Chris Smalling: I skipped uni for Roy Hodgson's Fulham team

At the time Smalling was playing non-league football at Maidstone United and planning on going to university in the autumn.

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It is around seven years ago now that an 18-year-old Chris Smalling found himself in Roy Hodgson’s office at Fulham’s Motspur Park training ground to be offered a contract that would change his life for ever.

Reflecting on that moment at England’s team hotel in Hertfordshire yesterday, Smalling said it did not cross his mind that one day the managerial greybeard across the desk from him would end up in charge of England and he himself would be an international.

At the time Smalling was playing non-league football at Maidstone United and planning on going to university in the autumn. Hodgson, himself a former Maidstone player, had watched the young defender in a trial game at Motspur Park and by the end of that season Smalling was a professional footballer at Fulham. Previously, he had left Millwall as a kid and then cancelled a pro deal at Middlesbrough because he was homesick before alighting at Maidstone who then, as now, were in English football’s seventh tier, the Isthmian Premier.

 

“I was planning to go to uni,” Smalling said. “I had my exams in a month or two, but was offered a trial by Fulham and thought I had nothing to lose. I went along with my mum and my brother, but already had the back-up plan of going to uni.

“I had places to study financial economics at Leicester and Loughborough. I had an offer of three Bs, which I was confident of getting, and I did. At my trial I gave it my all.

“I can’t remember the whole conversation with Roy. It was very encouraging. It went quite quick and is a bit of a blur. I came back for a week to train with the reserves, and was offered a contract a month or so later.”

After two years at Fulham, Smalling was signed for Manchester United by Sir Alex Ferguson for £10m, amid competition from Arsenal, and his career had taken a remarkable upward trajectory.

He was identified as Rio Ferdinand’s successor, although it has not been quite as straightforward as that, not least because Ferdinand did not leave until last summer, and Smalling’s playing time has been split between right-back and his favoured position at centre-half.

He was one of United’s outstanding performers in the win over Liverpool at Anfield and it is a remarkable statistic that the game eight days ago was just the fifth occasion that he and Phil Jones – signed from Blackburn Rovers 18 months after him – have played together for United in central defence. Both have been dreadfully injury-prone along the way.

This season, Louis van Gaal has encouraged Smalling to play out from the back more, an attribute that comes naturally to tomorrow’s opponents Italy, in a game in Turin which Smalling hopes to start. He might have missed out on Friday’s qualifying win over Lithuania, but this friendly has come at the right time for a player in a good run of form.

He said: “I’ve not had too many different managers and he [Van Gaal] is my first foreign coach. He’s really worked hard on the training field, right from the double sessions in pre-season. We’ve had the tactics and quite a lot of meetings in terms of the vision that he wants. It is all clicking together and he has really helped me.

“This year the manager stresses he wants that [playing out from the back] more rather than taking the easy option and passing to the full-back when the room is too narrow that they can’t really do much with the ball. The manager says, ‘Why pass it to him when you’ve got no one marking you? Try to entice [the opposing midfield forward] and if the opportunity comes pass it someone in a better position.’

“I am enjoying that responsibility. A lot of the managers I played for, like Sir Alex, wanted us to play out but I think there is more emphasis on that now. First and foremost, you are a defender. Now we have more possession than a lot of the teams, we do have to be a bit more like the midfield and start moves.”

Smalling’s contract is up at the end of next season, as is Jones’ – a strange situation for United to allow to develop, given how much they have invested in the pair.

“It’s not something I really want to focus on now,” Smalling said. “I’m enjoying it at United and it’s not something that’s really come into my head.”

As for the suicide bomber fancy-dress episode last year, when Smalling attended a house party dressed as one of the aforementioned dispensing Jägerbombs from bottles strapped to his belt, there was a gritted teeth acceptance that such things are probably best avoided.

“As a role model for young players you have to make sure you’re on the ball. That’s something you only learn as you get older,” he said.

“Surreal” is how Smalling describes his feeling sitting in Hodgson’s office seven years ago. He always seems rather like the accidental footballer, given his alternative plans. At times at United he has been too accident-prone, but Hodgson has always liked him and a good performance in Turin could change the picture again.

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