Ferguson joins battle to capture Smalling

United see young £7m defender courted by Arsenal as answer to back problems
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Manchester United have expressed an interest in the Fulham defender Chris Smalling, whose remarkable rise from non-League football now looks likely to continue with a battle for his signature between two of the biggest clubs in English football.

It has been widely anticipated that Arsenal would make the first move for the £7m-rated defender, who was playing for Maidstone United when he was signed by Roy Hodgson in March 2008. However, Manchester United have let it be known that they are interested in the 20-year-old who, in a short space of time, has broken into the Fulham side and the England Under-21s.

Among the scouting circles of the Premier League's biggest clubs, United's interest in Smalling is widely known and is likely to push up the price for a player who is difficult to value because of the unorthodox way in which he came into the professional game.

He was signed from Maidstone, a club which Hodgson played for during his time as a non-League footballer.

Smalling is highly regarded for his pace and strength and his ability to play on the left side of the central defensive pairing. Given the cautious financial climate around even the top clubs, both United and Arsenal would prefer the deal to be loaded with payments that relate to the achievements of Smalling on the pitch.

Hodgson said last week that Arsenal are yet to make any official contact over Smalling. It is understood that United's interest is the stronger, especially with uncertainty over the long-term fitness of Rio Ferdinand and doubts over whether Nemanja Vidic is committed to the club.

Both clubs have looked at Smalling as a potential summer signing, although one or other may yet move for him this week if they feel that they are in danger of losing the player. Smalling only made his first Premier League start for Fulham against Chelsea on 28 December but has done enough to demonstrate that he has the raw potential to play at the top level.

Fulham are trying to revive their loan deal for the Roma striker Stefano Okaka. Fulham pulled out earlier this month when Hodgson thought that he did not need the cover for Bobby Zamora but Clint Dempsey's long-term injury has forced the club to reassess. They are expected to sign Okaka until the end of the season.

Sir Alex Ferguson has done his son, Darren, the new Preston North End manager, a significant favour by loaning him the striker Danny Welbeck, who was sought by a number of clubs this month. Welbeck, 19, joins Preston until the end of the season.

Welbeck has shown glimmers of his potential in 23 appearances for United, most notably with his first goal in professional football last season, a spectacular hit against Stoke. Since then he has scored six goals but has not quite delivered to the extent that was hoped and was part of the United team that was humiliated by Leeds in the FA Cup third-round defeat at Old Trafford.

Signing the striker is a coup for Ferguson Jnr, who joined Preston after Alan Irvine was dismissed, a decision that surprised many at Deepdale.

Welbeck follows a familiar path for United starlets. David Beckham also went on loan at Deepdale before he broke into the United first team.

Welbeck said that he hoped Ferguson Jnr would give him the chance to play in his favoured centre-forward role. "I am looking forward to playing up front as a striker because back at United I was out on the wings a lot and that is not my preferred position. Playing as a striker at Preston is going to improve me and off the pitch as a person it will develop me.

"I'm a player who wants to score goals and wants to play the game in the right way. I have been at United since I was nine, so it is a bit different coming away, but it is only going to make me stronger and a better player."

Chris who? Smalling's career so far

*Born in Greenwich in November 1989, Smalling began his career at Maidstone, making his debut at 17.

*His elegant style earned him a call-up to the England schools team and attracted the interest of Middlesbrough and Fulham.

*Opting to join Roy Hodgson's side, the centre-back made his debut against Everton in May, and soon played for England Under-21s.

*Handed his full debut at CSKA Sofia – Hodgson praising the "maturity I'm not entitled to expect from a player so young" – before making a first league start at Chelsea last month, where he impressed despite an own goal.