With a swear word removed, the headline is how we used to acclaim the heroes who covered every blade of grass from the back of the Hammersmith End back in the day. The old favourite would be apt to sing the praises of Fulham’s latest all-action midfielder if only João Palhinha scanned more suitably. The ex-Sporting strongman has already indicated how much he loves the Fulham faithful’s adaption of Tequila, even my preference would lie with the reworking of She’s Electric we briefly heard on that roasting hot afternoon at Molineux. But, when the man takes his odds and ends to the World Cup in a paper bag procured from the Stevenage Road club shop, how can you not love him?
I have to be careful, of course. In the aftermath of Euro 2004, I had a horrific holiday romance with a tempestuous Portuguese man I met in Porto. He fancied himself as a footballer and might match our João for physicality in the tackle, but lacked the consistency and cleverness of Fulham’s shrewd summer signing. I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering just how we managed to snare him away from Lisbon for a fee as small as the initial £17.2m that brought Palhinha to Craven Cottage, but we’re very grateful that he was so keen to reunite with Marco Silva by the banks of the Thames.
Modern football is littered with stats, even if those of us who are old school will always prefer the eye test. There can be no quibbling with Palhinha’s numbers, though. He leads the Premier League in tackles, with his total of 65 higher than any other player in the division, number of successful challenges and victorious duels, according to Opta. But it isn’t just a triumph of brute force as it was when Terry Hurlock – for instance – thundered into tackles in front of the Enclosure back in the day. There’s an art to the Portuguese international’s regaining of possession: even the sublime slide tackle that robbed Marcus Rashford of the ball outside the Putney End penalty area with five minutes to play last weekend could have been choreographed by George Balanchine. Imagine what our number 26 could do when he isn’t bothered by the wrist he broke back in the summer.
Palhinha’s peerless performance against Manchester United had the pundits purring. Gary Neville, who for my money shouldn’t comment on his old club’s matches, articulated his appreciation. Fulham might be protected for a while by the six-year deal that the 28 year-old signed as well as the fact that our midfield maestro and his family, including little João Jr., are loving life in London, but you know the big boys will come calling. The Whites could be helped by the fact that Fernando Santos, somehow still the head coach of Seleção das Quinas, seems to prefer to pair William Carvalho, once a Fulham transfer target, alongside Reuben Neves at the heart of the engine room. A little less limelight on the signing of the summer during this scandalous World Cup would be welcome.
It isn’t, of course, just Palhinha who has given Fulham their strongest start to a top flight campaign since the season when Roy Hodgson took the Whites all the way to Hamburg. His partnership with Harrison Reed has married intensity and industry, whilst several old stagers, like Tim Ream and Willian, have rolled back the years with remarkably vibrant showings. Silva has yet to be able to put his best eleven on the pitch, dogged by the injuries and suspensions that didn’t hinder Fulham’s charge to the Championship title last term. If Manor Solomon is available for the post-festive period of fixtures, then there will be even more ammunition for Aleksandar Mitrovic – should the Serbian return home fit after his own World Cup exploits.
The only element of Palhinha’s play that belied a lack of English experience was his quickness to collect yellow cards. English officialdom is erratic, as we saw with Paul Tierney’s refereeing against the Red Devils (and he’s nowhere near the worst man in the black Fulham have suffered at the hands of this season), but Palhinha didn’t help himself by leaping into the away end to celebrate that superb strike at the City Ground. Now that he’s longer picking up cautions like confetti, we can hope to see him mug more opponents after Christmas. I might even have to invest in a shot glass for the first time since my student days to toast his tenacity.