If you can remember that time before John Terry, Vanessa Perroncel and Wayne Bridge occupied our every waking thought (I know, feels like a different world, doesn't it?) you will recall that last month Manchester United signed a player they hope will one day be the new Rio Ferdinand.
Chris Smalling is that good apparently. Good enough to cost United up to £10m from Fulham, which is remarkable for a player who fell through the net and ended up at Maidstone United aged 14, unwanted by any professional club. That does not happen often in a country where bright young footballers are searched out with the same fervour as a 19th-century gold rush.
But Smalling ended up at Maidstone and for four years, some would say the most crucial of his development, he worked under the tutelage of the youth team coach, Peter Nott. In the aftermath of Smalling's transfer I spoke to a couple of Maidstone's officials, who were delighted for the player. More than anyone, they knew how far Smalling had come from non-League Kent to Old Trafford.
They talked in glowing terms about this young man's character and ability, but also politely pointed out that this was not a happy-ever-after story for everyone involved.
Maidstone United do not have their own stadium. A previous regime sold it in 1987, spent all the money and bankrupted the club, which plummeted 11 divisions in 1992. From their Football League peak, it has been a long road back for Maidstone to the Ryman Premier League, six divisions below the Premier League, and they have done it all at other clubs' grounds, most recently Ashford Town.
They have planning permission for a new ground but not the £750,000 required to build it. They also do not have dedicated training facilities for their 600 players who make up their first team, reserves, youth, women and disability sides. Smalling was their winning Lottery ticket. Except Maidstone will not see a penny of his £10m-plus transfer fee.
Fulham paid Maidstone £20,000 for Smalling, the kid who is now Ferdinand's long-term replacement. Some reports wrongly suggested a "windfall" for the club, so let's get this right. Fulham made a £10,000 down payment on Smalling and paid Maidstone £10,000 when he played 10 games for them. Legally Fulham could have paid nothing and they certainly did not agree to a sell-on fee. At a club that needs £750,000, no one thinks £20,000 is a windfall.
As Arsenal's interest drove up United's price for Smalling and Fulham cashed in, Maidstone were in the cold. Unfortunately for them, Smalling never signed a professional deal with the club that coached him.
It seems like a ludicrous oversight but there is a good reason why. To do so would have precluded Smalling from playing for the English Schools' Football Association (ESFA) Under-18s, who will not select any kid on a pro deal. Maidstone being a supportive, friendly club, did not want to deny him. For four years they coached a £10m player who may yet play for England one day. In return they got £20,000.
You can examine the unhappy coincidence by which Maidstone missed out on a payday on Smalling and decide that no one is to blame. Not Fulham, who could have signed him for nothing. Not the ESFA, which has been sidelined itself in recent years by the Football Association. Not the FA, whose rules have not been broken. Not United, who paid a high price for an unproven player.
But it makes you fear for the future of English football when a £10m deal is done and the party whose need is the greatest end up with 0.2 per cent of the money. It makes you wonder why a club like Maidstone should bother with another player like Smalling in the future. Why give up time and money to coach young players who are taken away for such a pitiful amount?
Smalling's story is a fairy tale but for a club without a stadium, whose fans must travel 20 miles or more for a home game, whose junior teams do not even have an all-weather pitch to train on, it is also a nightmare. English football was built on the trickle-down economy, of good players like Smalling going up the hierarchy and money coming back down to the clubs that produce them.
These days, in the modern Britain of identikit chain-store high streets, where most pubs look the same and town or city-specific industries have been replaced by multinational supermarkets as the big employers, local football clubs are one of the last bulwarks of local pride and identity. It matters more than ever that they survive.
Would it be too much to ask for Fulham to push some of the money they have earned from Smalling towards Maidstone? I know they are not obliged to do so, but that would only make the gesture all the more admirable. There are some clubs in the Premier League – you know the type – who would never even consider it. With good old Fulham, you just never know.
In the meantime, on Maidstone United's website there is a campaign to build a new stadium in the town – "Bring the Stones Home" – all donations gratefully received. For £6.99, I got my own seat in a virtual stadium which 200 have already joined. It is a start, I suppose. But nothing that would have compared to a big cheque from Fulham, courtesy of Manchester United.
Suggested further reading ...
In the middle of last week, depressed with the John Terry saga – selfish, greedy footballer versus various commentators presuming the right to lecture us on sexual morality – a friend of mine sent me a brilliant piece of writing that rekindled my love for sport reporting in an instant.
If you love sport, and you love reading about it, be sure to read Leigh Montville's introduction to the 2009 Best American Sports Writing anthology. It is based on his experiences as a Boston Globe reporter and should be required reading for every journalism student, especially the part where Montville quotes the former sports reporter Steve Fainaru, who says covering the Boston Red Sox every day was harder than reporting on the Iraq war.
Sliding scale for affairs is a slippery slope
I know, I know. Let's leave the John Terry saga behind. But one thing above all worries me about Fabio Capello's decision. If you lose the captaincy for allegedly sleeping with a team-mate's ex-fiancée, how does the rest of the sliding scale work?
Physio's wife? Let's say it's a three-match ban. Kitman's ex? A fine will do it. The wife of someone else unconnected with the England team? Apologise and we'll call it quits.
This is not an easy system to administer and, with Rio Ferdinand's current track record, won't he just keep appealing?
Time for Wenger to show us the money – if it's there
Three games into the run of four that Arsène Wenger said was the "most significant" series of matches in his time at the club and Arsenal have one point from nine. The pity for Arsenal was that they were not even that far off Chelsea yesterday. It makes you wonder if the money really is there for Wenger to spend. And if it is, whether the strings attached are too risky.
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