Chris Smalling’s international début in England’s 3-0 win over Bulgaria in marked another step in the rapid rise of the 21-year-old defender, who has progressed from semi-pro to confident international in three years. And Greenwich-born Smalling, who once turned out for Maidstone United in non-league, has won international honours despite switching to right-back this season at Sir Alex Ferguson’s behest. It’s a switch that Smalling has taken in his stride, if not to his heart.
International honours are a long way from the jitters the defender suffered in the second half of a final campaign with Fulham after agreeing to join United, when the proposed move north seemingly affected the player’s form. Then Fulham manager Roy Hodgson was moved to joke that Smalling was “getting all his mistakes out-of-the-way” before he officially joined United on 1 July 2010.
But the 6’ 5” giant also began United’s US tour in summer 2010 States in similar fashion, prompting one writer, with tongue firmly in cheek, to dub the player “Appalling Smalling.” Another prominent Sports Illustrated hack was moved to declare Smalling “poor,” and claim England Under-21 central defensive partner Phil Jones “twice the player.”
No longer so, with the £12 million signing improving with each outing and visibly growing in confidence over the course of last season. More than a year on and Smalling’s confident performances at right-back this season have not only cemented the youngster’s place in Ferguson’s side but demonstrated a flexibility that few realised the player possessed. The 21-year-old’s start in Sofia is likely to be followed by an appearance against Wales at Wembley next Tuesday.
Given Jones’ rise, it may be Irishman Jonny Evans that suffers most from the English duo’s progression. By contrast to the pair’s confident start at Old Trafford, Evans’ woeful form last season placed the Irishman’s future under the microscope. Repeatedly out-muscled and often targeted by physical opponents, Evans performances suffered for low confidence and an increasing positional uncertainty. Positive early season performances this season have done much to repair the damage but question marks remain.
Neither lack of confidence nor intimidation phases Smalling though, whose physical presence, humble nature, and calm maturity will serve him well under the intense Old Trafford spotlight. Yet it is as a central defender that Smalling hopes to achieve club and international glory, despite the positive performances from the right this season. Few will doubt the player’s ability to do so.
“I played a few games at right-back in pre-season, but so did Phil Jones because we had lost players like Wes Brown and John O’Shea,” said Smalling.
“To play for United and now England in a position I’m not used to has been difficult. I have never played there before so it’s been a steep learning curve, but I’ll play wherever I’m needed. I can do a job at right-back but I see it as a temporary thing.
“If Sir Alex tells me to play full-back then I’ll try my best to do the job, but I think I am a centre-half. I want to be challenging Rio [Ferdinand] and [Nemanja] Vidic for their place because that’s where I feel I’m at my best. That’s where I have always played. I hope that in the future I’ll get to play there for club and country.”
The youngster faces competition for his place both at Old Trafford and with Fabio Capello’s side, whatever the position. Injuries to Rafael da Silva, together with the departure of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, opened the door at right-back but the Brazilian youngster will return to fitness from a shoulder injury this autumn. Together with his brother, Fabio, Rafael will stake a claim to United’s right-back berth in the coming weeks. Indeed, Rafael has now played more than 70 games for United, while Fabio started the Champions League final at Wembley in May.
Meanwhile, Ferguson is likely to restore fit-again Rio Ferdinand in central defence after the international break, while Vidic will return to the side before the end of September.
On the international scene Smalling faces competition from both Glen Johnson – the incumbent – and Manchester City’s Micah Richards for a spot at right-back. Ferdinand, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescot and Jones may be ahead of Smalling in Capello’s pecking-order in the centre of England’s back-four.
“He missed two balls, but it is different when you step up to the national team,” Capello said of Smalling’s début in Bulgaria last week.
“When you play with your club you know everything, the movement of your fellow defenders and midfielders, and where to position yourself. When you are new to international football it is not quite the same and the ability of opponents is always high because they are the best players in their country. But I thought the time was right for Smalling and now he understands more what is required.”
In that there is much to laud, with Smalling’s confident performance on the pitch translating into positive media exposure this week. The former Fulham defender may be new to the international scene but he is, it is already clear, a fast learner.
A version of this article appeared in United Rant Monthly, Issue 2, September 2011 – download here.