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Inside the incredible rise of Fulham’s ‘Iron Man’ Joao Palhinha and how transfer to Premier League benefitted old side

JOAO PALHINHA immediately caught the eye in Sacavenense – and not just because of his size.

No midfielder in Europe’s big five leagues has won more tackles this season than the 1.80m Fulham star.

Joao Palhinha played at Fulham this seasonPhoto credit: Getty
He started his career at Sacavenense

And to this day, very few Portuguese youths have the same appetite for destruction as teenage Palhinha.

Sacavenense football vice-president Carlos Saque said: “Children in Portugal don’t want to be known as good tacklers.

“They want to be good wingers or good at one-on-ones like Cristiano Ronaldo.

“From day one, Joao impressed us with his ability to steal the ball from opponents.

“Off the pitch, there are kids who are very outgoing and extroverted. 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 went on until the last duel as if it were the World Cup final.

“By the end of every game he was so physically exhausted that his shin pads were on the back of his skinny legs.”

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Luis Nunes, who coached Palhinha in the Sacavenense U17 team, said: “I always said that Joao was slow when it came to warm-up exercises.

“But on the pitch he morphed into a fighting defensive midfielder, an Iron Man who never turned his back on a fight.”

Palhinha was tall for his age which helped him score a lot of goals. But once a header in your own penalty area could have had serious consequences.

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Nunes said: “He jumped so high that he hit his head on the bar at the end.

“But even that didn’t knock him out. Within seconds he was back in the middle of the field.

“And I will 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 where he is today.”

But Palhinha’s journey to the Premier League has had many twists and turns.

Palhinha was convinced to join Sporting Lisbon because of BragaPhoto credit: Getty

Amateur club Sacavenense provide Lisbon giants Sporting and Benfica with plenty of young players but most are caught at a younger age.

Benfica rejected Palhinha after a trial and he was 17 when a cup tie against Sporting finally led to his first major move.

Saque said: “Abel Ferreira, now at Palmeiras, was Sporting’s U19 manager.

“Joao had such a good game that Abel put his arm around him at the end and said, ‘I want you at Sporting now.’

“Joao had actually agreed a contract with Braga.

“But Aurelio Perreira, the head of the Sporting academy who spotted 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 establish himself at his new club.

Tiago Fernandes, Ferreira’s assistant at U19, said: “Joao didn’t develop in this team because Sporting would have 80 or 90 percent possession.

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“When he went on loan to Belenenses and Moreirense and played for teams that didn’t have as much possession and had to run away from the ball a lot, Joao had an extraordinary development.”

However, not exceptional enough to earn a starting spot in a mid-table for Sporting that included Bruno Fernandes, now opponents Manchester United.

Palhinha’s third loan spell, a two-year spell at Braga, was the breakthrough.

He excelled during a two-year loan spell at BragaCredit: EPA

He played under Ferreira again and 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 Ruben Amorim-managed Sporting side that won the club’s first title in 19 years.

Palhinha and Bruno Fernandes have hardly played together at Sporting but are now international teammates and will be opponents today.

The United star also had an unconventional route to fame, making his mark in Italy before returning to Portugal.

Tiago Fernandes, who has worked with both players at Sporting, said: “Players develop at different ages and at different speeds.

“Bruno and Joao have a similar mentality.

“They were the first guys in training and after training they did more: Bruno mainly with free kicks, Joao with passing and skills and working in the gym.

“Every team needs a player like Joao because he alone does the work of two or three guys.”

Fulham paid £20million for him last summerPhoto credit: Getty

Fulham certainly missed him during his two-game suspension in the Premier League for amassing ten yellow cards.

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But Palhinha gets more tackles right than anyone, which is why United, Liverpool and other top clubs are all weighing a summer move for him.

A large money transfer would net Sacavenense a huge wedge of solidarity funds on top of what they have already received.

Palhinha trained at his old club last summer while the £20m transfer to Fulham was completed. Thanks to a resale clause agreed with Sporting back in 2012, Sacavenense will eventually be paid almost £265,000 – around triple his 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 develop new Joao Palhinhas.”

If they can find any portuguese kids who love a tackle as much as he always has.

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