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.
Fabio Carvalho has enjoyed a fairytale journey in football after completing a move to Liverpool
Fabio (pictured bottom left) started his career at south London side Balham FC – approaching them during a training session on Clapham Common when he was 11
‘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.
The Portuguese star will be competing with Jurgen Klopp’s superstars at Anfield next season
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.’
Carvalho (second right) dazzled for Balham and had top English clubs chasing after him – including Manchester United, who had an official fly out in a helicopter to secure his signature
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 officer.
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.
As interest in Carvalho intensified, his youth team coaches began handling negotiations
Arsenal and Chelsea were both ‘desperate’ to sign Carvalho but the player’s family were left unimpressed after travelling to both clubs
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.’
Carvalho pictured signing his Fulham contract with goalkeeping coach Pedro Soares (R), manager Greg Cruttwell (top centre) and first team coach Ollie Kanner (second left)
Kanner and Soares believe the way Fulham went about the talks was key in winning over the trio and Carvalho’s family.
‘At Fulham it was a slick approach and that really impressed us,’ he said. ‘There was touches that they did that were really classy. That was a big win for them. They did things in a professional, humble, non flashy way.’
‘Fulham came up with a business plan,’ Soares says. ‘They were more strategic. They offered him schooling, transport. “We’ll look after your parents and Balham”. Everything was so good and the parents said it feels right.’
So Carvalho and his family signed on the dotted deal in what was a revolutionary contract for a grassroots club. It was an undisclosed fee but Fulham ensured Balham were properly compensated, and they also agreed terms with the player to give his old club a ‘slice of the pie’ for the remainder of his career.
While he joined Liverpool on a free transfer, the Reds will pay £5million with £2.7m in add ons due to his age. Balham stand to profit significantly and the club hope to use the funds to put towards getting them their first proper stadium.
Carvalho’s family picked Fulham because of their ‘top level academy’, and the Cottagers have helped develop the teenager into a huge talent
‘Wherever he goes in his career, we’re part of the package,’ Cruttwell explains.
‘All I can say is that it is a great deal for Balham. We live a nomadic existence. We don’t have our own ground. Anything like this is a godsend and this will make a huge difference. All the money will go back into the club and I think we can attract support [for a new stadium].’
It was at Fulham where Carvalho truly came alive as he worked under the watchful eye of Jennings and youth coach Colin Omogbehin.
When Carvalho’s departure to Liverpool was confirmed, Omogbehin posted a tribute to the player on Instagram with pictures of them posing together as he reflected on when he first scouted him at Balham.
‘I had to work overtime lol to convince both Fab, his family and the wonderful staff at Balham that Fulham was the right environment to develop his special talent,’ he recalled. ‘When he signed, his family and the Balham staff were there, the professional journey was about to begin.
He scored ten goals and provided eight assists to help Fulham earn promotion this season
‘It’s very rare that a scout brings a player to a club then coaches that player from schoolboy level all the way to first team level.
‘Seeing this boy hit targets, beat challenges has been incredible to watch. He never lets me down, he plays the game with such beauty and worked extremely hard. An absolute gem of a human being. His time at Fulham has come to a close but his character and quality will always be remembered. Good luck my protégé, my player, my boy Fabio.’
Cruttwell, Kanner and Soares are all still very close with Carvalho and text him often.
When Fulham clinched promotion to the Premier League with a 3-0 win against Preston, he invited all three of them to the game and brought them onto the Craven Cottage pitch to celebrate.
They were all seen embracing each other on the pitch in joyous scenes, and the message from Carvalho was clear.
‘When we all had our hugs and cuddles, the last thing that was said was “we’ll see you at Anfield”,’ Kanner says.
The youngster celebrates on the Craven Cottage pitch with Soares (left), Cruttwell (second left) and Kanner (right). The trio have remained close with the player and are hopeful of visiting him at Anfield next season
Cruttwell has already seen him in action when Fulham were in the Premier League in 2020-21 – he scored on his debut against Southampton at St Mary’s – and he says the player’s connection with Balham is what makes their friendship so strong.
‘He’s very busy so we just text every now and then. He comes back to Balham games whenever he can. His older brother used to play for us and there’s a great family connection. His family are so thankful for his time at Balham. We have a connection that will last forever. I’ll be there when he makes his debut for Liverpool and I’m so excited for him.’
It’s Soares who has remained closest with Carvalho. He was on holiday recently when he received a phone call from the Carvalho clan.
‘Every year his mum and dad will call me for advice on certain things throughout his Fulham career. His mum called me when I was on holiday because Fabio got injured, asking me what they should do.’
Now 19 years old, Carvalho is preparing to grace Anfield next season – quite the step up from the Championship. His Fulham side were free-scoring as they romped to promotion but he’ll experience a new level alongside star forwards Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Luis Diaz.
His former coaches believe Carvalho is ‘tailor made’ for Jurgen Klopp’s philosophy at Liverpool
He will be competing for places alongside Mohamed Salah (L) and Sadio Mane (R) but he has been tipped to adapt and thrive from the pressure
There are question marks about whether Carvalho has what it takes to cut the mustard at this level. The argument could be made that he was better off developing at Fulham, but Cruttwell believes the higher level of quality will suit the teenage star and help him rise to the occasion.
‘At Fulham he made a lot of runs and found pockets of space. No disrespect to Fulham, but they didn’t always have that quality. At Liverpool, they’ll find him more and he could be even more dangerous. The higher level you go to, that can bring you up to that level.
‘I see him being very much part of Jurgen Klopp’s plans. He’s very centered, feet on the ground with a great work ethic. He can deal with pressure. He shuts his mind off to the noise, he’s driven and focused. He could be a replacement for Roberto Fimino – he’s that kind of player.’
Kanner agrees and claims he is a ready-made player for Klopp’s system.
‘I think he fits the DNA of a Liverpool player to a tee. It’s crazy to think he’s competing with players like Salah, Mane and Diaz but I don’t think that will faze him. Hopefully the step up is going to benefit Fabs.
Cruttwell poses with Carvalho on the matchday programme during a game at the Cottage
‘Working with world class players day in day out will really help him. Liverpool give chances to players they have – Harvey Elliott being one. I don’t think he will come in and play with the U23s. I think he will be part of the first team and kick on.
‘When the cameras are on, he doesn’t shy away. That’s one of those world class characteristics you see at the highest level. He turns up.’
‘Fabio has everything within his personality to suceed in that team,’ Soares adds. ‘I resemble Fabio with Philippe Coutinho in a way. There are certain things they do that are similar. I think Fabio will actually surpass that. Fabio said “I will win the Ballon d’Or” and he’s capable. Nothing will stop him getting to the top.’
‘What sets Carvalho aside is his grounded mentality’, says Cruttwell. ‘He believes he is still as passionate and humble as the young boy who rocked up at the park eight years ago.’
‘The biggest thing about Fabs is his humility,’ he explains. ‘He’s such a humble boy and if you met him now he’d never tell you what he’s up to. His parents are wonderful people and they’re all about feet on the ground.
Carvalho will stay humble as he moves to Merseyside, his former boss insists, and believes he is mentally the same boy who turned up on Clapham Common 11 years ago
‘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.’