by Mikey Mumford
Four years ago he made his Maidstone United debut in the second round of the Isthmian League Cup and now Chris Smalling looks all set to feature in the quarter final of the UEFA Champions League at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. A relative unknown figure since bursting onto the scene at Fulham, Smalling’s transformation is a compelling reminder of just how far this young Englishman has come in such a short space of time.
Only a few hundred spectators crammed into The Homelands to witness a Maidstone side including Smalling breeze past Canvey Island in early October 2007. And few would have thought the former England schoolboy would go on to fill the void left by the injured Rio Ferdinand in Manchester United’s backline. Add to that, a senior call up to Capello’s England squad for the first time for their friendly against France last year and arguably Chris Smalling has been the success story of the last twelve months.
It so often happens in football; a promising youth prospect progresses through the academy of a lower league club, Premier League parties go to war for his signature yet he fails to deliver when given chance to perform on the biggest of stages. Chris Smalling’s rise to stardom is a far cry from the old ‘too much too soon’ adage – his assured displays alongside Nemanja Vidic in the heart of United’s defence to the untrained eye would suggest he’s been doing it for years. Already, he looks the readymade replacement for Rio at the tender age of 20 but just how far can this young lad go?
Billy McKinlay the former Blackburn midfielder, installed Chris as captain of his development squad at Fulham almost immediately after his move from Maidstone. Capped at schoolboy level and for England’s under 20s and 21, Smalling’s rapid development did not go unnoticed when Roy Hodgson gave him his break at Craven Cottage as a 77th minute substitute in the final game of the 2008/09 campaign. The instant impact he made in his 13 appearances in West London convinced Fergie he was worth the £12million pound fee he shelled out for his services in January last year.
His graduation to Man United’s first senior team was probably quicker than anticipated but Smalling’s reliability and consistency at shutting out some of the world’s most feared striker’s makes it easy to see why this lad is destined for the top.
The rigours of the modern day central defender go beyond the recognised qualities any top player must possess. Yes, pace, power and an aerial ability to name a few are all important but two things in particular have impressed me about Chris in his recent run of games in United’s first string. He has this ability to stride out of defence with the ball which few defenders retain. Rio Ferdinand was the master at it, turning defence into attack in a split second simply by travelling forward at great lengths with the ball. Far too often we see big, bustling centre-backs squander possession lumping balls high into opposition territory and inviting pressure back on themselves. Smalling’s movement with the ball is first class in what I have seen of him, he’s prepared to take the weight of his midfielders by striding beyond the halfway line and can build attacks from the back.
Secondly, nothing seems to daunt him. He arrived at one of the world’s biggest clubs with little experience of Premier League and European football and with a substantial price tag to fulfil. Playing in front of 75,000 at the Theatre of Dreams on a regular basis is the pinnacle for any young player and Chris has taken it in his stride. Sir Alex is firmly of the belief that young players who get thrown in at the deep end are fearless, and their inexperience often works in their favour and as if failure is out of the question. Chris is a prime example and the answer to Rio’s injury problems has been Chris Smalling who has performed with great credit with the burden resting on his broad shoulders.
High expectations are not easy to accomplish but there has been a lot to like about the way Chris Smalling has started to repay the faith shown to him by Sir Alex. Long may it continue!
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