The more observant Wolves supporters will have instantly spotted the difference against Manchester United at Molineux last week, when for the first time Mario Lemina wore a shirt bearing the name “Mario Jr” as opposed to his surname. It may seem a subtle change but for Lemina it was a significant one after the passing of his father, Mario, before the new year. “I feel like my dad is with me more than ever before,” he says. “I need to carry his name until I cannot walk any more. It is special and important for me and my family to always see his name on my back when I am on the pitch. We have the feeling he is always with us.”
Wolves required the Premier League to approve the name change on his shirt and the arrival of Lemina’s youngest brother, Noha, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain last month smoothed the process. Lemina, who was born in Gabon, tried to make the change upon signing from Nice in January last year. “I wanted to give my dad praise, because he did everything for me and his name needed to be known as well. It is a really weird situation when you lose your dad who was always on the phone with you, always talking with you and then suddenly you can’t any more … and you realise that you’re not going to be able to any more.”
Lemina’s body is covered in tattoos, from the Joker on one calf and an anti-racism message on the other. His first tattoo reads ‘M 2’ on his left forearm, a nod to his father. “It is special,” he says. Lemina has the names of his brothers, Kevin, 28, Robert, 26, and Noha, 18, on his right arm and is determined to help them through the grief. “For me, my dad was like my big brother. We were not always saying ‘I love you’ or those kind of things but he was fighting with me to make me stronger all the time. As he got older, he got calmer with my brothers and I had to give to them what he gave to me. I really liked the relationship we had and I wanted the chemistry we had with my brothers. Now I need to take care of my brothers even more than myself because they need to be healthy mentally.”
When Lemina introduced his brother to the Wolves captain, Max Kilman, this week, he joked that Noha, a winger, is “a mix of me and Adama [Traoré]”, who left Wolves last summer. Noha is building his fitness after a frustrating loan at Sampdoria in the first half of the season. “I am between happy and stressed for him because, as my youngest brother, I’ve never really been with him. I’ve always been away and now every day he is 24 hours with me. I’m starting to get to know him,” he says, grinning.
Lemina walks in with a bright, broad smile capable of lighting up any room and although he is at the heart of a rejuvenated team, flying under the impressive Gary O’Neil, conversation at Compton Park, Wolves’ training base, understandably takes some darker turns. His father was in hospital for two months before he died, Lemina’s only true sanctuary the pitch. After his father’s death, Lemina returned home to the western suburbs of Paris to be with his mother, Gisele, and his brothers. Kilman held up Lemina’s No 5 shirt to pay respects after he opened the scoring in victory against Everton.
Even Super Mario is not invincible. The continued support and ear of the club’s psychologist, Martin Littlewood, has proved invaluable. “Sometimes I will need some help as well. I am not the strongest man in the world and I never pretended that I was. I am weak sometimes. I can cry as well. Sometimes you need some conversations with people who can understand and take care of you. I never felt scared or too proud to talk about things. I was really open and he understood me and gave me some advice to work with, exercises to be more calm, less stressed.”
Growing up, Lemina says his father let his actions do the talking. “He wouldn’t speak just to speak but when he did speak you would listen. Just a few words, but you would understand everything. When I was younger, playing football, he was not the sort of person who would be shouting on the sidelines, he was just calm watching. After he would say: ‘You could do better at this.’ He was really calm and you feel comfortable. ‘OK, I am going to try and do better.’ I was never stressed about what he was going to say. I am trying to do that with my brothers.”
Lemina’s all-action displays have earned him a reputation as a fans’ favourite and he speaks glowingly of his peers. “If I have to be in the box in the last minute like against Tottenham [to score a 97th-minute winner] I’m going to do it again; if I need to step back and play as a second goalkeeper, I will do that as well … maybe I’m better than [José] Sá!”
Wolves are enjoying life again in the top flight. O’Neil succeeded Julen Lopetegui, who felt the team were underpowered to avoid another season of struggle. “They were just words,” Lemina says. “We didn’t need players. Of course, we have new players like Tommy Doyle, [Jean-Ricner] Bellegarde, who are really good and improve the team a lot, but we just needed a gaffer who is going to trust in us and give us positivity. That is what the whole staff give to us. When you work with this kind of positivity and chemistry, you can see these kind of performances.”
He is alluding to Wolves’ fine run of two defeats in 12 matches in all competitions, one of those coming in the 97th minute against Manchester United, after fighting back to 3-3 in stoppage time. Last weekend they stunned Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge. “When you get into this place where you fight for each other, it is really, really hard to beat a team and at the moment it is really hard to beat us,” he says with a sense of satisfaction. “You could see it against Manchester United: we were losing 2-0 and what do you expect at 2-0 against Manchester United? Give up? No, because we trust in each other.”
How different is Lemina from the player who largely flattered to deceive when he arrived in the Premier League in 2017? Southampton paid Juventus a then club-record £18m to sign him on a five-year contract but he was offloaded on loan, to Galatasaray then Fulham. Could he have envisaged himself talking so maturely at Saints? “To be honest, no … when you’re young, you never feel that you’re going to get older. As I say to all of the lads: ‘You know, one day I was a big prospect, the next big thing, the next £50m player.’”
It is clear Lemina, who turned 30 last year, relishes the responsibility of being one of the senior heads. He talks of learning lessons the hard way earlier in his career and of his desire to prevent the next generation making the same mistakes. “I was thinking about my talent more than working hard,” he says. “For the young lads here, it is really important for me to give all the advice that I never had when I was younger. ‘The first time you get down, don’t give up. Mentally, you need to get ready because maybe you’re going to come on the pitch for five minutes and maybe score the goal that makes all of the difference.’ Since I have grown up in my head, I realised there were some important details I wasn’t seeing before. When I was younger I was like: ‘Look, give me the ball, I will dribble, I’ll do my stuff.’ But now I think about: ‘I need to take care of him when he feels like this, maybe I need to give him confidence.’”
Wolves were 19th, two points off the bottom and cloaked in negativity when Lemina left the French Riviera behind for a relegation scrap. Fast-forward 13 months, they are looking up under O’Neil, six points off sixth before hosting Brentford on Saturday. Experience has taught Lemina to choose his words carefully. “If we can develop this team, I’m not going to say we will be one of the best because there are so many great teams – but we will fly.”