x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Chris Smalling into the big time

The Manchester United defender has gone from non-league football to Champions League in three years.

Chris Smalling, left, shares a laugh with Manchester United teammates John O’Shea and Fabio, centre, during a training session ahead of the Champions League draw with Valencia on Tuesday.
Chris Smalling, left, shares a laugh with Manchester United teammates John O’Shea and Fabio, centre, during a training session ahead of the Champions League draw with Valencia on Tuesday.

There is the Champions League and there is non-league football and never, it can seem, shall the twain meet.

Yet there is a common denominator, a man who went from Maidstone United to Manchester United in the space of a couple of years. By any standards, Chris Smalling's has been a startling rise.

An unused substitute in England's recent friendly against France, the 21-year-old has played in five of United's group games in Europe's premier club competition.

But the strange, and perhaps the most impressive element, of his emergence is how assured he appears at Old Trafford.

"It's great," he said. "Getting a few games in the group games has really helped me. I remember watching these games on TV and hearing the Champions League song. It's great to be a part of them."

While there was a time when graduates of the semi-professional game, such as Stuart Pearce, Ian Wright and Vinnie Jones, regularly progressed to the top flight and international football, now such tales have a genuine rarity value.

Smalling's is all the stranger because of the speed of his emergence. His first league start came less than a year ago, in Fulham's 2-1 derby defeat to Chelsea.

It was then, it is thought, that he was spotted by United's scouts.

With Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, also displaying an interest, a £10 million (Dh57.9m) move to Old Trafford was soon concluded, though the defender stayed at Fulham for the remainder of the season.

It was only his second at Craven Cottage: Smalling had been signed at 19 by the London club after appearing for Maidstone in the Isthmian League, the seventh tier of English football, and, more pertinently, catching the eye while representing England Schoolboys.

That he envisaged a future outside football is apparent by the fact that, unlike most of his peers, he took A Level examinations: tourism, media studies and business studies in his case.

They may seem a prophetic choice for a player who has travelled a long way in a short time, who is being interviewed with increasing frequency and who can command a salary that allows him to make investments. Nevertheless, he said, United's interest astonished him.

"It was a real shock," he added. "I was in the hotel when I found out, getting ready for a Fulham game."

Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager who is renowned for reassuring the parents of his younger players, also rang his mother, Theresa, at her Kent home to persuade the Arsenal supporter that a move to Old Trafford would be in her son's best interests.

Giving youth a chance has been a constant in Ferguson's long reign at Old Trafford. "You must take risks to give experience," the manager said this week. "We are investing in our future."

That can seem to backfire when, as happened last week, a young United side were beaten 4-0 at West Ham United in the Carling Cup.

But Smalling was the one defender to emerge with his reputation intact.

His brief United career has only included two league appearances, both as a replacement, but his displays in other competitions suggest he is displacing the out-of-form Jonny Evans and the experienced Wes Brown in the pecking order for centre-backs.

The two incumbents are, he says, a great help.

"To play alongside Rio [Ferdinand] and Vida [Nemanja Vidic], two experienced players and to train with them each day, I pick up little bits and pieces and I feel like I'm learning from them and improving," he said.

While Smalling is a towering 6ft 5ins, he resembles Ferdinand in his natural elegance, smooth acceleration and reading of the game.

Given the England captain's injury problems, the younger man could be a like-for-like replacement in the long term.

However, the Serbia international is as much of an inspiration to Smalling.

"I think Rio's got some traits I'd like to pick up and Vida's got some traits as well," he added. "He's so solid in terms of winning headers."

Like many a young defender, Smalling was both promising and error-prone in his early outings; indeed, albeit unfortunately, he scored a decisive own goal against Chelsea last season and conceded a penalty on his United debut, a friendly against Celtic.

But he has appeared more reliable of late, the mistakes being ironed out of his game.

Then again, the odd fault is understandable; in three years, he has gone up six divisions.