AS FAR as footballing fairytales go, the story of Chris Smalling is up there with the best.
For less than two years ago, the 20-year-old defender was plying his trade for non-league Maidstone United, making his first-team debut as a 17-year-old in a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Heybridge Swifts. Twelve appearances later, he was on the way to the Premier League with Fulham; and after just five top-flight appearances, agreed a £10m move to defending champions Manchester United.
United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, contacted Smalling’s mother Theresa personally to assure her that her son would be well looked after at Old Trafford. The days of giant defender Smalling gracing the turf at Maidstone’s 3,535-seat capacity Homelands stadium, whilst holding down a job as a hotel waiter, studying A-Levels and driving a Renault Clio are long gone.
Ferguson’s pursuit of Smalling, in whom Arsenal were also interested, clearly shows two things. One, it serves to highlight the lack of money he has to play with as United’s well-documented financial struggles continue, but also the confidence he has in his January marquee signing.
Although he is reportedly considered as ‘one for the future’, Ferguson was persuaded to act after being dogged by concerns over Rio Ferdinand’s fitness, and with his other recognised centre-half Nemanja Vidic continually linked with a move away from Old Trafford.
Understandably, many of United’s supporters are somewhat underwhelmed by the capture of Smalling. After all, they are used to £30m acquisitions of stars like Ferdinand, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney, and instead have seen their club buy a youngster who has more experience of the Isthmian League than the Premier League.
They will be buoyed, however, by memories of other stars who have successfully made the leap from non-league football to reach the top. Les Ferdinand, for example, cost QPR £30,000 in 1987 from Hayes, and Ian Wright arrived at Crystal Palace from Greenwich Borough in exchange for a set of weights – later becoming one of Arsenal’s greatest ever players.
Chris Smalling – the next Manchester United star (courtesy of simplyreds.com)
Even Stuart Pearce, who gave Smalling his England under 21 debut last year, worked part-time as an electrician whilst with Wealdstone United. Pearce went on to captain his country – and knows that the six-foot-three defender has what it takes to follow a similar career path.
“I like what I see,” Pearce, head coach of England’s under 21 side, said.
“He [Smalling] doesn’t mind mixing it. He’s a good stature for a centre-half. He just needs to learn the game now, and the only way you do that is by playing matches. It’s the only thing he’s short of.
“He wants to learn, which is a great basis for any coach, and the nature of the way he plays suggests that he comes from a background where it has been difficult and tough.
“It will do him no harm and if that is a strength in his armoury as he goes forward, all well and good.”
Smalling will stay at Craven Cottage for the remainder of the season, before joining United ahead of next term. That in itself could be problematic for the defender.
Although he will know that the ‘loan’ arrangement gives him the opportunity to continue playing games for Fulham, instead of warming the heated seats on Manchester United’s bench, he will also be aware that any mistake will leave him open to criticism – and accusations that he already has his mind on his move to Manchester, and doesn’t have Fulham’s best interests at heart. And the same Fulham supporters will know that, no matter how well Smalling performs between now and the end of the season, manager Roy Hodgson will have to plan for next season without him.
However Hodgson, a former Maidstone player himself, believes the arrangement will suit both parties perfectly.
“Every game he plays for us he will be learning the hard way, and learning enormously,” he said.
“You cannot reproduce that experience. The only way you can get it is by getting out there, and possibly by making mistakes, so you can learn from them.”
Maidstone, too, are celebrating the transfer after receiving a cash windfall – which will help them pay their players, for the first time since December 5.