Matt Oldfield

It is the stuff that dreams are made of, the footballing equivalent of the frog becoming a prince. This week, Chris Smalling completed the incredible switch from non-league football to Manchester United, via the Premier League mid-table. The young English defender has taken Geoff Horsfield’s original script and created an Oscar-winning tale. Smalling’s meteoric rise has taken just two years, and 20 first-team appearances. The boy is very special indeed.

The first thing special about Smalling is the route that he took to the top. Rather than jeopardising his formal education by signing for a football league academy, the Englishman chose to stay at school and play part-time at Isthmian League team Maidstone United. It is a story that gives hope to all broad-minded youngsters and casts much-needed doubt on the tense dictatorship of top football academies. It was undoubtedly a brave and risky move for Smalling but one that soon began to pay off. Impressive performances for ‘The Stones’ led to appearances for his county (Kent) and then for the England Schools’ Football Association Under-18 squad. In April 2008, Smalling starred as England Schools defeated Scottish Schools 2-0. At that time, the young defender was expected to sign for Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough but Fulham stole in to keep him in the south.

Now in the Premier League, the former Maidstone United player was soon installed as captain of the development squad. Within the space of a year, Smalling had taken the first step of just two steps towards footballing glory.

At Fulham, Smalling has still only made eight first-team appearances. The young defender has only started two Premier League games for Roy Hodgson this season, the first coming against rivals Chelsea in December where the youngster was unfortunate enough to gift Carlo Ancelotti’s side three points with an own goal. His second start came just this week against Tottenham Hotspur in a disappointing 2-0 defeat. He is by no means seen as a first-team regular at Craven Cottage, preferred instead as a key member of Fulham’s Europa League squad and, of course, one for the future. Smalling has also gained essential experience and exposure through his appearances for Stuart Pearce’s successful England Under-21 side this year.

Few players have seemingly done so little to get so far, but Smalling’s talent cannot be doubted. A man-of-the-match display for Fulham against CSKA Sofia in September put him on the radar and the defender’s subsequent demonstrations of ability, maturity and determination soon attracted the attentions of leading managers Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. And after another whirlwind Aaron Ramsay-esque clash of the titans, Ferguson has got his man for a fee of up to £10M. Smalling will stay at Fulham for the rest of this campaign to gain further experience, but for the 2010/11 season he will be a Red Devil, playing Champions League football and challenging for major trophies.

So what makes him so good? At over 6 foot 4 inches in height, the young defender’s key attribute is clear for all to see but Fulham captain Danny Murphy believes that Smalling will be the complete defender. “He has great pace, is calm on the ball and good in the air. What more do you need from a good centre-half? He’ll be a great asset to his new club, and he won’t look out of place.”

Boss Roy Hodgson has been equally complementary of the young defender, stoically ruing the loss of “a great talent who has a very exciting future”. Smalling’s former boss at Maidstone United went one step further in the press this week, by comparing the young defender to Manchester United’s own Rio Ferdinand. Ferguson certainly hopes he has found a new world-class centre-back, in a week where the former West Ham and Leeds United defender returned from injury only to earn an FA charge for violent conduct.

With Manchester United in the midst of an unprecedented defensive crisis, Ferguson has looked to deal with the future, rather than the present. Ferdinand is now 31 and seemingly passed his best; partner Nemanja Vidic is only 28 in comparison but has been repeatedly linked with moves to European giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Serbian has also been shaky at times this season, struggling against his Achilles Heel, Liverpool’s Fernando Torres, in particular. This leaves solid, 22-year-old youth product Jonny Evans, and now Chris Smalling. He has big shoes to fill and he will carry a large weight of expectation on those shoulders. He has come a long way from non-league football, but is Smalling ready for the pressure of top European football? Only time will tell, but the boy does seem special.


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