Club of the Month: Athletico Paranaense – like a Hurricane

THE 2019 Brazilian Série A season has just got underway and one of the dark horses for the title is the club known as Athletico-PR, the team from Curitiba in the state of Paraná.

Athletico-PR was founded in 1924 through a merger of two existing clubs. Curitiba is a city of two million people and has a subtropical highland climate. The city is notable for having the highest rate of literacy among Brazilian state capitals.

Athletico-PR won the Copa Sunsamericana in 2018, CONMEBOL’s equivalent of the Europa League. They’ve only ever won the Brazilian league once, in 2001, but they’re an ambitious club and have their eye on domestic and Libertadores Cup success this season.

Last season they finished seventh but with regards to the Brazilian football hierarchy, they are considered to be the 13thmost valuable club in Brazil with a value of BRL 148.8 million. That was where the consultancy BDO ranked them in a study of Brazilian football brands.

Athletico-PR have signalled their intention to move up a gear with a bold rebranding of the club, which includes a new kit and logo. Tradtionally, they played in black and red vertical stripes, but this was similar to other Brazilian clubs. “We are changing our colours, our shield, we are changing everything,” said Mário Celso Petraglia, president of the Deliberative Council of the club. “We want an identity of our own, we no longer want to be a shadow, imitation or look like another institution.”

Petraglia added: “Believe me, it will be fine and well done. We have hired the largest and best Brazilian company to develop the entire brand. There will be nothing like it in the world.”

Athletico-PR changed their kit to four alternating red and black diagonal stripes, which we are told resembles a hurricane, the nickname of the club. The name also reverted to its original, using the Portuguese orthography. It is widely believed this is to differentiate the club from Atlético Mineiro.

The club knows, however, that in order to attain “big club” status, Athletico-PR has to win Série A or the Libertadores. They are so focused that they don’t usually play their first team in the State championships, but they still managed to win the competition on April 21 when they beat Toledo in the final in front of 25,000 people at the Estádio Joaquim Américo Guimarães. Usually, the club draws around 10,000 to its home games.

Since winning promotion in 2012, Athletico-PR have established themselves as a consistent outfit, never finishing below 11thin the league. Last season, they won the Sudamericana by beating Colombia’s Junior on penalties after two 1-1 draws in the final. On route, they overcome some big names – Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina, Uruguay’s Peñarol and Fluminense of Brazil, as well as Venezuelans Caracas and another Brazilian team, Bahia.

The Libertadores Cup is a different challenge for Thiago Nunes’ side, but Athletico-PR have performed well in the group stage and have qualified for the next stage, but they still face last season’s runners-up, Boca Juniors on matchday six in Buenos Aires. Boca were beaten in Brazil at the beginning of April by 3-0, with 32 year-old Argentinian Marco Ruben scoring a hat-trick. Ruben is on loan from Rosario Central.

Success in the Libertadores will generate valuable income for the club, but they may have to do it without one of their shining stars. Bruno Guimarães, a 21 year-old midfielder, is being courted by Chelsea, Benfica, Napoli and AC Milan. A box-to-box player, he has a € 40 million release clause in his contract, which may deter one or two suitors. Media reports claim that Chelsea are favourites given they have a good relationship with one of the player’s agents, Giuliano Bertolucci. The Londoners may find it difficult, though, given they are banned from making signings in the next two transfer windows.

According to football database, Athletico-PR are among the top 50 clubs in the world and number seven in South America. They are aiming higher, but at present, they are a considerable distance behind Brazil’s top clubs – just a glance at the revenues confirms that the Furacão (hurricane) have work to do – Flamengo, for example, generate BRL 648 million versus Athletico-PR’s BRL 161 million (€ 36 m).

Photo: PA

Club of the Month: Cray Valley Paper Mills

THE FA VASE final in May will be between Chertsey Town and Cray Valley Paper Mills. There’s not a Northern League team in sight! Chertsey have flown a lot higher in the past, but Cray Valley PM are not a club that many non-league fans will have come across.

The name, for a start, harks back to the days of works teams and indeed, the club’s colours are a reminder of the livery of the paper mills that gave the club its name. Founded in 1919 – so a good time to run out at Wembley, exactly 100 years after their formation – the club is located at Greenwich Borough’s ground in Eltham and plays in the Southern Counties East Premier Division.

As usual with the FA Vase, Cray Valley PM and Chertsey Town are both chasing their respective league titles, the former are just behind the leaders in the Southern Counties East and Chertsey are top by a point in the Combined Counties although they have six games in hand over second-placed Sutton Common Rovers.

Cray Valley PM have had a long Vase campaign, beginning in the first qualifying round when they beat Sutton Athletic 2-1. After that, they disposed of Hailsham Town (2-0), St Panteleimon (3-1), Badshot Lea (7-0), league stable-mates Sheppey United (4-0) and Baffins Milton Rovers (3-1) to reach the last 16 of the competition.

Cray Valley PM faced Combined Counties League side Abbey Rangers at home, with 217 people turning up to see a Vase campaign that was now gathering momentum.

The quarter-final presented a tough task, a visit to Western League title-chasing Willand Rovers, a team that was unbeaten in 24 games, winning 22 of them in the process. But the Millers did it again and won 3-1 to set-up an all-Southern Counties East semi-final against Canterbury City.

A goal from Ryan Flack gave Cray Valley PM a 1-0 win in the first leg, a game that left the tie in the balance. Manager Kevin Watson felt that Canterbury deserved a draw and was concerned that his team had not done enough to win through. “We weren’t very good…we need to improve or we’ll be out of the competition,” he said.

The second leg saw Gavin Tomlin gave the Millers a 1-0 lead in the 72ndminute and it was not until the final seconds that Canterbury equalised. The two games had been very tight and the home side had been unlucky over both legs, but Cray Valley PM were at Wembley.

Watson commented: “It’s a once in a lifetime moment and people have got to embrace it. It is incredible that these players are going to get to play at Wembley. Of course we can win it!.”

Watson, a former Charlton youth player, has an old team-mate in his squad in the much-travelled Kevin Lisbie. The Jamaican international (10 caps), may be 40, but his experience has been invaluable to the club. He’s averaged almost a goal a game since joining Cray Valley PM.

Lisbie was about to retire when Kevin Watson persuaded him to join the cause in 2017-18. Lisbie told the local media: “I’ve played for a long time and I have enjoyed every minute. When the enjoyment stops, I will stop. At the moment, I’m absolutely loving it and if it continues, I’ll have a go next year as well. It will depend on what happens at the end of the season – if we’ve won the league or a cup.”

Cray Valley have five league games to go, including a top-of-the-table clash at Chatham Town on April 20. They’ve got home games with Glebe and bottom club Croydon and another two away at Punjab United and Canterbury.

It has been an exceptional season for the Millers and their success is all the more notable as they are one of the league’s poorest supported clubs – they average just 63 for their home games. The only club with a lower average crowd are league leaders Corinthian!

At Wembley on May 19, it’s a fair bet that they’ll have a few more urging them on against Chertsey at the national stadium. And hopefully, by the final whistle, people will have a far better idea about Cray Valley Paper Mills.

Blades running strong

NOBODY really expected Sheffield United to mount a serious challenge for promotion to the Premier League this season, but the Blades are sitting at the top of the Championship table and have confounded the tipsters’ predictions in the opening months of the season.

When the bookmakers’ priced their odds for the 2018-19 campaign, United were 8-1 to win the title, which placed them roughly in mid-table. They finished 10thin 2017-18, their first season back in the Championship after six years in League One. After 15 games, they are two points ahead of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United and opponents are praising Chris Wilder’s team for the quality of their football.

After Sheffield United had beaten Wigan Athletic 4-2 at Bramall Lane, Wigan manager Paul Cook described them as the top side in the Championship: “They are, for me, the outstanding team in the division. Other teams may have better individuals, but they are the best team…they work so hard for each other.”

Wilder, in his third season at Bramall Lane, admits his side are not “big hitters” but he is already looking to the January transfer window when he hopes the club will back him in a bid to strengthen his squad to sustain any promotion bid.

He may need that extra push, for the Championship is shaping-up to be an exciting, close-run contest even at this early stage of the season. Just four points separate the top six and there’s a cluster of clubs that could easily force their way into the reckoning with a couple of victories. Likewise, it is so tightly-packed that two defeats could force Sheffield United out of the leader-pack.

Wilder hasn’t been helped by the behind-the-scenes squabble between the club’s owners. In fact, the uncertainty created by in-house fighting almost forced him to leave his job.

Photo: PA

Since 2013, Sheffield United has been owned by Kevin McCabe (representing Sheffield United Ltd) and Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. Both parties own 50% apiece. This partnership has not worked as planned although it continues to prop-up the club, which is operating at a loss.

McCabe offered to buy the Prince’s 50% for £ 5 at the back end of 2017 but in a curious game of cat and mouse, the Prince served his intention to buy McCabe’s stake for the same price, which would trigger a clause that meant he would be obliged (as 75% owner) to buy the club properties owned by McCabe at the market rate. The Prince parked 80% of his stake in a new company, Up the Blades 2018, which meant he could take full control without breaking the 75% barrier, thus avoiding the obligation to purchase assets currently on a long lease to McCabe.

Realising what had taken place, McCabe refused to sign off the shares in his possession and then the Prince launched legal proceedings against him. As these got underway, Sheffield United’s officials told the court a cash injection of some £ 10 million was needed (£ 2.5m to remain solvent and £ 7.5m for transfer and wages) from the owners. Part of the required funding came from the sale of promising striker David Brooks for £ 11.5 million to Bournemouth, £ 4 of which was paid up-front.

Sheffield United is a club that has struggled to pay its way in recent times. The Championship, generally, is a division that lives beyond its means – Deloitte’s review of football finance revealed that the wage-to-income ratio for the Championship in 2016-17 was 99% with the average wage bill coming in at just under £ 30m. Operating losses among the 24 clubs in 2016-17 totalled £ 288m, while aggregate net debt climbed by 33% to £ 1.8 billion.

Although the 2017-18 season’s financials are yet to be released, the last set of accounts showed that Sheffield United, in their 2016-17 promotion campaign, reduced operating losses as income rose by some 7.5%. This was also helped by a reduced wage bill, which fell by 11.5%.

Crowds at Bramall Lane have been stable over the past few years, although they are currently a shade lower than the past two seasons. United average 24,500 at present, although gates will probably rise if the promotion campaign gathers momentum. They currently have the upper hand in Sheffield, where Wednesday’s gates are just below the Blades.

Despite the transfer of Brooks to Bournemouth, Chris Wilder’s squad was boosted by free transfer signings, loan deals and some bargains. But on the evidence of the opening few months, he may have picked-up some gems.

Goalkeeper Dean Henderson is on loan from Manchester United and was considered to be the best keeper in League One while on loan at Shrewsbury. He was named in the PFA team of the year for the division for 2017-18. Oliver Norwood in central midfield is on a loan from Brighton with a view to a permanent deal in January 2019. David McGoldrick, a “free” who was with Ipswich Town last season, has scored five goals already in the Championship.

The big money signing, at £ 4 million, was defender John Egan, who became Sheffield United’s record signing when he rejoined the club from Brentford.

One of the surprises this season, however, has been the form of 32 year-old Billy Sharp, the club skipper who has turned prolific in the Championship, netting 10 goals in 11 appearances, including a hat-trick against Wigan.

United started the season ominously, though, losing their first two games against Swansea and Middlesbrough, but their home form has been good and despite losing three games on their travels, they’ve also won four times.

The next handful of games will provide some indication of Sheffield United’s staying power. They’ve got a trip to Nottingham Forest (November 3), a home derby with Wednesday (November 9) and the visit of Leeds United to Bramall Lane (December 1). By that time, Chris Wilder will know where he needs to bolster his squad in the New Year.

Regardless of the outcome, it is genuinely heart-warming for people who remember the days of Scullion, Hockey, Woodward and Currie, to see Sheffield United back in contention. They are one of football’s grand old names and there’s many people who would welcome them back into the Premier for the first time since 2007. It’s also nice to see that Tony Currie, a magnificent player in his prime, has been made a board member.

Photos: PA