The Fulham manager, Roy Hodgson, is ready to showcase Chris Smalling for the rest of the campaign after losing the "diamond" unearthed from non-League football less than two years ago. Hodgson says it took very little time before realising the centre-back signed from Maidstone was a player heading for the top, something Manchester United also identified before making their move for the 20-year-old at the weekend.
The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, is also a fan of Smalling but United agreed a fee of £12m with Fulham and the youngster headed straight to Manchester after the defeat by Tottenham on Tuesday evening. He will start his Old Trafford career in the summer.
"When it was put to me that I must resign myself to losing the player because Manchester United put in a very good bid that the club have accepted, I was then told the one piece of good news is that he won't be going until the start of next season," Hodgson said. "Why that was decided, you'd have to ask Manchester United. I think [the chief executive] Alistair Mackintosh, when the deal was proposed, wanted that to happen and Manchester United accepted it. It's obvious that it's much better but it wasn't assistance from my part."
Smalling has impressed during his three Under-21 appearances this season and has helped keep clean sheets in the last two matches under coach Stuart Pearce, who reports directly to Fabio Capello and recommends players to the England manager.
Smalling's background includes a grammar school education, four A levels and being accepted on a business management degree course at Loughborough University before being offered the chance to go full-time into football.
The move to Fulham came in 2008 and the match against Tottenham was only his second Premier League start, but Hodgson revealed: "We've known we had a diamond in our midst but, unfortunately, when you are Fulham and you produce a diamond you are aware that diamond can be taken away from you by clubs with more power. Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't make mistakes when he identifies a young player. He pays a lot of money for that player because in years to come he realises it will look very cheap. You'd expect the player to be of that quality.
"We thought he had great potential. He should take a lot of credit for the work he's put in while he's been with us. He has improved his game, he's a good learner and learnt from the players around him – he's certainly a better player than when we took him.
"It didn't take long for me to realise in training that he had something special. We've had him in the first-team squad ever since."
Fulham's captain, Danny Murphy, has tipped Smalling for the top. "I was fortunate enough to see players like Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard when they were young lads," said the former Liverpool midfielder. "Being a defender, Chris is different, and he is not quite on their level yet, but he is potentially a wonderful player.
"He has great pace, is calm on the ball and good in the air. What more do you need from a good centre-half? He'll be a great asset to his new club, and he won't look out of place. It has been a big few days for him, but he's handled it brilliantly. Considering what is going on, his performance against Tottenham was very good."
Maidstone are expected to receive a cash windfall when the move is completed. "To say the money will come in handy is an understatement," said their chairman, Paul Bowden-Brown.