Greg Cruttwell still remembers being in the middle of the first tussle for Fabio Carvalho’s signature.
Carvalho’s name flashed across news bulletins across the world as Liverpool tried – and failed – to beat the transfer deadline to land the Fulham youngster.
But it was not the first time the Reds had attempted to land the Lisbon-born youngster.
They were amongst the countless clubs in the mix back in 2014 when Carvalho was just a kid attracting attention playing for the Balham Blazers.
Cruttwell, who founded the club now called Balham FC in 2011, took a leading role in handling Carvalho’s future.
Along with coach Ollie Kanner, they were entrusted by the Carvalho family, who moved from Lisbon to London in 2013.
“When it got to 14, first of all Fulham had seen him then pretty much every club came calling – Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool,” Cruttwell recalls.
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Fabio Carvalho almost joined Liverpool on transfer deadline day
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“You know how it is with pro clubs -when one or two get a sniff of someone, everyone is immediately interested.
“They want to stop the other clubs getting the diamond in the rough, and Fabio is definitely that.”
The big clubs all came calling as Cruttwell and Kanner insisted they go through Balham in order to negotiate with Carvalho.
One unnamed club opted to bypass the, insisting on contacting the Carvalho family directly in a bid to sneak in through the back door.
“That really upset the parents,” he recalls. “Ultimately, that probably ruled that particular club out of the picture.”
Even with one club ruling themselves out, Carvalho had plenty of choice.
Crutwell (back middle) and those at Balham took a leading role in Carvalho deciding to join Fulham
“There was a whole circus around it,” Cruttwell admits.
“His parents wanted me and Balham to handle things for them at the time as they hardly spoke any English at the time, and there was an awful lot of pressure on them.
“Arsenal and Chelsea doing everything to get him, Man United flew down from Carrington to meet me in a secondary school portacabin in Balham at a venue we trained at.
“But Fulham were at the front of the queue, and they were brilliant. They were the most professional, and their academy is obviously a top academy, even if the first team isn’t at the same level as the others.
“Obviously going to Cobham or Carrington is like going to Disneyland for a kid, but his parents saw past that and saw the people at Fulham were more than just football people.”
Carvalho (bottom left) made an impression for Balham Blazers, now named Balham FC
Equally as vividly as the transfer scramble, Cruttwell remembers the moment he first stumbled across a young Carvalho as he ran a training session on Clapham Common.
“He just appeared with his mum” Cruttwell recalls. “I was running a session with another coach, and I think he was 11 at the time.
“He suddenly appeared and asked if he could join in. He hardly spoke any English and his mum hardly spoke a word of English, so we just gave him a look which kind of said, ‘come on then’.
“I pinged him a ball and he pinged it back to me and Ollie Kanner, who was the other coach with me, and we both immediately looked at each other and went, ‘hello!’.
“Just the way he struck the ball from 30 yards away at the age he was, the power and technique. He joined in the session and he was mustard. You could see he had real poise, agility.
“It was clear he was extremely talented, so we said at the end to him and his mum to come along to more sessions, which he did.”
Carvalho (circled) soon caught the eye and stood out amongst a talented young team
It soon became apparent that Cruttwell’s first instinct was correct as Carvalho dazzled with his magic footwork and beaming smile during his three years at Balham.
Just as memorable as his footwork and skill, however, was his personality and smile – which has yet to fade as he adjusts to the rigours of the professional game.
“The amazing thing about him and his family is that he’s the humblest kid out there – all he wants to do is play football,” Cruttwell says.
“There’s never been a big-headed bone in his body, still isn’t, and he’s loyal beyond belief – but he’s got the X-factor.
“You can see it when he walks into a room, he lights it up. The way he’d slap your hand, even at 11, the smile on his face on the football pitch.
“He’s just a great kid, a great human being and his parents were the same.”
It was eventually decided that Fulham was the perfect destination for Carvalho to hone his craft, under the guidance of Huw Jennings.
Carvalho opted to continue his career at Fulham and has thrived at Craven Cottage
Federico Maranesi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
“His parents weren’t looking for him to join an academy at that stage,” he says. “He wasn’t particularly looking, either, as he was loving his football at Balham and was really happy.
“When we signed the agreement for him to join Fulham, his parents insisted he saw out the season with us and everything was done in the right way.
“He’s not from your stereotypical sort of ‘pushy parent’ family where they can see their son hitting the heights. They’re just great people.
“We all felt he’d develop best there as a person and a player, and Huw Jennings, who was running the academy then, had brought through so many players.
“Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, James Ward-Prowse at Southampton as well as Patrick Roberts, Ryan Sessegnon at Fulham – we knew there was a good track record.
“We also thought Fabio was likely to get a really good shot of things at Fulham, which is how it’s worked out.
“It’s been brilliant, and thankfully we made the right choice.”
The deal also included Balham, who are in line to benefit financially when Carvalho is on the move.
Cruttwell believes the work they did with Carvalho between the ages of 11 and 14 was “vitally important” and they deserve to be rewarded accordingly.
Balham FC are also in line to benefit when Carvalho does wave goodbye to Fulham
Clive Rose/Getty Images)
“If you ask people from Fulham, they’ll tell you where he was when he came to them from Balham was great.
“What we did was crucial, and the other crucial thing is, in a way, we played hardball. We made sure there were kick-backs for our club so should things happen, we’re a part of the deal which I think is only right and proper.
“Grassroots clubs generally get ripped up and ripped apart by the big fish in the pond, so we made sure that didn’t happen and, to be fair to Fulham, they were brilliant about striking that deal.
“We have a full partnership agreement with them now, and it’s been very beneficial having that relationship.”
Carvalho benefitted greatly from the coaching of Kevin Betsy, now Arsenal Under-23s manager, who later introduced him to the England Under-16s squad.
A lifelong Fulham fan who attended his first game back in 1970, Cruttwell has watched on with immense pride as one of his own attracts admiring glances for his performances at Craven Cottage.
Carvalho was introduced to the England setup by Kevin Betsy, now at Arsenal
James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)
“Honestly, I’m proud as punch,” he says. “For me to see the first Balham player run out in the Premier League for Fulham was a dream come true.
“Having said that, the fact I support Fulham wasn’t a consideration when looking for the right place for Fabio to develop, it’s just a bonus it happens to be the club I support.
“Obviously he played age group internationals coming up, he worked with some brilliant coaches at Fulham, Kevin Betsy in particular who got Fabio involved at England.
“The progression he’s made, to see the way he’s come into the team, the goals he’s scored, his assists and his rapport with the crowd is great.
“To be standing at Craven Cottage or at away games hearing the fans singing the name of a Balham player, it’s magical.”
Despite his reputation growing rapidly, Carvalho remains rooted in Balham FC – regularly checking up on their progress and attending games when circumstances allow.
“Fabio still bleeds Balham blood,” he adds. “He comes back to watch Balham games, I’m in touch with him all the time and he wants to know what’s happening with Balham.
“He comes and supports us as much as he can which just shows the kind of person he is – he doesn’t forget where he came from and he’s so appreciative of the work we did with him at Balham.”
With a likelihood Carvalho will be on the move away from London in the summer, those visits will perhaps become far more fleeting – but he will remain a Balham Blazer at heart.
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