We are at a Dragons' Den-style event at Old Trafford, after a team of schoolchildren representing Manchester United has just put in a strong performance which should place them among the top three prizewinners. The debate – with United's chief operating officer on a judging panel which also includes your correspondent – is whether a prize for United would look like nepotism. "Not another Sepp Blatter," grins John O'Shea, who has just wandered in to see what's going on backstage. "Just judge it on merit," chips in Chris Smalling, who is accompanying him.
Smalling is better equipped than most footballers to make pronouncements on such subjects. His performance on his A-level courses in business studies, economics, media and mathematics secured him five university offers before football – and Fulham – intervened; and he was all set to study business management at Loughborough before advancing to Craven Cottage instead. But he also knows more than most 21-year-olds about being faced with difficult judgments. Should Smalling line up against Arsenal at Old Trafford tonight, he will be facing the side who were his boyhood idols and whose manager did all he could to persuade him to choose a career at the Emirates above one at Old Trafford only 10 months ago.
If Smalling the schoolboy had been presented with that kind of decision then it seems safe to assume it would have been no contest. "I was a big Arsenal fan," he admits, after the enterprise awards ceremony is concluded, with United taking their rightful place among the prizewinners, though Tottenham clinch top spot. "Yes, I certainly watched quite a few games at Highbury when I got the chance and I always kept a close eye on Tony Adams." The tokens of that Arsenal devotion included posters of that defensive idol of his, Adams and the small model of Ian Wright he kept in his bedroom. "I played a few games in a few positions but everybody idolises people who score the goals," Smalling says.
You imagine that kind of background would have made Sir Alex Ferguson's job a formidable one last winter, when it came to persuading Smalling that he, and not Arsène Wenger, was the best individual in whom to place his future. In his first national newspaper interview since launching his United career, Smalling reveals why Ferguson won that battle. The first he knew of his approach came when his manager at Fulham, Roy Hodgson, pulled him aside the night before the club's match at Blackburn in January to say that United's offer for him had been accepted and that Ferguson would be arriving in 40 minutes to meet him. "I only just had time to ring my mum to say I was going to be meeting him and then he was there," Smalling recalls. "It was just a bit surreal but he even rang my mum and my mum recognised straight away who it was. That was nice."
Wenger did his best, too. "I did have a phone conversation," Smalling says. "He said what he thought, in terms of what I could go on to do, and it was more left to me in terms of going away and thinking about it. It's a difficult decision. Those few days were some of the hardest I've had in my career. You do have to think about it. You have to weigh it up."
But the meeting in Blackburn, followed by another with Ferguson on the night Fulham played Spurs nine days later (they lost both fixtures 2-0) seems to have been decisive. Smalling recalls the Scottish accent, and his own sweaty palms, but surprisingly it seems to have been one of the players who currently stands ahead of him in the pecking order – part of an English contingent at Old Trafford as Smalling sees it – which informed his final decision.
"I think I already had a gut feeling that I wanted to go to United [when Wenger got in touch]," Smalling says. "Once I'd got to meet [Ferguson] and was able to speak to him face to face about his vision for me, I knew. With a club like this there was only one thought. And in terms of some of the other players here: there's an English core and that was great. The idea of linking up with Rio [Ferdinand] really appealed."
It was an idea which equally seemed ludicrous two years ago as Smalling gravitated towards a very different kind of quandary – whether Loughborough or Leicester should be his first-choice university. His interest in business, nurtured by watching The Apprentice avidly, is self-evident at the awards event where we meet. The Enterprise Challenge final, part of the Premier League Enterprise Academy project, sees nine schools representing their local Premier League side, pitching an idea which enables that club to find new and improved ways of connecting with their youth market. Smalling's former team Fulham, spotting that the club do not have their own App, present the idea of creating two. United come up with a raft of new ideas while Tottenham seek a way of connecting through the national curriculum.
The idea, just like the government- backed Enterprise Academy, is to use football as a way of getting 11 to 19-year-olds thinking about business, though the problem for Smalling was which of the two would win out. As he embarked on those A-levels, the sum total of his footballing ambition was making it into the Maidstone United first team. He started the 2007-08 season playing against Whitstable and driving to training in his Renault Clio.
"We had a few strange games and a year before that it was a case of trying to break into the team, which I did after a few games," he recalls. "I was playing in men's football for the first time which I enjoyed, but also coming up against strikers who were bigger than me, which was a challenge." But his performances earned trials at Middlesbrough and Charlton Athletic as well as Fulham, all of whom offered him a contract. It was a collision of worlds. He saw his A-levels through at Chatham Grammar School for Boys, earning the three Bs and a C which were enough to have taken him to Loughborough, and began pre-season training at Fulham the following day.
It was his mother, Theresa, who imbued both Smalling and his younger brother Jason, now 18 and at Leicester University, with the drive to make it from a modest house in Chatham to academic success. Smalling's father, Lloyd, died before he could get to know him. "I don't remember much about him. I was five, my brother was three and it was an unfortunate thing but my mum has brought us up and we've stayed close ever since," he says. "Mum put a lot of focus on me and my brother and I think at times we both probably got a bit annoyed with her saying, 'You've got to do this before you go and play on the PlayStation', or whatever. It's paid off, though."
Signing for United last January brought challenges, even while Smalling was loaned back to Fulham for the remaining four months of the season. The deal presaged a period in which the defender seemed to concede a penalty or an own goal at every turn. The own goal conceded at Chelsea back in December was unfortunate but another at Goodison Park, a penalty given away at Hull and the capitulation to Craig Bellamy's pace against Manchester City led Hodgson to joke that he was "doing Alex a favour by letting him get his errors out of the way for Fulham".
Smalling accepts that was a "difficult" time. "There was one [own goal] where a header just hit me. Things just happened like that. I just tried to keep concentrating. I came up to see the [United] training ground and look at apartments while I was still playing for Fulham but it was a strange one. It's not often that sort of thing happens."
The same goes for last month's first England call-up. Smalling was in Manchester's Radisson hotel on 13 November, enjoying a meal with friends ahead of their trip to see the David Haye-Audley Harrison fight that night when a text message reached him to say he was in Fabio Capello's squad for the friendly with France. "I waited until it was on Sky Sports and then I could believe it," he says. "I didn't expect it to come so soon. I was thinking maybe the following season, after a few games."
The coming week – with next Sunday's visit to Stamford Bridge following Arsenal at Old Trafford – is a crucial one. "To be able to face Arsenal and Chelsea and win would send out a statement. With the points we've dropped this season it's not been easy but we've stayed unbeaten and that has drawn us closer together."
Smalling has stopped looking out for Arsenal's results quite so much, though his affinities perhaps make him more familiar than most with what United face tonight. "Everybody's conscious that [Samir] Nasri is a key player for Arsenal and Wenger brings in those players who are comfortable on the ball and hopefully we can deal with that," he says.
The events of last January suggest that Wenger expects Smalling to cope. It is the defender's task, if the moment arises tonight, to demonstrate just how much Ferguson's fabled powers of persuasion have deprived Arsenal of.
My other life
One of my big passions has always been judo. I've competed since I was five, competed from the age of six or seven until I was a 16-year-old and was also national champion for my age group. When my family moved from Greenwich to Chatham, it was walking distance to the local Walderslade judo club, so I went down a few times a week. I remember when I became national champion competing in an international – in Norwich if I recall – only losing to a Polish guy who was a bit stronger than me. It was pretty tight, he had me in a hold I couldn't get out of. I got a few medals, though when I got to England schoolboy level at football I had to put that on hold. But I still like watching the sport and I sometimes speak to Eddie, my coach at Walderslade.