During regular training at Balham FC in 2013, the club’s founder and director Greg Cruttwell did something unusual.
When a young boy showed up on Clapham Common in south London and asked to join his youth under 11, Cruttwell relented. That boy’s name was Fabio Carvalho, who just signed for Liverpool after helping Fulham lead back to the Premier League.
“I was with another coach and normally we wouldn’t let anyone get involved without officially contacting the club first,” Cruttwell told BBC Sport.
“We tried him out and within 30 seconds you could tell he was pretty special. I looked at the other coach and we both said, ‘Wow, this guy’.”
‘He had an aura about him’
Carvalho – now 19 – had just arrived from Portugal, where he had been in 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 the quality of a star,” Cruttwell says.
“The first ball he played was like a five iron hitting the middle of the fairway. He had great technique, excellent balance and he was so quick. 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 great’. He kept coming and we eventually signed him.
“He was such a likeable boy, as humble as they come. All he wanted was to play football, anytime, anywhere. His parents were grounded, they weren’t pushy.
“He wasn’t thinking about becoming something 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 passing and moving. football. By luck, when he showed up, we were working with a similar age group to him and the rest is history.”
Carvalho settled with Balham and in 2015 he began to attract the attention of the biggest clubs in England and Europe. Cruttwell, a self-proclaimed Fulham fan, played a key role in facilitating his next move, but even then no one was in a hurry for the next step.
“Although he had been at Benfica, his parents just wanted him to be at a good club, developing,” Crutwell added. “They were quite happy that he stayed with Balham longer than him. Eventually the inevitable happened and the offers came in.”
“They were super relaxed and trusted that we would develop him, they saw that he was doing well. When you are between 10 and 14 years old you have to develop, but you also have to have fun.
“He was playing for us in Guildford in a six-on-one tournament and there were rumors about him. He was unbelievable. We were crammed together in the clubhouse when it rained and I could hear people talking about him. He hit crosses with rabonas and all kinds!”
‘He changed the landscape for us’
Fulham were able to get a hold of Carvalho early on, while Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool also courted him.
“We’ve been dealing with the clubs because his parents felt pressured because they’re all contacting him,” Cuttwell said.
“They were within arm’s reach, but there was a circus around him. It was the right time for him to move and Fulham seemed like the best choice.”
“Their academy is a category one, it still flies. It’s one of the best out there and we had a feeling Fabio would have a good chance there. Huw Jennings, who ran the academy at the time, had done an amazing job to get the likes of Patrick Roberts and Ryan Sessegnon.
“For example, his parents and Fabio were not blinded by Chelsea. If you go to Cobham… [the club’s training ground], it’s like Disney Land, but they saw the bigger picture. They also insisted that Balham was part of the deal, we played a vital role.
“We played hard and got a deal that is unprecedented in grassroots football. We have sales rates and all, Balham has done well here. It’s a fantastic thing. What he’s done has changed the landscape for us.” †
‘He will be patient and work hard’
In Fulham’s youth, Carvalho played alongside future Liverpool team-mate Harvey Elliot, while captaining England at under-17 level.
After signing a professional contract with Craven Cottage in 2020, he made fleeting appearances under Scott Parker in the Premier League before becoming a mainstay in Marco Silva’s winning squad, scoring 10 goals and assisting eight in 38 games from an attacking midfield role.
He’s been playing for Portugal under-21 since the turn of the year – and now he’s hopeful of a first senior call-up.
“The attention is worldwide, but he’s tucked the noise away and is the same kid,” Cruttwell added.
“I have kept in touch with him and his family. They insisted that we join them on the pitch to celebrate Fulham’s promotion against Preston. It was amazing, a dream come true.”
Cruttwell was not involved in Carvalho’s move to Liverpool, but he is backing him to make a success of himself on Merseyside.
“The type of player he is suits” [Jurgen] Klopp to the bone,” predicts Cuttwell. “The great thing about him is that he keeps things simple. He passes and moves at pace, he sees things. He could be in that generation that people like [Roberto] Firmino and Sadio Mane.
“If he has to be patient, he will be, he will continue to work hard. I have every confidence that he will succeed.”