During a regular training session at Balham FC in 2013, the club’s founder and director, Greg Cruttwell, did something out of the ordinary.
When a boy showed up on Clapham Common in south London asking to join his under-11 team, Cruttwell relented. That boy was called Fabio Carvalho, who has just signed for Liverpool after helping guide Fulham back to the Premier League.
“He was with another manager and we usually wouldn’t let anyone get involved without first officially contacting the club,” Cruttwell tells BBC Sport.
“We tried him out and within 30 seconds you could see that he was pretty special. I looked at the other coach and we were both like, ‘wow, this guy.'”
‘He had an aura around him’
Carvalho, now 19, had just arrived from Portugal, where he had been on Benfica’s books. To help him settle in England, his parents encouraged him to find a team. Cruttwell and Balham were happy to oblige.
But despite his obvious ability, there was no pressure for him to progress and return to an academy.
“There was an aura about him, he had a star quality,” says Cruttwell.
“The first ball he played was like a five iron hitting the middle of the fairway. He had great technique, excellent balance and was very fast. A natural number 10.
“At the end of that session, I said to his mother, who barely spoke English, ‘please bring him to another training session, he’s amazing.’ He kept coming back and we finally signed him.”
“He was such a nice boy, as humble as the others. All he wanted to do was play football, anytime, anywhere. His parents were down to earth, not aggressive.”
“He wasn’t thinking about becoming anything in the game, he just wanted to play. Our team was the Balham Blazers at the time and he somehow heard about us. We had a reputation for developing players and playing passing and moving football. Luckily, when showed up, we were working with a similar age group to his and the rest is history.
Carvalho settled at Balham and, in 2015, began to attract the attention of the biggest clubs in England and Europe. Cruttwell, a self-confessed Fulham fan, played a key role in facilitating his next move, but even then, no one was in much of a hurry to make the next move.
“Although he had been at Benfica, his parents just wanted him to be at a good club, developing,” adds Crutwell. “They were very happy that he was staying at Balham longer than he was. Eventually the inevitable happened and the offers came in.”
“They were super relaxed and trusted us to develop him, they saw he was doing well. When you’re 10-14 years old, you need to develop but also have fun.”
“He played in a six-man tournament against us in Guildford and word got out about him. He was unbelievable. We were packed into the clubhouse when it rained and I could hear people talking about him. He was whipping crosses on with rabones and all sorts! “
‘He has changed the landscape for us’
Fulham soon snapped up Carvalho, while Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool also courted him.
“We dealt with the clubs because their parents felt pressured because everyone was getting in touch,” says Cuttwell.
“They were an arm’s length apart but there was a circus around him. It was the right time for him to move and Fulham seemed to be a better fit.”
“His academy is category one, it’s still running today. It’s one of the best and we felt that Fabio would have a good chance there. Huw Jennings, who was running the academy at the time, had done amazingly well from Patrick Roberts and Ryan Sessegnon.
“His parents and Fabio were not dazzled by Chelsea, for example. If you go to Cobham [the club’s training ground]It’s like Disney Land, but they saw the big picture. They also insisted that Balham was part of the deal, we played a crucial role.
“We played hard and got an unprecedented deal for grassroots football. We have sales percentages and all that, Balham have done well. It’s a fantastic business. What they have done has changed the landscape for us.”
‘He will be patient and work hard’
While in Fulham’s youth ranks, Carvalho played alongside future Liverpool teammate Harvey Elliot as he captained England at under-17 level.
After signing a professional contract at Craven Cottage in 2020, he made fleeting appearances with Scott Parker in the Premier League before becoming a mainstay in Marco Silva’s Championship-winning side, scoring 10 goals and assisting eight in 38 games from a attacking midfielder role.
Since the turn of the year, he has played for Portugal’s under-21 team, and is now hoping for a first senior cap.
“The attention is worldwide, but he shut up and it’s the same guy,” adds Cruttwell.
“I have kept in touch with him, his family. They insisted we join them on the pitch to celebrate Fulham’s promotion against Preston. It was wonderful, a dream come true.”
Cruttwell was not involved in Carvalho’s move to Liverpool but is backing him for success on Merseyside.
“The type of player he is, he adapts [Jurgen] Klopp to the bone,” Cuttwell predicts. “The best thing about him is that he keeps things simple. He passes and moves to the beat, he sees things. He might be in that generation that replaces the likes of [Roberto] Firmino and Sadio Mané.
“If he has to be patient, he will be, he will continue to work hard. I am very confident that he will succeed.”