Inside the incredible rise of Fulham’s ‘Iron Man’ Joao Palhinha and how transfer to Premier League benefitted old side
JOAO PALHINHA stood out immediately at Sacavenense - and not just because of his height.
No midfielder in Europe’s five big leagues has won more tackles than the 6ft 3in Fulham star this season.
And to this day, very few Portuguese youngsters have the same appetite for destruction that the teenage Palhinha showed.
Carlos Saque, Sacavenense’s vice-president of football, said: “Kids in Portugal don’t want to be known as a good tackler.
“They want to be good wingers or good in one-on-ones like Cristiano Ronaldo.
“From day one, Joao impressed us with that ability to steal the ball from opponents.
“Off the pitch, there are kids who are really outgoing and extrovert. Joao wasn’t like that, he was very humble and respectful.
“But on the pitch he was the complete opposite. He was a fighter.
“He kept going to the last tackle like it was the World Cup Final.
“At the end of every game, he would be so physically spent that his shinpads were on the back of his skinny legs.”
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Luis Nunes, who coached Palhinha in Sacavenense’s under-17 side, said: “I used to say that Joao was slow when it came to warm-up drills.
“But on the pitch, he was transformed into a combative defensive midfielder, an Iron Man who never turned his back on a fight.”
Palhinha was tall for his age, which helped him score plenty of goals. But on one occasion, a header in his own box could have had bad consequences.
Nunes said: “He jumped so high that he ended up hitting his head on the crossbar.
“But not even that knocked him down. In seconds he was already back in position in the centre of the field.
“And I’ll always remember when he insisted on playing despite the death of his grandfather. He celebrated a goal with a somersault and then pointed to the sky.
“His desire to play was enormous, and that desire led him to be where he is today.”
But Palhinha’s journey to the Premier League had plenty of twists and turns.
Amateur club Sacavenense supplies plenty of young players to Lisbon giants Sporting and Benfica, but most are snapped up at a younger age.
Benfica rejected Palhinha after a trial, and he was 17 when a cup match against Sporting finally led to his first big move.
Saque said: “Abel Ferreira, now at Palmeiras, was Sporting’s Under-19 coach.
“Joao had such a good game that when it ended, Abel put his arm around him and said: ‘I want you at Sporting right now.’
“Joao had in fact, agreed a contract with Braga.
“But Aurelio Perreira, the main guy at Sporting’s academy, who discovered Luis Figo and Ronaldo, intervened.
“He spoke to Joao’s mother and convinced the family that he should come to Sporting.”
Everything worked out in the end, but Palhinha struggled to impose himself at his new club.
Tiago Fernandes, Ferreira’s assistant with the Under-19s, said: “Joao was not developing in that team because Sporting would have 80 or 90 per cent possession.
“It was when he went to Belenenses and Moreirense on loan and played for teams that did not have so much of the ball, and had to do a lot of running off the ball, that Joao had an extraordinary development.”
Not extraordinary enough, though, to win a starting place in a Sporting midfield that included Bruno Fernandes, now of today’s opponents Manchester United.
Palhinha’s third loan, a two-year spell at Braga, was the breakthrough.
Playing once more under Ferreira, he helped them finish third in the league and win the league cup in 2019/20.
The following season, he was an integral part of the Sporting team managed by Ruben Amorim that won the club’s first title in 19 years.
Palhinha and Bruno Fernandes barely played together at Sporting, but are now international team-mates and set to be opponents today.
The United star also had an unconventional route to stardom, making his name in Italy before returning to Portugal.
Tiago Fernandes, who worked with both players at Sporting, said: “Players develop at different ages and different rates.
“Bruno and Joao have a similar mentality.
“They were the first guys at training and after training, they did more: Bruno mainly on free kicks, Joao on passing and skills and working in the gym.
“Every team needs one player like Joao because all on his own he does the job of two or three guys.”
Fulham certainly missed him during his two-game Premier League suspension for accruing ten yellow cards.
But Palhinha gets more tackles right than anyone else, which is why United, Liverpool and other top clubs are all weighing up a summer move for him.
A big money transfer would bring a huge wedge of solidarity cash to Sacavenense, on top of what they have already received.
Palhinha trained at his old club last summer while the £20m transfer to Fulham was being finalised. Thanks to a sell-on clause agreed with Sporting back in 2012, Sacavenense will eventually receive almost £265,000 - about three times their annual budget.
Finance director Jose Pina said: “We are so proud of Joao, and not because of the money.
“But it will pay our bills and help us to develop new Joao Palhinha’s.”
If they can find any Portuguese kids who love a tackle as much as he always has.