Raiders hit football's Golden Triangle

First, the Away Day Gang burgled Premiership players in the North-west. Now, thieves are targeting the homes of London stars

Detectives are investigating raids on the homes of Premiership football stars in London and Essex. Up to 12 footballers have had their homes ransacked, netting the thieves tens of thousands of pounds in cash, jewellery and expensive cars. Those targeted include the former Tottenham stars Mido and Pascal Chimbonda, the West Ham midfielder Julien Faubert and the former West Ham captain Lucas Neill, who recently signed for Everton.

Officers said that affluent homes in and around Essex's so-called "Golden Triangle" of Chigwell, Buckhurst Hill and Loughton had been hit. The ostentatiously well-manicured area, which featured in the TV series Essex Wives, a programme about wealthy women in the area, is popular with the high-income players for Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham in particular.

The raids mirror those in north-west England where up to 15 Premiership footballers have been hit by the so-called Away Day Gang which raids players' homes when their teams are playing away fixtures. Those who have fallen victim include the Liverpool stars Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Pepe Reina, Manchester City's striker Roque Santa Cruz, the Manchester United and Scotland star Darren Fletcher, and England and Aston Villa's Emile Heskey. Gerrard's wife, Alex Curran, was confronted by four robbers when he was away for a Champions League game. The couple's daughters were asleep at the time in their home in Formby, Merseyside.

Last week, in the most recent incident, three masked men broke into the home of the Everton and England defender Phil Jagielka, in Knutsford, Cheshire, expecting him to be away with team-mates at Hull. Instead, they found him at home with friends, including the Stoke City player Michael Tonge. The victims were forced at knife-point to hand over cash and jewellery, before Jagielka was told to open a safe from which the theives stole two Rolex watches and a Breitling diamond watch.

The raid on Chimbonda's property saw attackers take more than £22,000 in cash, while the French international Faubert also reported £20,000 in cash stolen from his home. Lucas Neill was at home when burglars broke in and stole property, including the keys to his car in which they drove off. The car was later recovered. Mido, who was transferred to Middlesbrough and is now on loan to an Egyptian team, also had his car stolen from the property where he was staying. A spate of stolen high-value cars has prompted Essex Police to set up a dedicated unit to try to curb the problem.

Ironically, Essex Police cited the operation to tackle a spate of burglaries in which valuable cars have been taken when explaining why they had stopped the Spurs and England striker Jermain Defoe as he travelled through Harlow in his Range Rover in August. After checks over his identity, Defoe was allowed to continue his journey.

The decision to stop Defoe prompted the Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp, to criticise police. "Why shouldn't any young boy, white or black, have a nice car?" he said. "A black kid driving, so what? You wonder why he keeps getting stopped. It does seem strange. He is a young kid and they think, 'Where has he got that nice car from?'" Defoe's solicitor described the police actions as sinister and "vindictive".

An Essex Police spokesman said there was no evidence that professional footballers were being targeted; rather, it was part of a wider crime trend in which London-based criminals targeted local affluent homes.