It’s hard to imagine anyone in the Manchester United party visiting Craven Cottage on Sunday afternoon looking forward to the trip more than 20 year old defender Chris Smalling. The young man has not even had the opportunity of stepping onto the Old Trafford turf for his new club yet which could result in him making his Premier League debut in the famous red shirt in front of his former fans before his new ones get a chance to see him in action.
The deal which took the England Under 21 international to United was agreed back in January but Smalling was allowed to see out the remainder of last season with Fulham. “It will be a bit weird going back but I hope it will be an enjoyable day” he remarked adding that he owes a lot to his former club. “My time at Fulham was great, I learned a lot about the game from Roy Hodgson and the coaching staff but the chance of coming to the biggest club in the world is something I just couldn’t turn down” he admitted “I’m excited about working with Sir Alex Ferguson and the fantastic players in the squad.”
Smalling was playing non league football with Maidstone United only two years ago before being given his chance to step up to the big time with Fulham in the summer of 2008. In these days of sophisticated academy structures it is becoming increasingly rare for players to come through the non league route but there have been enough examples over the years for Smalling to be convinced that it can be done.
He does not buy into the claim that English players are becoming starved of chances “The opportunities are there” he insists “it doesn’t happen a lot these days where a non league player comes through to professional football. There is a lot of money being thrown around to buy players but there are examples”
The young defender is more than happy to place his career in the hands of Ferguson saying that he’ll take every chance to impress him whenever it presents itself. “To have a manager who has faith in youngsters is very positive” Smalling said as he sat alongside Javier Hernandez and Bebe at a press conference to present United’s trio of summer signings.
Smalling has joined a contingent of emerging talents at Old Trafford who are all trying to grab Ferguson’s attention. “There’s a crop of youngsters who are looking to have the manager’s faith as the season goes on” he said “there are many games and if we all work hard from day to day we can take that chance when it comes. I think the chances are there if you’re working hard.”
Apart from that group of youngsters, Smalling will be rubbing shoulders with a number of Old Trafford veterans including Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes who have shown their class and staying power over many years. Smalling is the first to admit that he draws plenty of motivation from training alongside such club legends.
The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are ideal role models for him to develop into a worthy successor “When you go out on the training field there’s a bunch of players who have played the game at the highest level and I think that spurs you on” he says “I’m just starting out in my career and seeing the players here who have established themselves and had the consistency to play at this level for many years, that’s obviously an aim for myself.”
There can of course be no assurance that Smalling will see any game time at Craven Cottage on Sunday. Sentiment does not exist at this level of football, and nor it should, but if you fancy a little flutter, it could be worth taking the odds on Ferguson finding the slightest opportunity of giving the young man at least a few minutes of action in front of his former Fulham support to complete a perfect weekend for the young, 6ft 4in gentle giant.
Are there generally enough opportunities for youngsters like Smalling to progress as he did?