure was emerging like we hadn’t celebrated since a certain Steve Bull. But Bully was different – there will never be another Bully. To be a local lad and grab a failing club by the scruff of the neck and lead a charge through the leagues to the brink of the Premier League takes a level of maturity and confidence stars such as Neymar and Paul Pogba could dream of.
Not intending to draw on comparisons of a ferocious goalscorer from Tipton with a Renaissance-like artist from Mozelos, but even Bully, for all his greatness, didn’t come to Wolves with the reputation that Neves did. In fact when Bully first pulled on the Old Gold he was the same age of our centre midfielder – just 21.
There was a moment during the Huddersfield defeat when Ruben’s age truly hit home. Linked to a move to Juventus just days earlier he was the topic of focus by Sky Sports analysis for allowing Aaron Mooy’s free-kick to pass him which ultimately beat Rui Patricio.
As one great number 8, Steven Gerrard, once said ‘there’s no hiding place on a football pitch’ and certainly not during a televised game on Sky. As the replay showed Mooy’s kick curl around the wall the cameras zoomed in on Ruben looking like the grade-A school kid caught throwing paper airplanes by the teacher. Gone was that roaring Portuguese confidence when his strike beat England’s number 1 on the opening day of the season. This was an unfamilar look into the eyes of our wonderkid from Porto.
He knew he was at fault and truth be told if Ruben wasn’t the poster boy of Wolves the Sky pundits wouldn’t have gone to the extent of highlighting the mistake. But this is the burden Ruben has to handle. At such a fresh age, he’s not only having to navigate his own understanding of the game he’s having to do so with the hopes of a football club resting on his young shoulders.
To put Neves’ experience in the game into perspective, come the end of 2018 he will have turned out more times for Wolves than he had for Porto. The average age of the Wolves squad is 24 years and eight months (the youngest in the Premier League) putting Ruben below that average. Furthermore, of the centre midfielders who started in the Premier League this past weekend Neves was the youngest.
It’s no coincidence that the central midfield position requires an older head. With the position vital to how many Premier League clubs operate, especially Wolves, the experience and intelligence which only comes through miserable defeats at Cardiff or slogs at home to Watford is the making of the star.
The likes of Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes only established themselves as talented Premier League midfielders aged 23 and beyond. That trio also benefited from playing alongside the likes of Gary McAllister, Emmanuel Petit and Roy Keane all who had done the Premier League mileage to guide their young midfield partners – Joao Moutinho is still gathering his.
Where Neves differs to those names mentioned above is, he is already Wolves’ ‘go to man’. This despite sampling Premier League football for the first time this season and having the personal pressure of raising a family outside of his native Portugal. Nor does Ruben have that experienced Premier League midfield partner – could you imagine him with someone of Paul Ince’s ilk?
We’ve all been dazzled by the wizardry of Neves – how could you not?! But it musn’t be forgotten that our Ruben needs patience, he needs to have those bad games, those character building experiences, those times that make the skin thicker and the mind wiser.
But for now Neves will sit out the Chelsea game, no doubt a fixture he would have fantasied in his head duelling with Hazard, Kante and Jorginho. That view from the outside looking in may give him a new perspective, a fresh gaze on his role in this team and his influence of games going forward.
Regardless, we’ve all a duty (our pack as Nuno says) to be patient with our number 8, while he plays with the talents of someone beyond his years his understanding of the game is a work in progress. At 21 he’s already showed us the quality at his disposal, by easing the expectations and encouraging his development Neves could embrace being that man to take Wolves by the scruff of the neck into a new era.