Fulham's Chris Smalling says he has to stop and pinch himself when he reflects on the rise that has seen him jump from non-League football to the dizzy heights of the Premier League in just 18 months. The 20-year-old defender announced his arrival over the festive break with a commanding performance against league leaders Chelsea, although an own goal blighted an otherwise faultless display.
He followed that up with a clean sheet in their FA Cup win over Swindon on Saturday and has also put in a series of impressive Europa League performances which have caught the eye of England Under 21 manager Stuart Pearce, who handed him his first cap back in August. Back in the summer of 2008 Smalling was on the verge of going to Loughborough University while playing for Isthmian Premier League side Maidstone United after being released by Millwall.
And the centre-half says he finds it hard to believe that he has come so far so quickly as he looks set to once again deputise for the injured Brede Hangeland as Fulham travel to Stoke in the league tonight. "It has been one of those sorts of stories; a meteoric rise," he said. "I was unfortunate at Millwall but settled in at Maidstone and then got my chance here and hopefully I can go from strength to strength."
Smalling attributes his rise to Cottagers boss Roy Hodgson. "I have really enjoyed the games I've played in and it's great when you have got a manager of the calibre of Roy showing faith in you while Brede has been struggling," he added. Andy Johnson is in line for only his second start since October against Stoke after he came through Saturday's game without any recurrence of a groin injury. Meanwhile Stoke winger Matthew Etherington has urged his teammates to make the most of their game in hand to avoid being dragged into a relegation scrap.
"It's become very tight now [at the bottom] with just a few points separating about nine or 10 clubs," said Etherington. * With agencies Stoke v Fulham, 11.45pm, Showsport 1& 2