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Milan’s Gibbs-White interest, Ronan and Sarkic success: End-of-term report on Wolves’ loan players

John Ruddy became the 26th player to feature in the Premier League for Wolverhampton Wanderers this season when he took his place in goal against former club Norwich City.

That is just below mid-range in the division for the most players used, with Everton (32), Watford and Aston Villa (both 30) topping the list but helping prop up the lower end of the league table, showing it is not just about size but how you use it.

Wolves have had a higher number of loanees sent out this season, 29, than have played for them in the league — albeit there have been some crossovers like Morgan Gibbs-White and Toti Gomes.

In October we gave you the lowdown on how Wolves’ loanees were settling in at their clubs. Then in March, Wolves’ loans boss (official title strategic player marketing manager) Matt Jackson took The Athletic to watch Dion Sanderson at QPR and explain exactly how his time-consuming and increasingly important job works.

So now the season is over — or in some cases, almost over —  it is time for a final look at how their many varied seasons have unfolded.


First-team potential

There are a number of players on the fringes of Bruno Lage’s squad who have gained invaluable experience and could come back and play for a first-team berth.

The most high profile and probably the most successful of all Wolves’ loanees this season is Gibbs-White. Just over a year ago he was a rising star losing its shine after a deeply frustrating second half of 2020-21 when he was recalled from Swansea City to sit on Wolves’ bench.

A full year with Sheffield United looks to have been the making of him. In 37 Championship appearances he scored 12 goals and provided 10 assists — winning their player of the season award — mostly from a position on the right drifting inside, but also playing in the 10, or as a second striker, or even in a floating striker role as we saw during the play-offs.

Missing the decisive penalty in their shootout defeat at Nottingham Forest was not an apt way to finish the campaign, but football is full of highs and lows and Gibbs-White has experienced both this year. That is exactly what Wolves want when they send players out; invaluable experiences that cannot be replicated on the bench or with the under-23s.

Sheffield United would have tested Wolves’ mettle with a big-money bid had they won promotion. Gibbs-White will surely now want to prove himself at the highest level. Will that be with Wolves? Lage likes him and wanted him back in January, but the biggest issue may be with Gibbs-White who was burned by that experience last season of being recalled basically not to play.

And then in pre-season last summer he was, along with Adama Traore, Wolves’ best performer. He did all he could to earn a place in the squad and Wolves still sent him out. It is perhaps telling that when Lage offered him the chance to come back in January, he said no.

His stock has risen immeasurably, to the extent that AC Milan lodged a tentative inquiry (which hasn’t yet gone any further). With two years left on his Molineux contract, it may be up to Lage to persuade him his future lies in the Wolves first-team group. If they do move him on, expect a substantial 10-figure fee and a hefty sell-on clause.

Ryan Giles has been challenged by Lage to come back and earn a first-team squad place this summer. The head coach described Giles as being on a similar level to Rayan Ait-Nouri and added: “It depends on him, but he has all the quality and potential to belong to our squad.”

That was said when Giles sealed a late deadline-day loan move to Blackburn Rovers, having starred for Cardiff City with nine assists as a flying left winger. However the move to Ewood Park did not go to plan, with the 22-year-old only making eight starts. Rovers’ form badly tailed off just after he joined, with Ben Brereton Diaz’s absence sparking a run of just two wins in 14 games from February onwards. Giles struggled to claim a regular spot and was even shifted out to the right wing for one game, which surely negates his main strength: his crossing ability.

Still, overall it’s been a season of 32 appearances and 10 assists. And now a massive summer ahead.

Gibbs-White wasn’t the only loanee to earn a player of the season accolade; two more players did.

Connor Ronan had a fabulous season at St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership where he, after a couple of years overseas in Slovakia and Switzerland, made himself known to a UK audience and enhanced his profile.

Ronan scored eight times, most of them worldies, and registered five assists from his 30 appearances — and won the player of the year gong.

After four years of loan moves, it is surely time to find a proper home and it is unlikely to be with Wolves, despite many senior staff at the club (including Lage) taking a real shine to the technically gifted midfielder. Perhaps they think he just hasn’t quite got what they need at this level.

If Wolves were a top end Championship club (and you can say this for a number of the players in this article) Ronan would be in the team, ditto Gibbs-White and Giles. As it is, a permanent exit looks more likely now that he’s attracting interest from across Europe and in Scotland. He is on the fringes of the Ireland team having earned a debut call-up this year. If he goes, a sell-on clause will be mandatory.

Despite leaving Birmingham City in January when he dislocated his shoulder, keeper Matija Sarkic still won their player of the season award. He kept 10 clean sheets in 23 games and established himself as a Championship-level keeper.

As goalkeeping coach Tony Roberts said recently, Wolves ideally don’t want Sarkic sat on a bench when, aged 24, he really needs to keep playing to continue his development. The Ruddy contract situation may complicate matters a little, but as things stand the likelihood is Sarkic will go back out on loan.

Another player who left Birmingham in January was Sanderson, who came back when Wolves were experiencing a centre-back shortage with Romain Saiss at the African Cup of Nations. It was Sanderson versus Toti Gomes for a first-team spot and, after being watched closely by Lage, it was Toti who won the race.

Sanderson went back out on loan to QPR where he looked to have a job on his hands earning a first-team place in a settled defence and a team challenging for promotion. As with Giles at Blackburn, QPR tailed off badly, but Sanderson worked his way into the side having been on the bench. That was despite a really daft red card against Blackpool in February. He ended the season in the team, starting eight of QPR’s final 10 games.

Sanderson’s mentality has impressed people at QPR and back at Wolves; he backed himself to earn a place and did just that, playing either in a back three or four. However, with Lage having gone for Toti over Sanderson, it seems he is more likely to move on this summer now. He will not be short of suitors.

Theo Corbeanu may have played at a lower level, but his prospects of eventually playing regularly for Wolves remain.

The 20-year-old enjoyed an eventful first season of league football, playing 18 times for Sheffield Wednesday and 17 for MK Dons. It was a truncated spell at Wednesday under Darren Moore where he ended up at wing-back, leading to the switch to Buckinghamshire in January where, initially, he was flying high and loving life as a marauding right winger. Dons fans took Canadian flags to matches, they sang his name; life was great. Then in early February he was left out the side and struggled to get back in as MK Dons went on a run of 10 wins and three draws.

Corbeanu only started three of their final 16 games, but anyone who saw him dance, torture and cajole his way around Wycombe’s defenders with a man-of-the-match display in the second leg of their League One play-off last week will agree that manager Liam Manning might regret not playing him a little more in those final weeks as MK Dons fell short of promotion.

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Corbeanu, the Canada winger, had loans at Sheffield Wednesday and MK Dons in League One (Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images)

Corbeanu has the talent, technique and trickery to go to the top, but now needs to develop his all-round team game and add some more end product. He also needs to play regularly to earn a spot in Canada’s World Cup squad this winter. Wolves hope for either a Championship loan or something exciting overseas next season.


The young guns

Probably the most impressive under-the-radar loan star has been Nigel Lonwijk. The 19-year-old Dutch centre-back has played 22 times in the Eredivisie for 15th-placed Fortuna Sittard.

Seven of his games were starts and 15 came from the bench, but for a teenager in a good European league that’s rare. In fact if you look at the top five leagues in Europe plus the Eredivisie, Lonwijk rates in the top 10 of players his age for minutes played, defensive actions and tackles made.

It has been a productive year for the imposing defender who Wolves will now look to send to League One or the Championship, or possibly the Scottish Premiership. He is one of several young centre-backs rated highly.

Another is Christian Marques who, after a frustrating loan in Portugal where he did not feature for Belenenses, spent the second half of the season back with the under-23s. Wolves recalled the 19-year-old so as not to risk what could have been a damaging year with no football at all. Hopefully he has a more fruitful 2022-23.

Lewis Richards, a year older at 20, was getting good experience with Harrogate Town in League Two, playing eight times before an injury kyboshed his season. Again, Wolves will look to get the left-footed Ireland Under-21 international defender back out.

Another whose campaign was disrupted by injury was midfielder Taylor Perry, who played 10 times for Cheltenham Town in League One before a hip problem saw him brought back to Wolves shortly after he had won Cheltenham’s player of the month award. Unfortunately Perry couldn’t quite prove his fitness before the January window closed, meaning a spell of under-23s football in the second half of the campaign. The 20-year-old will probably head to League One again.

It feels like Luke Matheson has been around for a while already, but the right-back is still only 19. He has had an interesting year, out at Hamilton Academical in the Scottish Championship and then with Scunthorpe United, rock-bottom in League Two, from January onwards.

Expectations with Matheson are lofty. That is what comes with a £1 million fee and a career that was sky-rocketed by scoring at Old Trafford for Rochdale. After a challenging year it is now about turning his career curve upwards again. With 11 starts for Scunthorpe and eight for Hamilton he’s still played roughly 40 per cent of the available minutes this season, which is good for his age, and while he hasn’t set the world alight at either club it’s been good for him to reunite with former boss at Rochdale, Keith Hill, with Scunthorpe. File a 7-0 defeat to Bristol Rovers on the final day of the campaign as “character building”.

A number of young goalkeepers have been spending time in the lower leagues, mostly notably Jackson Smith who has earned rave reviews with Kettering Town in National League North.

Smith had to battle for his place in the team, became a regular, played 31 times, kept 12 clean sheets and had the pressure of fighting for a play-off place (Kettering just missed out). Wolves have now had inquiries from higher up the pyramid.

At the same level, Louie Moulden has played 17 times (and counting) for Ebbsfleet United in National League South. They are taking part in the play-offs. Having played 14 times for the under-23s in the first half of the campaign and been third choice for the first team, travelling with the squad to every game before his loan, it has been an excellent and productive season for the 20-year-old after joining from Manchester City last year. Staff have spoken of his developing maturity on and off the field.

Another textbook keeper loanee has been Joe Young, who started the season with Runcorn in the seventh tier, then switched to Matlock Town in the sixth tier and has performed to such a standard that Wolves have had inquiries from the fifth tier and possibly higher.

And finally yet another goalkeeper, Danish youth international Andreas Sondergaard, has been splitting his time between Wolves Under-23s and Hereford in the National League North. Wolves have a lot of keepers at their disposal and it may be that Sondergaard needs to move on this summer.

Northern Irish right-back Jack Scott has played 12 times for St Patrick’s Athletic, whose season runs through the summer.


Overseas

A few more players have spent the season overseas including a number at Grasshoppers, Wolves’ official partnership club in Switzerland.

It’s been a tough few months for Grasshoppers, who have flirted with relegation back to the second tier and, with two games to go against St Gallen (fifth) and Young Boys (third), they still are not out of the woods.

Toti Gomes returning from Zurich to play for Wolves’ first team shows the path they would love more to follow. Hungarian international right-back Bendeguz Bolla is probably the highest rated of the players there. He has played 29 times (four goals, three assists), but the prospects of the 22-year-old following Toti are not great, with Wolves well stocked in the wing-back positions. It’s believed Rapid Vienna are one of many clubs to show interest in signing Bolla.

New loan rules that come into force next season mean Wolves can only have three players on loan at one other club. Two of their Grasshoppers slots next season have been taken up by 26-year-old Japanese international Hayao Kawabe, a regular in midfield, and young South Korean forward Jeong Sang-bin (five appearances since moving in January).

Bruno Jordao was on the fringes of the Wolves squad when returning from injury before Christmas but he has not made a huge impression during his 10 appearances in Switzerland. Leo Bonatini has scored seven times in 25 appearances as his two-year loan comes to an end. He has one year left on his Wolves deal.

Leo Campana has netted six times in 11 appearances for Inter Miami in MLS. They have an option to buy the 21-year-old Ecuador striker and Wolves will hope he continues to impress.

Azerbaijan striker Renat Dadashov has had an important injury-free campaign in Portugal with Tondela, where he has played 30 league matches. He’s only scored twice, but after a anterior cruciate ligament injury just playing regularly has been the most important thing for him — and he has also now been recalled into the Azerbaijan squad.


Class of 2022-23?

Wolves will look to get a few under-23 regulars out on loan next season, particularly Spanish left wing-back Hugo Bueno, who has been in fantastic form lately and needs League football now.

Ditto Marques, plus young Icelandic goalkeeper Palmi Arinbjornsson, maybe another pacey wing-back Dexter Lembikisa and possibly Dutch centre-back Justin Hubner.

Senior fringe players like Luke Cundle, Ki-Jana Hoever and Chem Campbell are loan candidates depending on what Wolves’ summer business looks like.

It was initially though Chiquinho would need a season on loan, but his recent first-team performances look to have persuaded Lage otherwise. And one of Toti and Yerson Mosquera will probably head out, again depending how many senior centre-halves are available.

(Photos: Getty Images)

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