SPECIAL NEWS: Liverpool new boy Fabio Carvalho
SPECIAL NEWS: Liverpool new boy Fabio Carvalho had Man United arriving by helicopter to snap him up after joining a ninth-tier side following a kickabout in the park… after snubbing Chelsea and dazzling for Fulham, he’s set to thrive at Anfield
- Fabio Carvalho went from Benfica to Balham FC in an unusual start to his career
- He turned up on Clapham Common and asked to join a training session aged 11
- The Portuguese starlet soon had Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal chasing him
- He opted for Fulham after ‘underhand tactics’ from a top English club
- Carvalho was one of their players of the season to help them win promotion
- He clinched a move to Liverpool and his youth coaches backed him to flourish
Spotting a talented player is no easy task. Scouts travel across the globe to unearth diamonds that could be worth millions to a club. What are the chances, then, that one will end up coming to you?
In 2013, a young Portuguese kid turned up on Clapham Common holding his mum’s hand when they spotted a group of players training. He and his family had only recently arrived from his hometown of Lisbon and they hardly spoke any English but he knew enough to ask the question: ‘Can I play?’
This boy’s name was Fabio Carvalho.
Then just 11 years old, and looking to show off his talent, his mother had researched a team who were then known as Balham Blazers in south London – who played in the ninth tier of English football – and had tracked them down.
They had only just launched their fully-fledged senior team that year as young Carvalho approached manager Greg Cruttwell and his first team coach Ollie Kanner.
‘This kid comes out of nowhere and wants to play,’ Kanner tells Sportsmail. ‘I explained to him at the time, “we can’t just take players off the street, you need to have a trial”.
‘I said to Greg, “I’m gonna fire a ball at him and see what he does”. I fizzed a ball at him, down his throat. He takes it down on his chest, does about 67 stepovers and then fizzed it straight back at me.’
Cruttwell adds: ‘We both looked at each other and our jaws hit the ground. It took about 30 seconds to see this kid had something special. You could see he had the X-Factor – not just as a footballer, but a person.
‘He lights up a room, he always has a smile on his face and is so happy. He was magical. Our teams are generally strong and the standard was good, but Fabio stood out. He was ridiculously good.
‘Even on Clapham Common, which isn’t exactly a carpet, you could still see he had everything – agility, fantastic balance, poise and great skillset, full of tricks.’
Carvalho was certainly no novice – not that the two coaches knew at the time. He had started his youth career with Benfica before moving to England and already had that foundation of a footballing education at a young age.
Fabio was swiftly signed up and went on to earn rave reviews for the club – now rebranded as Balham FC – and has gone on to bigger and better things.
He later joined Fulham and was their best player this campaign with ten goals and eight assists to help earn them promotion to the Premier League and his displays have been rewarded with a fairytale move to Liverpool.
Carvalho – now 19 – would have moved to Anfield sooner had his deadline-day switch not collapsed back in January, meaning Fulham got to enjoy his talents for a few months more in their promotion hunt.
The teenager is no stranger to interest from elite teams. Cruttwell revealed the moment when a baby-faced Carvalho began conjuring up a ‘circus’ among some of the elite clubs in England following some scintillating performances at a local tournament for Balham.
‘He was still only about 13 and everyone was talking about the kid on pitch 12,’ Cruttwell says.
‘He was doing rabonas from out wide into the box – we won the tournament and he was phenomenal. There were all these 19-year-olds in awe of this 13-year-old who was ripping it up.’
Fulham were first in the queue for Carvalho – but the Cottagers had to beat off a frenzy of sides who were desperate to sign him. The heavy interest in Carvalho was overwhelming for his parents, who hardly spoke the language, and they handed the responsibility of negotiations to Cruttwell and Kanner.
But as the youngster started getting more and more attention, they realised they needed a translator who could help him and speak with the family about the deals that were being presented to them.
Pedro Soares was a goalkeeping coach with Balham at the time who spoke Portuguese and essentially became Carvalho’s personal player liaison offer.
Born: 30 August 2002, Lisbon, Portugal
Position: Winger/Attacking mid
Youth career: Benfica, Balham FC
Fulham – 2015-2022
Apps: 44, Goals: 12
Liverpool – 2022-present
England U16, U17, U18
Portugal U21 – Caps: 2, Goals: 1
‘His parents found out Balham had a Portuguese coach and that made translation so much easier between him, his mum and dad and the coaches,’ Soares tells me. ‘I was called “Mourinho” for a while!’
‘He was instrumental,’ said Kanner. ‘Things would have been very complicated if we had that language barrier throughout our journey with him. When things got more serious – when teams came calling – having him was so reassuring for all involved. We were a team going into those negotiations because we wanted to protect Fabio.’
Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United had all joined Fulham in the hunt. The Blues had the strongest interest and saw themselves as favourites for his signature, while Arsenal invited him to their London Colney training complex to have a look at him.
That left Manchester United desperate, according to Cruttwell, who claims they had an official arrive by helicopter to hold talks with him.
‘Chelsea came calling – so did Arsenal – they were both desperate to get him,’ he said. ‘Man United flew down from Carrington to meet me in a secondary school in Balham in a portacabin to talk about him. He had everyone after him.’
But the Blues and the Gunners left Carvalho’s family unimpressed, according to Kanner and Soares. Chelsea had played ‘underhand tactics’ to get him to sign, the pair have alleged.
‘They really tried to turn on the charm – with the intention of slipping a contract on the table and saying “just sign this”,’ Kanner claims. ‘We weren’t about that. Chelsea tried to present the Disneyland life to Fabio and the family to secure the deal – driving him to and from sessions, giving him free boots. They thought it was a done deal. They were trying to sign the deal without any of us there.’
‘I felt awkward being in [the meeting],’ Soares adds. ‘Chelsea were surprised that he had so many advisors. I was translating everything to the parents. His mum and dad wanted to make sure he had good schooling, a lengthy contract – but they couldn’t offer it.’
Meanwhile, an invitation from Arsenal to train with their youth team hardly ended up leaving a good impression.
Soares explains: ‘I took him to Arsenal with his dad. They were meant to pick us up in the car but they said we would have to make our own way on the tube. Fabio fell asleep on the train because he was so tired and performed at 20 per cent of his ability.
‘We later sat down at a meeting table – Fabio was outside. Arsenal said, “we can see his potential but we didn’t really see anything to take him on – so we’re going to give a trial”. His dad said, “my son isn’t coming here to do trials. He’s got so many clubs who want him right now and you offer him a trial because he had an off session”.
‘That was the last we’ve heard of them. His dad wasn’t impressed.’
Chelsea and Arsenal did not respond when approached for comment by Sportsmail.
Fulham were then given the initiative, as Cruttwell admits their track record with young talent and the likelihood of him featuring more regularly was a big pull.
‘Fulham were brilliant,’ he says. ‘We have a partnership now with them now and I was so impressed with them and Head of Youth Development Huw Jennings. He had brought through Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Luke Shaw at Southampton. At Fulham he did so well with Ryan Sessegnon and Harvey Elliot was in Fabio’s age group.
‘We opted for Fulham because they had a top level academy and it seemed like the right fit for him. We knew he’d get opportunities – that’s exactly how it’s worked out, and now he’s off to one of the best clubs in the world.’
‘He just wants to play football. That’s what he’ll be like at Liverpool. I can’t speak highly enough of him as a human being.’
No matter how he gets on when he arrives on Merseyside, the people who guided his career and watched him blossom into the talent he is will always remember the journey – and that one summer’s evening on Clapham Common.
‘It’s the best football pub stories you’ll ever hear,’ admits Kanner. ‘It feels surreal but like it was meant to happen. We would always do our sessions on the common and it all just happened that one evening. It was pretty special.’
‘I remember that moment every time I go past it – that little bit of green next to Clapham South tube station,’ Soares chimes in.
‘I was there one minute, then the next I was doing a lap of honour at Craven Cottage with Fabio, his family, Greg and Ollie. It’s surreal and hopefully there are more good times to come.’