The rise of Chris Smalling from Maidstone United to Manchester United via Fulham in the space of 18 months was the fairytale story of last season and now the 20-year-old England Under-21 international is finally getting the chance to demonstrate what all the fuss was about.
Smalling scored the Under-21s' winner in the 2-1 victory over Romania in the first leg of England's European Championship play-off at Carrow Road on Friday night. Stuart Pearce's squad flew to Romania yesterday for the return leg in Botosani tomorrow night, which, given Romania's performances in Norwich, will be an exacting test.
Smalling has played just four games for his new club this season, including the Community Shield, and just two of them have been starts. A gentle, considered individual – who still seems a world away from the worst excesses of the Premier League – Smalling said he regarded Rio Ferdinand as a role model. It is hoped that he will avoid some of the misjudgements Ferdinand made at his age.
Smalling said that Ferdinand, with whom he has been compared for his style of play, had been "a real joy" to play alongside. "The stature of the guy is something to look up to. He is so friendly in terms of the training ground every day. I have been lucky to start both my games [against Rangers in the Champions League and Scunthorpe in the Carling Cup] alongside him. He has eased me in really well and hopefully I will have many more games with him.
"He has built up that presence over the years, but he is just very commanding. On the ball he just gives you that composure which can rub off on some of the younger players like me and Jonny [Evans].
"Whether he puts on that captain's armband or it is just in training, he is leading the team. I have to pick that up along the way, because I am the eyes of the centre-midfielders and that is something I have been working on, and he has been helping me."
In Romania tomorrow, England will be without Jack Wilshere, who has joined up with the senior squad again. Much will be dependent on the success of Smalling's partnership with fellow centre-half Phil Jones of Blackburn Rovers. "A lot of us are trying to progress at our clubs, but playing in a pressure game like this is definitely going to stand us in good stead," Smalling said. "Hopefully we can play in that tournament in the summer [in Denmark], because that will be once- in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of us young lads."