The dark side of signature hunters: Professional ‘eBayers’ follow stars’ cars or wait outside their homes

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The footballer looked in his rearview mirror. It was still there. The Range Rover, which he had spotted leaving his club’s training ground, was behind him. He had driven about 10 miles, but the 4×4, with two adults in it, kept chasing him.

The South American player, who had not lived in the country long, was shocked. In a panic, he called the operations director of his club, fearing he was about to be attacked.

The advice was to stay calm, carry on as normal, and avoid any interaction. He came home, hurried in and locked the door. When he emerged hours later, the car was gone.

Attacker Jamie Vardy forces a signature hunter on the training ground of Leicester

Others have not been so lucky. Last week, Sportsmail’s Sports Agenda revealed that Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was being followed after leaving the Lowry Hotel in the city center, where the club is based ahead of the home games. At the first set of traffic lights, a man got out of the car that had been chasing him and started pounding on his window.

He didn’t want to hurt the Norwegian. However, he wanted his signature.

Professional signature hunters are thought to have been behind both incidents. Selling signed memorabilia is a surprisingly lucrative business, and more and more people – including those who drive the Range Rover – are making a living from it. A quick look at eBay also confirms that.

A Manchester United shirt signed by Marcus Rashford and presented neatly in a gift box costs £ 355.99.

A Kevin De Bruyne shirt, without any details other than the Manchester City star’s signature, costs £ 175.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was confronted at a traffic light

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was confronted at a traffic light

It’s basically simple. Buy a shirt for around £ 50, have a player sign it, and in hours you can earn triple – or even more – of what you paid.

Traditionally, ‘eBayers’ have been the scourge of training grounds, hotels and stadiums. But now Covid is instigating shameless, worrying behavior that has put Premier League clubs on their guard.

Due to the pandemic, many of the traditional stomping grounds are off limits. With bio-safe bubbles as part of the game, access is restricted. It has led to alarming incidents.

Liverpool has received multiple reports of signature hunters prowling outside players’ homes. In some cases, they have waited for players to get into their cars, followed them, then jumped when they stopped at the first traffic light.

Leeds United recently followed two players home from the club’s training ground. The matter has been raised with the police.

Clubs fear young autograph hunters could miss out on 'eBayers' scourge

Clubs fear young autograph hunters could miss out on ‘eBayers’ scourge

As Sportsmail revealed in March, Everton goalkeeper Robin Olsen and his family were subjected to a gruesome ordeal when masked robbers armed with machetes broke into their homes demanding jewelry. The home of Carlo Ancelotti, Olsen’s club manager, has also been targeted.

It’s no wonder players have panicked when they see or follow strangers hanging out outside their homes.

The problem is widespread. Near Stamford Bridge there are two set of traffic lights near Fulham Broadway station where ‘eBayers’ converge. They know that players will never get through both lights and have to stop at one or even both.

On a number of occasions during the pandemic, signature hunters have put their heads into players’ cars. Elsewhere it is a similar story. “We are spending all this money maintaining a safe bubble,” explained an official dealing with the same problem at another top six club.

‘The players follow the rules all week to keep everyone safe. Then they are attacked and a stranger sticks their heads in their car. We have no idea who they are, where they’ve been, who they’ve been exposed to. ‘

Watford forward Troy Deeney signs a young fan's signature on Vicarage Road

Watford forward Troy Deeney signs a young fan’s signature on Vicarage Road

Back at Chelsea, a parent once pushed their young child, aged about seven or eight, into the middle of Fulham Road to make sure a player quit.

And in the club’s training area, signs have gone up warning that players cannot stop on the court when they make their exit. Some clubs, including Wolves, have told players that if they sign autographs, they should ask who to address their message to.

Some players now recognize ‘eBayers’ by their voice and are reluctant to quit.

“This man again,” a star told teammates recently. “He called me ad *** head last time because I didn’t stop.”

Clubs are aware that genuine supporters often mingle with the pros and can miss out due to a growing reluctance among players to quit.

Everton goalkeeper Robin Olsen and his family were put through a terrifying ordeal

Everton goalkeeper Robin Olsen and his family were put through a terrifying ordeal

The experts are skilled operators and make their way to the front of the queue.

Many have embroidery discs to which they attach shirts, making it easier for the player to sign. Others have books with sections marked for each player.

Their persistence and aggression often leave real signature hunters downcast.

A number of times later, managers went out on their own and only signed for young people.

However, the reality is that clubs are limited in what they can do to address a growing problem.

United reviewed Solskjaer’s travel arrangements. Leeds and Liverpool advise players. Meanwhile, the shirts keep popping up online.