IN the early 1990s, there was a local radio football commentator in the North East called Charles Harrison, who covered Sunderland games. For a while, Harrison’s job and his relatively high profile in the region combined to cause him a huge problem – as every time he went to an away match, his house was burgled.

At the time, the story was so unusual that it was deemed worthy of discussion on Have I Got News For You. (Indeed, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can see Frank Bough and Angus Deayton talking about that very story eight minutes into this clip. Well, you can assuming that it hasn’t been deleted by the time you read this.)

Two things have changed since then. Firstly, any burglar using a football fixture list these days as a means to target empty houses probably wouldn’t go for the home of a local journalist first. Instead, they would go for the players. And secondly, matchday burglaries are no longer a novelty.

Aston Villa midfielder James Milner’s house was targeted by burglars while he was away on England duty over the weekend. The story warranted precisely six paragraphs in today’s Daily Mirror. It would be no huge surprise to discover over the next couple of days that another footballer had suffered during tonight’s round of World Cup qualifiers.

Keeping track of the number of players to have suffered break-ins over the last four years is no easy task. When Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar’s home was broken into in May – while he was playing against Tottenham – one website suggested that he was the 16th Premier League player to be burgled while at work in less than three years.

Most of those players targeted are based in the North West of England – although Milner wasn’t, and neither was Afonso Alves, who suffered a break-in while playing for Middlesbrough against Portsmouth in March. Most have similar valuables taken – jewellery, watches, maybe medals, shirts and other memorabilia, and often the car too.

I don’t have the stats to prove it, but it does appear that this type of crime is on the rise – perhaps for two reasons: 1) Footballers are significantly richer than they use to be, meaning that any burglary is likely to yield more than it would have done in the past. 2) The growth of computer databases is making it easier to find out where they live.

Nick Davies, a brilliant journalist, wrote an article in the Guardian at the end of last month about invasion of privacy. In a discussion on how several newspapers took advantage of the incredibly porous security of organisations that are suppose to safeguard our confidential data, Davies dropped in the following sentence:

“Even though high-profile footballers have been the victims of burglary while playing matches, BT was tricked into handing out the home addresses and ex-directory numbers of eight members of the England football squad who played in the World Cup in Japan in 2002.”

I’m not suggesting that burglars are using the same methods as the News of the World to find out where footballers live. Sometimes, it could probably be done with a copy of Hello magazine and half-an-hour on Google Earth. I’m merely using Davies’ quote to show that, if you want to find out a player’s home address, however much they may want to keep it a secret, it can be done. Once you’ve done that, all you need is a copy of the fixture list.

Not that you even necessarily need to know your target’s work schedule. Burglars have also shown themselves prepared to target a footballer when he is at home. Blackburn’s Vince Grella was threatened with a knife when his house was broken into last month, and the partners of Emile Heskey, Steven Gerrard and Darren Fletcher were all at home when burglaries were committed.

Premier League footballers tend not to get much sympathy when anything goes wrong in their lives; the general reaction to any misfortune veering between mild amusement to outright contempt via gleeful sneering. (I should know. I’ve reacted that way myself, often on this blog.)

Sometimes, it’s easy to understand why; when the top players earn the kind of money in three or four years that most of us won’t see in a lifetime, and yet managers still complain that a 50 per cent tax bracket will make it more difficult to attract star names; when those players live in houses bigger than hotels, and drive cars more expensive than houses.

And yet you would have to be of a particularly nasty spirit not to feel some kind of sympathy for people whose job, and the rewards that come with it, mean that they have to live with the increased possibility of being woken one night to discover a stranger in their home carrying a knife.

Mind you, even amid that danger, some players still find ways to make pillocks of themselves. Last January, for instance, Newcastle striker Shola Ameobi rang Nothumbria Police to report that his home had been burgled. Shortly, afterwards, he called them again, feeling very embarrassed, to admit that there hadn’t been a break-in after all. His house was just very untidy.

And sometimes, a burglar can just pick the wrong target. In the mid-1990s, a man tried to break in to Duncan Ferguson’s house. Big mistake. Ferguson, never a man to be trifled with, was at home at the time, caught the burglar in the act and punched him in the face. It’s a shame that incident didn’t put other burglars off. But it didn’t. And it won’t.


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