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Come to Cobham

THE gleaming Porsche Cayenne with blacked-out windows sprawled horizontally across two bays in the car park next to the Cobham branch of Waitrose was doing nothing to dispel the stereotype about footballers and their consorts. Nor was it helping smooth relations between the monied arrivistes in this gilded corner of Surrey and the "old money" of the gin and Jag belt.

Jessica Thurlow (76) was less than impressed with the anti-social parking of the driver of the bloated 4x4.

In her uniform of Hunter wellingtons and chic headscarf, with an immaculate hairdo advertising her long-term residency in this small town, chosen five years ago by Chelsea Football Club to host its training ground, and subsequently a number of its highest-paid players, Mrs Thurlow was in no mood for excuses.

She said: "It's absolutely typical of the type of people we have in the town since that lot arrived. They have a sense of entitlement which they feel allows them to flout the rules that apply to everyone else. It didn't used to be like this. Cars would stop in the street to let you across. Nowadays, it's just boorishness and big cars."

Not to mention lurid headlines. The succession of stories about the alleged affair of John Terry, who was yesterday sacked as England captain after a 12-minute discussion of his private life with coach Fabio Capello, was cited by others on Cobham's village-like main thoroughfare as grounds for concern in a place which has had more than its share of tabloid scrutiny.

One man, who described himself as "a retired member of the legal profession", said: "I find it all a little tawdry. One would rather not know what the neighbours are getting up to between the sheets."

When the careless driver of the Porsche eventually emerged, attired in the WAG uniform of leather boots, sprayed-on jeans and a recently acquired tan, she politely but firmly declined to discuss either the finer points of the Highway Code or whether she was linked with anyone who earns their living in football.

The incident nonetheless serves to exemplify what some call the "Chelsea effect" -- the shift in the demographics of Cobham and its satellite villages of gated estates boasting neo-classical mansions with heated garages which has transformed a community that once hosted 17th-century agrarian revolutionaries into an area of such conspicuous wealth that it is referred to as the Beverly Hills of Surrey.

The reason for the tensions on Cobham High Street, justified or not, lies less than two miles away on a discreet turn-off opposite a compound of carefully manicured allotments in the village of Stoke D'Abernon.


A subtle bronze sign carrying the club crest and a blunt statement warning that "players will not sign autographs at this ground" is all that betrays the presence of Chelsea FC's training complex, which opened in 2005 and was seen as a further indication of owner Roman Abramovich's money-no-object determination to create a new force in world football.

The facilities came with an edict from the club's then-manager Jose Mourinho that all his players should live within four miles, prompting a minor gold rush for local estate agents as a phalanx of footballers boasting salaries in excess of £100,000 per week arrived in search of real estate with the kind of bling -- home cinemas, aromatherapy pools and underfloor heating that includes accommodation for an Aston Martin -- which is taken for granted in the upper echelons of the English Premier League.

Nowhere is the product of this influx more obvious than in the village of Oxshott, a gold-plated ghetto to the north of Cobham where at least four of the Chelsea team have homes on the private Crown Estate -- a strangely silent grid of gated mansions that has, in recent days, become the ground zero of the fallout from the alleged extra-marital exertions of now ex-England captain John Terry.

Several of the protagonists, including French underwear model Vanessa Perroncel and Terry himself, have homes within two miles of each other on the estate, which comes with a special bylaw preventing paparazzi from photographing individual homes.

With neighbours that include a number of City financiers, tennis star Andy Murray and assorted golfers including Colin Montgomerie, the result is a place of rare, almost other-worldly, privilege. There can be few village post offices in the world which offer a range of top marque vintage champagnes alongside the usual tins of Heinz soap and padded envelopes.

One Crown Estate resident of 25 years' standing who now counts Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole among his neighbours, said: "When we first moved here, the place was more of a community. Now, the people who lived here, professionals and managers, simply could not afford to do so.

"The land my house is built on is worth £2m alone. Once a new house is added, it costs £4m or £5m. There are only a few people who can afford those sorts of prices and they often like to live behind big gates. It feels a lot more empty here -- you don't form many friendships. I'm just grateful for the friends I made a long time ago."

With new Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti also moving into Oxshott, and goalkeeper Petr Cech in Cobham, from where he used to cycle to training before club officials decided it might be a bad idea, it is easy to come away with the notion that the area is overrun by footballers.

The departure of Mourinho, and with him the rule that his players live within minutes of the training ground, means that the flood of stars has slowed dramatically. Instead, their place has been taken by bankers with renewed bonus cheques and other wealthy individuals eager to buy into the cult of the new.

Elmbridge, the local authority that includes Cobham and Oxshott, is regularly named as the place with highest living standards in Britain. Nearly 65pc of its inhabitants are professionals or managers, compared to a national average of 42pc, while just 0.6pc are on jobseekers allowance.