Chris Smalling Steps Up To Prove His Class
By Richard Jolly
THERE were doubts about the up-and-coming defender. Was he too young, too naive, too thin? Was the Rymans League too big a step up for him?
There are measures of how far and how fast Chris Smalling has travelled. One is that, four years ago, the manager of Maidstone was reluctant to pick him. Now the Manchester United boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, has no such reservations.
Now if Smalling is in a battle for his place, it is with Phil Jones, Jonny Evans or even Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford. And he is up against Glen Johnson, Kyle Walker or Phil Jagielka for England’s right-back spot.
Back then it was very different.
“It took a lot of persuading for the first-team management to take more of a look at him,” admitted Darren Lovell, Maidstone’s secretary. “They wanted old players with experience and they didn’t fancy him against the old-time, gnarled centre-forwards.”
Peter Nott, then in charge of the reserve team and now Whitstable manager, was Smalling’s greatest advocate. But he faced a battle to persuade Maidstone boss Alan Walker.
“The Ryman League is a very, very physical league and Chris was always six foot-plus but very, very wiry and had no real muscle on him,” Nott said. “And as a centre-half you are up against some big burly players, there were some concerns if he could handle it physically.”
Nott, who had tracked Smalling from the age of 10 or 11, had no doubts about his quality. He was responsible for bringing him to Maidstone after he left Millwall.
“Chris came to us as a 16-year-old,” he said. “We had a trial match and within five minutes I was walking around the pitch to get him to sign forms. Chris has worked exceptionally hard but he was a talent, he had speed and awareness.”
Once Nott’s advice was heeded and Smalling was selected, he did not look back. Not that a place in Maidstone’s first team was particularly lucrative. Now he is on £50,000 a week. Then he earned £30 a week – or, more often than not, nothing.
Lovell remembers: “Chris was probably getting an expenses payment of £30 a week, if that. It was little more than petrol money but if you weren’t playing you didn’t get that, and he was away quite a lot of the time with England Schoolboys.”
That was how he came to wider attention. After excelling against Australia, Middlesbrough and Reading scouts were the first to notice him but Smalling ended up at Fulham, under Maidstone’s other graduate to the Premier League.
“That came about by me talking to Les Reed and Roy Hodgson, who used to play for Maidstone,” said chief executive Bill Williams. Two years after joining Fulham, Manchester United came calling in a £10million deal.
Not that Smalling has forgotten his roots. “He has just sent us a couple of shirts signed by all the United players for our sporting auction,” Williams added. “They are like little bits of gold dust.”
And as recently as 2008, Smalling was in the seventh tier. Then he, and Fulham, struck gold.
The Isthmian League is a regional football league covering London and South East England featuring semi-professional and amateur clubs. It is sponsored by Ryman, and therefore officially known as the Ryman League. It was founded in 1905 by amateur clubs in the London area. It now consists of 66 teams in three divisions; the Premier Division above its two feeder divisions, Division One North and Division One South. Together with the Southern League and the Northern Premier League, it forms the seventh and eighth levels of the English football league system. It has various regional feeder leagues and the league as a whole is a feeder league mainly to the Conference South.
Another related story
Maidstone United revel in Chris Smalling windfall
27 January 2010
Cash-strapped Maidstone United are celebrating a cash windfall after Chris Smalling's move to Manchester United.The 20-year defender played Ryman League football for the Kent side until 2008 when he moved to Fulham.Stones have been unable to pay their players since 5 December, but Smalling's transfer from Fulham has triggered a compensation agreement.
"To say the money will come in handy is an understatement," Stones chairman Paul Bowden-Brown told BBC Radio Kent.
He paid tribute to the club's youth development staff for 20-year-old Smalling's emergence as a Premier League player.
"The guys who brought him through deserve all the credit. I only wish we could gain greater financial benefit for their work," he said.
Joint-manager Alan Walker, a former Millwall and Gillingham central defender, believes Smalling could go all the way and become an England international.
He said: "His attitude has always been first class and I know he will go a long way because he is so willing to listen.
"There is no reason why he shouldn't one day play for England."
Smalling is not the first Maidstone youngster to join Manchester United. Sean McGinty, who was on Charlton's books, left The Valley for Old Trafford last summer. Stones received another cash injection earlier in the week when they were awarded £5,000 from the FA Trophy pool after Histon were expelled from the competition for fielding an ineligible player against them.