The date is August 10, 2012 and Russian millionaire and tobacco tycoon Ivan Savvidis has just announced that he has acquired a majority stake in Greek Super League outfit PAOK Thessaloniki. With promises to clear the club's debts, Savvidis immediately set upon his ambition to challenge and break the Athenian dominance which has reigned for so long. Olympiakos, in particular, have won fourteen of the last sixteen championships with city rivals, Panathinaikos, triumphing in the other two.
You may be familiar with PAOK. A famous 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane in November 2011 ended Tottenham hopes of reaching that season's Europa League knockout stage. Back home, things have rarely been rosy in recent times. Several flirtations with bankruptcy in the mid to late noughties made harsh viewing for the Gate 4, PAOK’s hardcore group of supporters.
However, since the intervention from Savvidis, and the enormous financial burden that has been lifted from their shoulders, the Dikefalos tou Vorra are revitalised. An optimism has spread around Toumba and the belief that success is just around the corner is quietly but cautiously being whispered amongst the support of the black and white side of Thessaloniki. Season ticket sales are up, as are that of replica shirts, and Toumba stadium is full once again. This optimism has filtered down to all levels of the club and, so far, the 2012/13 season has been hailed a success, with the appointment of Giorgos Donis as manager following the dismissal of Laszlo Boloni at the end of the 2011/12 season proving a masterstroke.
A supposed transitional period, the season started terribly as a 4-2 aggregate defeat against Austrian side Rapid Wien halted a much needed income boosting Europa League campaign at the Play-off round. Fortunately, the Super League started off in a much more positive manner with four wins from the opening five fixtures, including a very impressive 4-1 victory in the double-headed eagles derby against fierce rivals Aris Thessaloniki.
The reaction to the result against Aris amongst the Gate 4 faithful was one of sheer delight. Not least the result, but also the truly dominant nature in which PAOK tore strips out of their old foes, with all the goals coming in a remarkable first half. Summer signing Liam Lawrence opened the scoring early on with a stunning volley before Katsikas doubled the lead shortly after. Georgios Futakis made it three in the 30th minute with a neat header before Aris pulled one back nine minutes later through David Aganzo. Two minutes before half time, top scorer and PAOK Player Of The Year 2012, Stefanos Athanasiadis completed the rout with an unstoppable first time effort. Whilst there was to be no more goals, the second half failed to pass without incident as Katsikas and Lawrence were both dismissed for the home side while Gianniotos was sent off for the visitors ending the derby on a sour note.
The confidence amongst the squad was high, with two draws and three wins in the next five league games before a 2-0 defeat in Athens against rivals Panathinaikos. The next game brought the league leaders and defending champions, Olympiakos, to Thessaloniki. Rafik Djebbour opened the scoring for the visitors before, that man again, Stefanos Athanasiadis tapped a pinpoint Dimitris Salpingdis cross past a despairing Roy Carroll in the Olympiakos goal late on to give the hosts a share of the points. This result kept the boys from Toumba within touching distance of their Athenian rivals and two wins a draw from the following three fixtures ensured that PAOK could be spoken about as genuine title contenders as the Greek Super League entered the Winter break.
Unfortunately, the Winter break has had a negative effect with only eight points gained out of a possible eighteen. Perhaps the most hurtful of these came in the way of a 1-0 defeat at the hands of potential play-off rivals, Asteras Tripoli, which saw the boys from Tripoli leapfrog PAOK into second place. Another 1-0 defeat, this time at home to Xanthi, followed by a hard earned 2-2 draw in the return fixture at Aris Thessaloniki allowed Olympiakos to move fourteen points clear of second placed Asteras, themselves a point above PAOK. The most recent fixtures have seen the Thessalonikans get back on track with a 3-1 victory at home to OFI Crete while Asteras lost at home to Olympiakos, allowing PAOK to slip back into second place, albeit fifteen points behind the leaders.
However, this season was never supposed to be about challenging for championships. This was about rebuilding. Savvidis has vowed to bring in Greek Internationals over the coming seasons as well as experienced players cheaply or, even better, free. True to his word, Kostas Katsouranis, a Greek legend in his own right was snapped up after having his contract terminated by Panathinaikos. Part of the winning Euro 2004 Greek squad, Katsouranis has represented his country over a hundred times and has been a key part of the Greece side for nigh on a decade now. Understandably, this signing was viewed as something as a coup by Savvidis and the first of many to come.
Whilst the Super League title is surely out of reach this season, Champions League qualification must seem a very realistic possibility for the two headed eagles of the north. Eleven points above sixth placed Xanthi, PAOK should be part of the complicated Greek play-off come May, and a second place finish would enhance that dream and ensure that the Thessalonikans would start as favourites for that coveted spot in Europe’s elite competition.
It has been an encouraging start to the Ivan Savvidis era at Toumba and one that the Russian has promised will get even better. Qualification to the Champions League, coupled with a good run in the Greek Cup, would far exceed the expectation of even the most optimistic member of Gate 4. The ultimate and long term goal is to put an end to the 28 year wait for a Super League title and, if things continue along this path, this could no longer be just a pipedream of Ivan Savvidis.