To say Chris Smalling’s rise from non-league football obscurity to starting the 2010-2011 season possibly taking the field at Old Trafford to play at the heart of Manchester United’s defence, is meteoric would, for once, be something of an understatement. Manchester United’s new £7m signing from Fulham, who he only joined in June 2008 and for whom he has made a grand total of 4 league appearances, was snatched from under the noses of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who was believed to be unwilling to match the valuation placed on the player by Roy Hodgson.
Smalling is unusual in that he never received his football education coming through the ranks at a professional club. Instead Smalling continued in full time education at Chatham Grammar School and played for Maidstone United in the Isthmian League. It was here that he was noticed by the English Schools FA who promoted him into their schoolboy squad. In April 2008, Smalling played for England schoolboys against Scotland schoolboys at Wembley stadium. If he thought that this may be the pinnacle of his career, he would be proven wrong.
Two months later, despite facing fierce competition from several league clubs including Middlesbrough, Charlton Athletic and Gillingham, Fulham snapped up the youngster and placed him in the care of Youth team boss Billy McKinlay. It wasn’t long before the 6ft 4″ defender was impressing his manager enough to have him named captain of the team. His performances also caught the eye of first team boss Roy Hodgson who capped a fine year for Fulham in May 2009 by handing Smalling his league debut in the final game of the season against Everton.
His appearance at the end of last season has been followed by nine more appearances this time around, though many have been in domestic cup and European competitions. Indeed Smalling’s name may well have only been brought to a wider audience for the first time on 28th December 2009, when he made his first full start for Fulham in the London derby against Chelsea and was unfortunate to see a parry from ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer bounce back off his leg and into the net to hand Chelsea a somewhat undeserved victory.
Despite this setback, Smalling has continued to impress the scouts that have been paying frequent visits fo Craven Cottage to see the youngster in action. A tall, powerful centre back who has great pace and is surprisingly adroit with the ball at his feet, Smalling has all the physical and technical attributes to become a top class defender. It is this potential that has seen Manchester United invest a reported £7m in the player.
While some may argue that £7m for a player who has played just four Premier League games is a gamble, for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men it may not be. With question marks over the long term fitness of Rio Ferdinand and the future of Nemanja Vidic, who has been linked repeatedly in past weeks with a move away from Old Trafford, signing Smalling makes excellent sense. He seems to be a ready made replacement for either player long term and will no doubt improve his skills further under the tutelage of the coaches and staff at Carrington.
Only time will tell if the signing of Smalling is a great piece of business for Manchester United or not, but certainly all the evidence seems to suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson may well have snapped up another gem to add to his fulsome list at Old Trafford.