Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders and Wolves are worlds apart but Irish Cup winners have earned this dream tie

Golden boys: Terence Taylor and his Wolves team-mates celebrate after winning the Premier League Asia Trophy
Golden boys: Terence Taylor and his Wolves team-mates celebrate after winning the Premier League Asia Trophy

By Graham Luney

There was a time when a young boy used to knock a ball around the streets near his home in Northern Ireland and dream of playing for his local team against Europe's finest.

Our guardians of the game ripped that dream away and are happy for the rich to get richer while the romance dwindles away.

Danske Bank Premiership clubs aren't allowed within touching distance of football's top table, so dream European ties against Liverpool, who the Crues faced in 1976, and giants like Barcelona and Real Madrid are not allowed.

Uefa representatives won't bat an eyelid, but when Stephen Baxter's side face Wolves in the Europa League in front of 31,000 fans at Molineux tonight it will be as close to the big time as an Irish League side can reach.

While Crusaders were battling their way past B36 Torshavn in the first qualifying round, Wolves were busy making friends in the Far East, extending their global reach as they ride the crest of a wave after returning to the Premier League and the European stage.

Nuno Espirito Santo's side overcame Manchester City on penalties to win the Premier League Asia Trophy and they are now hungry to build on their seventh placed finish last season, their highest placing for nearly 40 years.

It was a remarkable campaign which featured a stunning run to the FA Cup semi-finals as Manchester United and Liverpool were put to the sword.

United went on to finish one place above Wolves in the table as Nuno's men ended on 57 points, a club record in the Premier League.

And they are now seventh in the betting to lift a miraculous fourth top division title at a distant 200/1.

Promising youngsters like 19-year-old defender Dion Sanderson are emerging from the club's academy, and the Far East adventure included a new megastore opening in central Shanghai, a high-end Wolves fashion show and a meal for all staff and players with Fosun chiefs including chairman Guo Guangchang.

Fosun bought Wolves for £30m in the summer of 2016, from then owner Steve Morgan.

A diversified Chinese company involved in healthcare, fashion, tourism and property, Fosun International promised to invest between £20m and £30m in the club.

Guangchang's net worth this year is reportedly US$6.2 billion (£5bn), while Fosun's business portfolio pushed beyond the £60bn mark.

Almost half of its income comes from large insurance businesses in China, the USA and Portugal, and the business is expanding into Brazil, Russia and India.

Stronger finances have been mirrored by stronger performances on the pitch, helped by continuous improvement in club facilities at the Compton Park training ground.

There's inevitably been a growing wage bill, and the Crusaders players earning a few hundred pounds a week at Seaview, some of whom have jobs away from football in schools, banks and retail, wouldn't mind a slice of their financial cake.

Biggest earners, the Portugal duo of midfielder Joao Moutinho and goalkeeper Rui Patricio, are pocketing at least £100,000 a week, an annual salary of £5.2m.

Wolves have a £70m wage bill while Crusaders' entire first team playing budget is around £500,000. While the Crues dug deep to table a £50,000 offer for Coleraine striker Jamie McGonigle, which failed to net their number one transfer target, Wolves are being linked with a £35m move for Monaco's teenage sensation Benoit Badiashile and £20m deal for AC Milan's Patrick Cutrone.

The Premier League side has spent just over £42m this summer, with their two additions being Raul Jimenez (£32m) and Leander Dendoncker (£12m) who were with the club on loan last season.

It's not quite billionaires against butchers but it's not far off it. And while Wolves are backed by supportive and generous investors, Crusaders are still counting their blessings the club didn't sink without trace when drowning in a sea of debts.

Like the Molineux men, it's a club which has been stabilised and is now moving in the right direction, but their financial stability is reliant on continued success and cash windfalls from European qualification.

Wolves' first official friendly of pre-season was a resounding success, a 4-0 win over Newcastle United in Nanjing. After conquering the Premier League champions on penalties, it's Crusaders up next, a once in a lifetime opportunity for Irish League players.

Teams don't normally warm up for a game against Crusaders by taking on the Premier League champions in the Far East.

Tonight's match is a big deal for Wolves as it's their first European foray for 39 years. Memories have been rekindled of the 1980 side that wrestled with PSV Eindhoven on the back of finishing sixth and winning the League Cup.

A John Barnwell-led side fell at the first hurdle in a 3-2 aggregate first round defeat to the Dutch outfit.

The Uefa Cup finalists of 1972 are now gripped by European fever again and Crusaders will savour being invited to the party.

Their only hope is for the players to be badly jet lagged following their trip to the Far East.

We can but dream.

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