Wolves’ academy starlet, Zeli Ismail.

Wolves have seen the extensive investment in youth academy bear fruit in the past year or so, players like Danny Batth, Jake Cassidy, Antony Forde, Liam McAlinden, Matt Doherty and, most impressively, David Davis have all progressed into mature players fit to throw on the old gold when called upon.

There is one player though who has more mystery around him than an Arthur Conan Doyle novel, he is one of the most highly rated players by academy bosses at the club and fans rave about his ability at such a young age, yet he has never played for the first team, bar a seven minute cameo in the game against Chelsea in the Capital Once Cup at the start of this season. This Albanian born player has already represented England at under sixteen and seventeen level and was the subject of the famous misquote by academy manager Ian Evans who was reported to say that he was the first “100 million pound player”, what he actually said was a little more restrained, Evans could see “a lot of money” being spent on him.

Zeli Ismail joined Wolves at the tender age of ten and was drafted into the academy where his raw talent was to be honed by the academy managers at the time. In 2010 he was given his first professional contract on his seventeenth birthday, what a present, sort of, and had to wait a good long while to make his debut, this came against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the 25th September in a game that will not live long in the memory of any Wolves fan, we lost six nil and conceded three inside eighteen minutes, Ismail was put on with seven minutes to go and, as you probably guessed, did not have much of an impact on the game and/or the final score. However, the first team experience gained, from just being around the seniors and visiting the European Champions ground will aid his development and experience in the game.

When Wolves limped across the Premier League line in May and were thrown into the Championship at the end of last season, there were quiet whispers that one the club’s best kept secrets would be given a chance to show off his ability to the crowds of Wolverhampton. This whisper was given credence when Wolves appointed Solbakken in the summer, a manager who appreciated the art of tactics and who could, possibly, but ultimately did not, give this young precocious talent a platform. Similar to Brendon Rogers bringing through Raheem Sterling, however the purchase of Sako, Peszko and Razak Boukari were always going to the limit the chances of Ismail, which in hindsight, and given Wolves woeful league position and equally woeful form, is a shame. Maybe he could have been the shot in the arm Wolves needed.

Ismail is predominantly a winger, a very modern forward thinking one at that. He is not a winger that stays out on the wing the whole game and he will not be there to whip balls in for the full ninety minutes, whether that is something Wolves need is another issue. What he is though is a player with a low centre of gravity, the effortless and graceful ability to use both left and right foot and a frighteningly quick acceleration over short distances, that have left many under twenty one fullbacks needing stitches in their shorts, (Click the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLht3JPUqFc Pretty stunning right?). Ironically, this is the very type of player which Wolves find so impossible to defend against, see the Crystal Palace games, both home and away, Blackpool game at home and to a certain extent Brighton at home as prime examples of how Wolves, seem to combust and implode as soon as a technically gifted winger is put on the pitch, it is so utterly predictable. So for the academy to produce one of these very players for their own is something that only our beloved club could do.

The hype and expectation surrounding this player is utterly incredible, made even more so that hardly anyone has seen him play. He is a bit like Wolves’ secret weapons that, at this point in time, have failed to deploy, probably because the season is going so wonderfully to plan, right? I remember first hearing about this guy a few years back, the amount of praise about him from Wolves fans, that plus the misinterpreted quote by the aforementioned Ian Evans, made me Google Ismail to see if he was a) Real and b) A player that Wolves could produce! It turned out he was both, fortunately. Sketchy reports suggest that Chelsea and Arsenal did the very same thing as yours truly, probably a bit more extensively however, as two separate bids, when he was fourteen, from the abovementioned clubs, in the region of two million pounds, were rejected, as the club attempted to keep one of its roughest of rough diamonds.

This further embeds how much of a prospect he is and how very long it has been that we have been discussing and salivating over some of the ability he possesses. It begs the question, will he ever break through? Obviously he is still incredibly young and developing away from the media and honing his game in private is probably the best option for him. On the other hand, it seems baffling that this clearly talented player who reflects the modern attacking football has not been given a chance, especially in the Championship, to show what he can do against some experienced fullbacks. The changing of the guard at Molineux recently and the fact Wolves are more likely to go down than go up may finally give him his chance. Furthermore Bakary Sako may be on his way to the Premier League in the summer, especially if Wolves, God forbid, get relegated again.

Ismail was loaned out on the 22nd November to join up with MK Dons, a move made to kick start the young man’s career and give him the invaluable experience of first team football. That added to the fact he was to be managed by a very highly rated manager in Karl Robinson a man only thirteen years Ismail’s senior. He would slot in at a club where the pressure on Ismail would not be sky high, we could see this as another organic step in his career maybe, a way that would give him first team football but not to the extent that pressure would ruin him as a player. In a world where every single thing a footballer does is analysed (supposedly) and if he happens to have a bad game the knee jerk culture that exists within football and the media dictates that he is now not a good player, until next week when he is good again. Ismail would get none of that, he could concentrate on playing first team football under the youngest manager in the Football League. He made nine appearances for the MK Dons, mostly substitute ones at that, and he returned to Wolves around a week ago. A pity that he did not show the ability he clearly has, however, having that first team experience week in week out, going to games, being part of a team, being selected, little things like that are priceless for a rough diamond like Ismail.

I discussed Zeli Ismail with MK Dons writer, Greg Trumper, after seeing Ismail at more depth than most Wolves’ fans he said that he “spoke to the manager Karl Robinson when he first arrived and he told me he was rated as the next 40 million pound player” and that he “was taken off as he had been booked and his tackles were late and it was to save him getting sent off and he was not being undisciplined as I thought but more clumsy I’m told and I found Zeli to be nice quiet mellow type”. Greg spoke about his sadness at Ismail leaving, “sad to see him go and can not understand why he did not start more games so we could get a decent look at him

Maybe this return will see him drafted into the first team at some point, Saunders clearly sees something in him, hence the return from MK Dons, it is clear that Saunders is assembling, with varying degrees of success, a team of hard working players who are prepared to give one hundred percent every game, a team that is hungry for success and, unlike several Wolves teams, knows how to win. We have seen him give young players a chance since he took over, Jake Cassidy for instance, he had an impressive debut against Blackburn and showed a lot of promise for the future.

In conclusion, Wolves have a new manager who could finally give him a chance, this is all speculation whether he will or not, but I am sure each and every Wolves fan who has seen him whether it be on social media or at Compton will want to see him have a run out for the first team. The flip side of this argument is, is he overrated? His only professional run outs have been against League one opposition and players that are still under the age of twenty one, he has had/been given the opportunity to play against better teams. In fairness it is hard to agree with that, Ismail posses a lot of ability, a breathless gift to swagger past defenders using both feet with ease and an eagle eye for the back of the net. The amount of hype around the young man makes us think he is older than he is, he is still only nineteen years of age, Ismail has a brilliantly bright future ahead, he is maturing and developing away from the critics, and his transition to the first team should be seamless. Given time, I am sure we will be singing “There’s only one Zeli Ismail!” in the near future, because, by the looks of it, there really is only one.

(Huge thanks to Gregg Trumper for the insight on Zeli Ismail, really great to have another insight, follow him on Twitter @Gunnerdon)

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