The beginning of the 2021/22 Championship season had a familiar feel to it as Fulham, along with fellow yoyo Premier League side West Brom, raced away at the top.
Fulham were at the summit after five matches played with an impressive 13 points. Their exciting attack netted 13 goals in the process, too.
At the heart of this dynamic forward play was attacking midfielder Fabio Carvalho, who was aged just 18 when the campaign started.
A return of three goals and an assist isn’t the half of it. Carvalho, who had signed his first professional contract just over a year earlier, was making experienced professionals look like novices having most notably run rings around Millwall’s defence in a 2-1 win at the Den in August.
HMS P*** the League memes were being bandied about by some Fulham fans online as a return straight back to the top flight appeared inevitable.
However, results dropped off for Marco Silva’s side after Carvalho sustained a toe injury in early September. Defeats to Blackpool, Reading as well as a collapse at Coventry show promotion cannot be taken for granted.
Results have picked up in recent weeks with three straight wins putting them back into the automatic promotion spots.
However, Fulham will be looking down rather than up as Scott Parker’s Bournemouth have a five-point cushion at the top while the Cottagers are just a point ahead of third-placed West Brom, who they play this weekend, live on the talkSPORT app.
The restless Fulham faithful desperate to see Carvalho back may have their prayers answered on Saturday lunchtime, with Silva confirming the 19-year-old is ready to make a return to action.
Matches like these are often decided by a moment of magic from players that have that X factor, which Carvalho has in abundance, explains one of his former coaches at London-based Balham FC, Greg Cruttwell.
Crutwell told talkSPORT.com: “He appeared on Clapham Common, I was running a training session with another coach, Ollie Kanner. We worked together at Balham and Fabio, who was aged 10 or 11 at the time, came up with his mum and joined in the session.
“After 30 seconds when we first pinged a ball to him, he pinged it back and we just looked at each other and our jaws hit the ground and thought ‘hello, this kid looks pretty good’.
“In that session he was fantastic and immediately you could see that he’s got the X factor. He was magic on the ball, he had great agility and movement so obviously we told him to come along to more training sessions!”
As the stirring displays in training and matches continued, it was no surprise when professional clubs came knocking.
Chelsea and Arsenal were both ‘very keen’ to land this precocious talent, Liverpool showed an interest, while Manchester United even flew down from Carrington to meet Crutwell about Carvalho.
Fulham were the lucky club to get their hands on Carvalho, who Crutwell says is still the same as the ‘humble’ boy he crossed paths with all those years ago.
But for what Carvalho is lacking in arrogance he isn’t lacking in ambition, having been quoted saying he wants to challenge for the Ballon d’Or in the next few years.
Crutwell insists Carvalho knows this will take a huge amount of hard work but adds the Portugal-born player has an ‘aura’ the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo no doubt have.
On Carvalho being a potential Ballon d’Or contender, Crutwell added: “Why not? You’ve gotta aim high, haven’t you?
“I’m sure he’s said that and that’s surely the ultimate ambition for any kind of player, especially a playmaker. I’m sure he realises there are plenty of hurdles to get through before you get there. As long as he stays lucky with injury, the world is his oyster. He definitely has the X factor.
“What you also need, and I’m sure Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe all have it but when you meet Fabio he lights up a room. His smile lights up a room. He comes in and shakes your hand and you think there’s something about him, he has an aura.
“I’ve worked with a lot of good players but he’s just got that X factor and that little something.”
Achieving all that at Craven Cottage is unlikely though. Carvalho’s ambition, and the fact his contract is up in June, has led to plenty of rumours about his future.
But Crutwell has warned the player not fall into the same trap as previous young stars of Fulham.
Crutwell said: “Fulham have been very generous to us in terms of the contracts given to him. I want him to be at Fulham for a considerable amount of time because I think it’s the right thing for him.
“When you look at players like Patrick Roberts, who went to Man City very young (£11million), there was Ryan Sessegnon too. They both went for big money but for me they went too early. I’d like to see him stay this season and not be rushed into making a move.
“Leeds, Real Madrid and Barcelona – there’s been talk of all these clubs stepping around him but I think the power is in his hands. I don’t think he should move too early.”
Listen to full commentary of Fulham vs West Brom live on the talkSPORT app, kick-off 12:30pm