Like Jermaine Beckford at Leeds and Michael Kightly at Wolves, Fulham’s Chris Smalling has proven that there are some very talented players in non-league football. Smalling had always been a talented footballer but he failed to settle in at any of the Football league club academies he played, and so he returned to his hometown of Maidstone to continue his studies. During his time back home, Smalling opted to play for his local team, Isthmian Premier League side Maidstone United, and he became a regular first team player in defence. His talent had always been obvious though and during his spell in the non-league he continued to play for England schoolboys and this was where he was spotted by scouts from Premier League and Football league sides.
Smalling was close to a move to Middlesbrough but eventually was convinced to join Fulham by Roy Hodgson during the summer of 2008. He signed a three year contract with the London club and Smalling said his decision to join them was mainly due to the influence of Hodgson:
Roy was fantastic with me; he watched me in training and during a match and then invited me to his office to talk about the club and how he saw me having a future here. He has so much experience as a manager and has worked with some of the best players in the world, so it was a great buzz when he said he liked how I played and that he wanted me to sign for the club. As a young player it gives you a massive confidence boost and I’m determined to re-pay his faith in me.
Eighteen months on Smalling is now being signed up by Manchester United, as the Fulham’s star’s stock has risen week by week.
The step up from the Premier League from the Isthmian Premier was massive but Smalling believed that his first team experiences at Maidstone had toughened him up. He started playing for his hometown club when he was only 17 and he was effectively a boy playing against men, so he had to get used to the physical side of the game. After his move to Fulham though he started to play in the reserves where the game was far more technical than he was used to. Smalling however excelled at this level and his impressive performances for Billy McKinlay’s Development Team earned the player a place in Roy Hodgson’s match day squad.
His reserve team displays also brought his talents to the attention of the England U20s team and he played against Italy at Loftus Road back in April last year. He was also rewarded with his first appearance in Fulham’s first team as he appeared against Everton at home on the final day of last season, coming on for Aaron Hughes for the last 15 minutes.
Now aged 20, Smalling has come on leaps and bounds during his one and half years at the club and has impressed both fans and players alike with his performances. This season has seen Smalling both start for Fulham for the first time and get into the England U-21 squad. He was called up to Stuart Pearce’s squad in August and started a match for Fulham in September against CSKA Sofia in an away match in the Europa League. The young defender impressed greatly alongside Chris Baird in the middle of defence and Hodgson singled out Smalling for praise after the match. The Fulham manager believed the match gave Smalling a tremendous experience for the quality of opposition he faced was worth “a lot of Reserve matches.” He also highlighted the “maturity” in Smalling’s performance and the game no doubt impressed in the mind of Hodgson of the youngster’s abilities.
The impressive displays have led Hodgson to give Smalling roles in the Europa League against Sofia at home and against Basel, as Fulham earned their place in the knockout stages. During this time, the youngster also made his first start for England U21’s during a European Championship Qualifier against Portugal at Wembley in November, and manager Stuart Pearce continued to play Smalling in Vilnius three days later in the 0-0 draw against Lithuania. It has been a fantastically short ride from playing for Maidstone in the Isthmian League to the Premier League for Fulham, a story which was made more remarkable when he started only his second game for Fulham against Chelsea in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge. Despite conceding an own goal during the match, manager Roy Hodgson affirmed that Smalling still had played very well on his full league debut, and we will no doubt be seeing and hearing a lot more of the 20 year old in the near future, especially now he has agreed to move to Old Trafford in the summer.