During a regular training session at Balham FC in 2013, the club’s founder and director, Greg Cruttwell, did something out of the ordinary.
When a young boy appeared on Clapham Common in south London asking to join in with his under-11s side, Cruttwell relented. That boy’s name was Fabio Carvalho, who has just signed for Liverpool after helping to guide Fulham back to the Premier League.
“I was with another coach and we wouldn’t usually let somebody get involved without contacting the club officially first,” Cruttwell tells BBC Sport.
“We gave him a go and within 30 seconds you could see he was pretty special. I looked at the other coach and we both said, ‘wow, this kid’.”
‘He had an aura about him’
Carvalho – now 19 – had just arrived from Portugal, where he had been on the books of Benfica. 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 star quality,” says Cruttwell.
“The first ball he played was like a five-iron hitting the middle of the fairway. He had great technique, superb balance and he was so quick. A natural number 10.
“At the end of that session, I said to his mum, who hardly spoke any English, ‘please bring him to another training session, he’s amazing’. He kept coming and we signed him. eventually.
“He was such a likeable kid, as humble as they come. All he wanted to do was play football, anytime, anywhere. His parents had their feet on the ground, they weren’t pushy.
“He wasn’t thinking about becoming anything in the game, he just wanted to play. Our team was Balham Blazers at the time and somehow he heard about us. We had a reputation for developing players and playing pass and move football. By luck , when he turned up, we were working with a similar age group to him and the rest is history.”
Carvalho settled at Balham and, in 2015, he began to attract attention from 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, nobody was in any great rush for the next step.
“Even though he’d been at Benfica, his parents just wanted him to be at a good club, developing,” adds Crutwell. “They were quite happy for him to stay at Balham longer than he did. Eventually, the inevitable happened and the offers came in.
“They were super-relaxed and trusted us to develop him, they saw he was doing well. When you are between the ages of 10 and 14, you need to be developing but you need to be having fun, too.
“He played in a six-a-side tournament for us in Guildford and word went round about him. He was unbelievable. We were packed into the clubhouse when it was raining and I could hear people talking about him. He was whipping crosses in with rabonas and all sorts!”
‘He has changed the landscape for us’
Fulham caught on to Carvalho early, while Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool courted him as well.
“We dealt with the clubs because his parents felt under pressure from them all getting in touch,” says Cuttwell.
“They were at an arm’s distance, but there was a circus around him. It was the right time for him to move and Fulham seemed to be the best fit.
“Their academy is a category one, it is still flying today. It is one of the best around and we felt Fabio would have a good chance there. Huw Jennings, who ran the academy at the time, had done amazingly bringing through the likes of Patrick Roberts and Ryan Sessegnon.
“His parents and Fabio weren’t dazzled by Chelsea, for example. If you go to Cobham [the club’s training ground], it is like Disney Land, but they saw the bigger picture. They also insisted Balham were part of the deal, we played a crucial role.
“We played hardball and got a deal that is unprecedented for grassroots football. We’ve got sell-on percentages and all that, Balham have done well out of this. It is fantastic business. What he’s done has changed the landscape for us. “
‘He will be patient and work hard’
While in Fulham’s youth ranks, Carvalho played alongside future Liverpool teammate Harvey Elliot, while captaining England at under-17 level.
After signing a professional contract at Craven Cottage in 2020, he made fleeting appearances under Scott Parker in the Premier League before becoming a mainstay in Marco Silva’s Championship winning side, scoring 10 goals and assisting eight in 38 games from an attacking midfield role.
Since the turn of the year he has played for Portugal’s under-21s – and now he is hopeful of a first senior call-up.
“The attention is worldwide, but he’s shut the noise away and is the same kid,” Cruttwell adds.
“I’ve kept in touch with him his family. They insisted we joined them on the pitch celebrating Fulham’s promotion against Preston. It was wonderful, a dream come true.”
Cruttwell was not involved in Carvalho’s move to Liverpool, but he backs him to make a success of himself on Merseyside.
“The type of player he is, he suits [Jurgen] Klopp down to the bone,” Cuttwell predicts. “The great thing about him is he keeps things simple. He passes and moves at pace, he sees things. He could be in that generation that replaces the likes of [Roberto] Firmino and Sadio Mane.
“If he has to be patient, he will be, he will keep working hard. I’m very confident he will succeed.”