During a regular training session at Balham FC in 2013, the club’s founder and director Greg Cruttwell did something extraordinary.
When a young boy showed up on Clapham Common, south London, asking to join his U-11 side, Cruttwell relented. This boy’s name was Fabio Carvalho, who just signed for Liverpool after helping lead Fulham back to the Premier League.
“I was with another manager and we wouldn’t normally let anyone in without first contacting the club officially,” Cruttwell told BBC Sport.
“We tried it and within 30 seconds you could see that it was something very special. I looked at the other coach and we both said, ‘Wow, that boy’.”
“He had an aura around him”
Carvalho – now 19 – had just arrived from Portugal, where he had been in the Benfica books. To help him settle in England, his parents encouraged him to find a team. Cruttwell and Balham gladly complied.
But despite his apparent ability, there was no pressure on him to progress and return to an academy.
“He had an aura, he had star quality,” says Cruttwell.
“The first ball he played was like a five iron hitting the middle of the fairway. He had great technique, great balance and was so fast. A natural number 10.
“At the end of that session, I said to his mother, who barely spoke English, ‘Please take him to another training session, he’s amazing’. He kept coming and we ended up signing him.
“He was such a personable boy, humble as they come. All he wanted to do was play football, anytime, anywhere. His parents were down to earth, they weren’t pushy.
“He wasn’t thinking of becoming anything in the game, he just wanted to play. Our team at the time was Balham Blazers and somehow he heard about us. We had a reputation for developing players and playing pass-and-move football. For Happiness.” , when he showed up we were working with a similar age group to his and the rest is history.”
Carvalho settled at Balham and in 2015 caught 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 any great hurry with the next move.
“Even though he was at Benfica, his parents just wanted him to play at a good club and develop,” adds Crutwell. “They were quite happy that he stayed with Balham longer than he did. Finally, the inevitable happened and the offers started pouring in.
“They were super relaxed and trusted us to develop him, they saw that he was doing well. If you’re between 10 and 14 years old, you need to develop, but you also need to have fun.
“He played for us in Guildford in a six-a-side tournament and word got around. He was amazing. We were packed in the clubhouse when it was raining and I could hear people talking about him. He whipped in flanks with Rabonas and all sorts of things!”
“He changed the landscape for us”
Fulham caught Carvalho early while Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool were also courting him.
“We got involved with the clubs because his parents felt pressured because they were all coming forward,” says Cuttwell.
“They were only an arm away, but there was a circus around him. It was the right time for him to make the move and Fulham seemed the best fit.
“Your academy is category one, it still flies today. She’s one of the best out there and we felt Fabio would have a good chance there. Huw Jennings, who ran the Academy at the time, had amazingly managed to get likes from Patrick Roberts and Ryan Sessegnon.
“His parents and Fabio, for example, were not dazzled by Chelsea. If you go to Cobham [the club’s training ground], it’s like Disney Land but they’ve seen the bigger picture. They also insisted Balham was part of the deal, we played a crucial role.
“We played hardball and made a deal that is unprecedented in grassroots football. We have sales percentages and all that, Balham has done well. It’s a fantastic business. What he did changed the landscape for us.”
“He will be patient and work hard”
In Fulham youth, Carvalho played alongside Harvey Elliot, who would later become his Liverpool team-mate, and captained England Under-17.
After signing a professional contract with Craven Cottage in 2020, he made brief appearances under Scott Parker in the Premier League before becoming a mainstay in Marco Silva’s side, who won the Championship by scoring 10 goals and eight in 38 games supported from an attacking midfield role.
He has been playing for Portugal’s U21s since the turn of the year – and is now hoping for a first call-up to the senior national team.
“The attention is worldwide, but he’s tuned out the noise and he’s the same boy,” adds Cruttwell.
“I’ve kept in touch with him and his family. They insisted we join them on the pitch to celebrate Fulham’s rise against Preston. It was wonderful, a dream come true.”
Cruttwell was not involved in Carvalho’s move to Liverpool but he is backing him to succeed on Merseyside.
“The type of player he is suits him [Jurgen] Klopp to the bone,” predicts Cuttwell. “The great thing about him is that he keeps things simple. He walks by and moves at the pace, he sees things. He could be in that generation replacing his peers [Roberto] Firmino and Sadio Mane.
“If he has to be patient, he will be, he will keep working hard. I am very confident that he will succeed.”