Regardless of the warmth of Europe’s top five leagues, something special is brewing at the sprawling Greek port city Thessaloniki.
Having started the season with a points deduction after the club’s president walked on to the pitch with a weapon, PAOK Salonika are 3 matches from being crowned champions of Greece for the first time since 1985.
Moreover, they have been set to become the first side to secure the title without losing a match since 1963-64.
Their fine form has coincided with the arrival of former Arsenal forwards Chuba Akpom to some tenth contract to get a pound & reported;2m.
The Londoner has scored five goals from 16 topflight looks, including one against bitter rivals Olympiakos, since signing at August.
“Anywhere I go, fans are always reminding me it’s been 3-4 years since we last won the match,” Akpom tells BBC Sport.
“Soccer is a religion here. Supporters are always quitting to reveal their PAOK tattoos.
“After I flew over to sign, there were fans waiting to me personally at the airport. It’s a whole new experience.”
The armed president who stopped a match
Based in northern Greece, approximately 300 kilometers away from the capital Athens, PAOK started in 2013 on minus two things.
It had been part of a punishment after Ivan Savvidis, the club’s presidentwalked on to the pitch having a gun 1-2 months ago.
The Greek-Russian businessman had the weapon at a stylish holster once he entered the field afterwards PAOK needed a late goal ruled out for offside during a game with AEK Athens, who went on to win against the league.
Savvidis is currently serving a three-year stadium ban to the episode, which led to the abandonment of the game, and has been on a watching his team on television as they border towards becoming the first team out Athens to win against the league since 1988.
“He’s very popular by his fans,” added Akpom, who’s played in the Europa League in addition to the Champions League play-off round since departing Arsenal. He’s very enthusiastic.”
PAOK quickly composed the TwoPoint deficit by winning the first eight league matches, nevertheless when leading scorer Aleksandar Prijovic moved to Saudi Arabia to join Al-Ittihad for a reported 10m euros (£8.6m) at January, questions were raised about where the goals could come from.
Step forward Canning Town-born Akpom.
The passing of Prijovic, who travelled from loan spells from League One at Yeovil and Northampton 10 years back to the 2018 World Cup with Serbia, paved the way for Akpom to produce his first league start.
Up before Prijovic’s departure, the 23-year-old had been confined to six substitute appearances in the group.
The former England Under-21 international has begun all 11 league matches since, helping PAOK to eight wins, for example important successes over Olympiakos and Panathinaikos.
“I did my research before I joined,” said Akpom, who consulted a former Arsenal teammate for advice before moving to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city.
“Lucas Perez explained that I might not need to leave PAOK if I signed up.
“Thessaloniki is actually really a gorgeous city by the sea, the folks are friendly, the climate is nice and, when I am not exercising, I am sometimes in a position to move to neighboring beaches.
“I am living in a apartment about ten minutes from the ground and I drive across the shore to training.”
It sounds disgusting however Greek football has been marred by crowd trouble in late seasons and PAOK were deducted three things – but were able to overturn the sanction on appeal – afterwards Olympiakos coach Oscar Garcia was hit by way of a toilet roll thrown from the stands at PAOK at February 2018.
As recently as December, Greek Super League matches were suspended after referees proceeded strike following an attack on a formal outside his home.
“A game I had been playing with was discontinued when a firework was thrown on to the pitch,” added Akpom.
“it is a football-mad country and fans arrive at ground prior to kick off – grounds in many cases are packed when we measure off the trainer .”
Perhaps Akpom’s finest moment so far because of his new team came on 10 February in front of a sell-out 25,000 audience – and a substantial number of riot police – at PAOK’S Toumba Stadium, an old-school bowl nicknamed’The Black Hell’.
Discussing his decision to leave the Gunners at the summer, Akpom, who’s life-long friends with Arsenal forwards Alex Iwobi, said:”I talked to Unai Emery.
“He only stated there is a lot of strikers and it would be hard for him to provide me game season, that we respected.
“You’ve got to remember I am an Arsenal fan, I had spent all my entire life at the club, ” I see all their games on television out here.
“Obviously it had been hard to leave, but I needed first team football.
“Mixing PAOK has given me a brand new life adventure and we have a terrific prospect of doing something special in 2013.
“Winning promotion with Brighton and Hull has stood me in good stead. I have heard from those experiences and it’s helping me deal with what is happening now.”
Under former Romania manager Razvan Lucescu, PAOK have already secured an area next season’s Champions League second qualifying stage – two rounds from the group point.
“I’d love that,” said Akpom, when asked about his feelings of coming up against boyhood team Arsenal from your competition.
“It would be a dream to play at Emirates Stadium again.”