Thursday, October 8, 2009

"away-day robbers"

Match of the prey
Victim of

Victim of "away-day robbers" ... Steven Gerrard

PETRIFIED Premier League stars and their WAGs are living in fear of violent crooks dubbed "the away-day robbers".

The plush homes of 21 footballers have been burgled by thugs in the north-west, with some of the players' partners being held at KNIFEPOINT.

Wearing my rolex ... nicked from Gerrard's pad

Wearing my rolex ... nicked from Gerrard's pad

Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard and Manchester United's Darren Fletcher are among the stars targeted while they were playing away fixtures and clubs are stepping up efforts to keep their families safe.

The yobs have stolen Rolex watches, cars and even a pedigree DOG from sprawling mansions during a three-year reign of terror on the players who feature on Match of the Day every week.

Police are reluctant to connect the thefts in Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire but footballers are paranoid a highly-organised gang is behind the crimewave.

The most recent victim was Everton and England defender Phil Jagielka, 27, who was at home injured when the yobs struck in September as his side played Hull City away in the Carling Cup.

Who has been hit ... Emile Heskey

Who has been hit ... Emile Heskey

Despite hi-tech security, three masked men burst in to the £2.5million property in Mere, Cheshire, and forced Jagielka to open his safe while threatening him with a knife.

They stole two Rolexes, a Breitling watch and a Range Rover from the drive.

Jagielka's wife Emily was out - but his two young children were asleep upstairs.

His Everton team-mates, Tony Hibbert, 28, and Andy van der Meyde, 30, were also burgled three years ago.

Along with a Ferrari and a Mini Cooper, van der Meyde - since released by Everton - had his seven-month-old puppy Mac stolen in the bust, but the pooch was returned days later.

Concerned Everton manager David Moyes has called on cops to bring the situation under control.

He said: "It's a big worry for the players and their families and something has to be done about it.

"I think it has to be looked at by police. Phil was very shaken and it's something nobody would want to go through."

While no one was hurt in the Jagielka raid, the away-day robbers have become increasingly violent.

Solid defence ... security at Darren Fletcher's home

Solid defence ... security at Darren Fletcher's home

In July 2007, striker Emile Heskey - then with Wigan, now with Aston Villa - was targeted. His fiancée Chantelle Tagoe, 25, was attacked by two knife-toting thieves at their £2.5million home in Hale, Cheshire.

Wearing ski masks, the burglars vaulted the gates, kicked down the front door and held a blade to the beautician's neck, threatening to kill her.

They eventually left with jewellery and a BMW X5 belonging to 31-year-old Heskey, who was at training.

Who has been hit ... Roque Santa Cruz

Five months later and a mile away in Bowdon, then-Blackburn striker Roque Santa Cruz's wife Giselle, 24, was held at knifepoint in their £2million home.

Roque, 28 - now at Manchester City - was playing away at Portsmouth.

Giselle was forced to hand over jewellery worth thousands - as their two young children looked on.

Who has been hit ... Darren Fletcher

In February, in the SAME village, three hooded men raided Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher's £2million mansion hours after he had flown to Italy for a Champions League tie against Inter Milan.

The 25-year-old's fiancée Hayley Grice, 25, was subjected to a terrifying ordeal as three men kicked down the door and tore off her £30,000 engagement ring.

She was then grabbed by the hair and dragged through the house to collect jewellery and watches worth more than £100,000.

Cops are not linking the area's three burglaries, but a Greater Manchester Police source said: "It was a terrifying raid. This gang were armed and had obviously staked out the house. They are a very, very dangerous bunch."

Targeted ... Emile Heskey's home was raided by gang

Targeted ... Emile Heskey's home was raided by gang

Scotland star Darren has since spent thousands improving security, including cameras that scan rooms and grounds and store footage. Manchester United have also stepped up security for their players.

John Bramhall, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, said: "Clubs are becoming more active with the security provision they put in place.

"It is a major concern to look after their players, so they can focus on football."

Who has been hit ... Steven Gerrard

Frustratingly few away-day robbers have been convicted. Last week 22-year-old Martin Wilson, from Liverpool, was charged with burgling the £4.5million home of Liverpool star Steven Gerrard, 29, and his wife Alex Curran, 27, in Formby, Merseyside.

In December 2007, Gerrard was playing in his team's Champions League 4-0 win over Marseille in France when four hooded men struck. They stole a Rolex and two sets of car keys.

Alex said: "It was terrifying - a horrendous experience. We've got a lot of security but we'll definitely step it up after this."

The PFA says the north-west crimewave, which began with the burglary of Wayne Rooney's parents' Liverpool home in July 2006, has hit "alarming proportions".

They have linked up with Case Security, which advises wealthy clients on how to protect their homes.

Case's managing director Dave Newbury said: "Footballers are installing equipment such as infra-red heat-sensing cameras, vibration sensors and CCTV which can be viewed on the internet.

"You can check your property's cameras on an iPhone from a beach miles away.

"Budgets vary, but we are about to finish a house where the system cost £100,000."

While technology is a useful weapon against the away-day robbers, bringing them to justice remains complicated by the fact the 21 burglaries have occurred across three police jurisdictions - Cheshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Cops maintain the raids are down to unrelated gangs using similar tactics to rob the wealthy - Premier League stars or not.

A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester Police said: "Footballers are no different to any members of the public as far as the police are concerned. They are targeted because they have particularly nice cars.

"We put out appeals about nice cars being stolen every day - what's insulting is no one is bothered about that."

Hardly words of comfort for footie stars playing an away fixture this weekend, wondering where the robbers will strike next.

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