Manchester United yesterday claimed they had beaten Arsenal to the £8m signature of Chris Smalling, the Fulham defender who has enjoyed a meteoric rise from non-League football to the Premier League champions in the space of two years.
As revealed in The Independent yesterday, Sir Alex Ferguson has had a long-term interest in the player who has risen from Maidstone United in the Ryman Premier League where he played up until 18 months ago. United said the England Under-21 international will move to Old Trafford only at the end of the season.
Last night there were still some doubts over whether United, who announced the transfer on their official website, had actually completed the deal for Smalling. Although Fulham later said that they had agreed terms with United and that Smalling was due in Manchester this morning for a medical, it was not clear whether the 20-year-old was definitively set on a move to Old Trafford or Arsenal.
Arsène Wenger had intimated at lunchtime, before the announcements from United and Fulham, that he still believed Smalling, thought to be an Arsenal fan, had not yet made up his mind. Smalling played in Fulham 2-0 defeat to Tottenham last night. Wenger said: "It just looks like Manchester United offered more money. As long as the player has not signed anywhere it is not the end of it. Let's see what happens. We will not come out on what we are doing exactly but just because it has come out on television that doesn't mean it is true. So let's see. If we've any more to tell you we will let you know."
United were in a similar situation when they thought they had signed Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff City in June 2008, only for the midfielder to join Arsenal instead.
Even Fulham manager Roy Hodgson could not say categorically that Smalling was joining United, saying that "as far as he knew" the player would be going to United today for a medical. "You always have to be prepared that when you produce a young diamond one of the big clubs might take him," he said. "He [Smalling] has to take a lot of credit for improving his game."
Fulham decided to cash in on Smalling because he only had 18 months remaining on his existing contract and was not prepared to sign a new deal. United's eagerness to complete the deal casts doubt on the future of Nemanja Vidic who United are concerned may have had his head turned by Real Madrid's interest. Rio Ferdinand has suffered with injury problems this season, especially his back.
Smalling only made his first Premier League start against Chelsea at the end of last month and has played just nine games in all for Fulham. The only sadness for Maidstone is that they received just a nominal sum from Fulham with no sell-on clause two years ago because Smalling never signed a professional contract with the non-League club which he joined as a 16-year-old.
Maidstone would like to have signed him but that would have precluded Smalling from playing for the England schools (ESFA) under-18s team who called him up two years ago. It was playing for the ESFA under-18s that he first came to the attention of professional clubs with an outstanding performance against Australia at Shrewsbury Town.
Smalling, who attended Chatham Grammar school, played seven times for the ESFA that season culminating with a game against Scotland at Wembley in which he once again excelled. It was Middlesbrough who first approached Smalling and he met with Gareth Southgate before Fulham made their interest known. The Fulham manager Roy Hodgson briefly played for Maidstone in 1971 during his playing career in non-League football.
Although Fulham were not bound to pay any transfer fee to Maidstone when they signed him last season, they did pay a small amount known as a "training progression payment" in respect of the work that the Kent club had done to develop him, most notably under youth-team coach Peter Nott. Maidstone are currently trying to raise £750,000 to build their own stadium; they currently share Ashford Town's ground.
The Maidstone chairman, Paul Bowden-Brown, said yesterday that the club were delighted for Smalling but sad that they had not been able to earn anything out of his success. "He [Smalling] is a great guy but we couldn't get him to sign a professional contract because you can't stop a boy playing for England. So when Middlesbrough and then Fulham came in we couldn't do anything about it.
"I'm pleased for Chris but I'm just disappointed that as we try to build a new home, the big boys in football can take a player and we do not benefit. I am not blaming Fulham because they were fair but it is a shame for us."
Because of his schoolboy status and his commitments with the ESFA team and the Kent county side, Smalling only played 11 games for Maidstone's first team, scoring one goal.
The former Maidstone secretary, Darren Lovell, said that Smalling would not be the first player to start his career at Maidstone and go on to Manchester United; the 1968 European Cup winner David Sadler was an amateur at Maidstone before going to Old Trafford.