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Smalling's giant leap: Journey from Maidstone to Manchester is complete

29 Jan 2010 01:38:31

Smalling's giant leap: Journey from Maidstone to Manchester is complete

When Theresa Smalling picked up the phone at home in Chatham, Kent on Monday afternoon there was a familiar Scottish burr at the end of the line. Sir Alex Ferguson was calling to assure the mother of Manchester United's latest transfer target that her son, Chris, would be well looked after in the North West. 'I was so shocked,' said Theresa, 53. 'It was the voice. It was like I was on TV. Sky's the limit: After a brief stay at Fulham, Smalling will be nurtured by Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford 'He was just saying how impressed he was with Chris, how he'll be well looked after and telling me about everything they've got up there. 'I couldn't believe it when Chris said about Manchester United, although I wish it was the Arsenal. I'm an Arsenal fan and Chris was when he was little. But I'm so proud.' Sir Alex's direct approach may seem an old-fashioned anomaly in the modern game, but Chris Smalling's lightning rise from non-League football to the Premier League champions in less than two years appeals to the traditionalist in us all. In the bar of the Cobdown Sports and Social club in Ditton, Kent, where Smalling played for Maidstone United reserves in front of a single ramshackle stand with peeling green paint, Bill Williams, Tony Cornwell and Alan Walker laugh as they try to express their pride using a series of well-worn clich? 'Rags to riches, Over the moon, A schoolboy's dream. What else can we throw in there?' says Walker, 50, Maidstone's first-team manager and a former player with Lincoln City, Millwall and Gillingham, as Smalling's face flashes up on Sky Sports News. 'To have two of the biggest clubs in the world (Arsenal and United) fighting for his signature, well, you couldn't ask for any more, really,' says Cornwell, 49, the  reserve-team boss. 'When you've been in football for a long time, sometimes you see a little gem,' adds Williams, 67, general manager and a former QPR, Portsmouth and West Bromwich Albion player. 'The first one I ever had was Bruce Grobbelaar when he was 17 or 18. You know that they are special players. And Chris was one of them.'  We are family: Chris, aged eight, with younger brother Jason at Ridge Meadow Primary School It is easy to understand their excitement. Smalling's rise, as Walker puts it, has been nothing short of meteoric. The player, now 20, was born in Greenwich but the family moved to a semi-detached home in Chatham when he was five. Smalling attended Ridge Meadow Primary School, just up the road, and played for Walderslade Boys and then Lordswood as a youngster. A basket of daffodils and bluebells, a bottle of bubbly and a congratulations card from one of Smalling's old teachers were delivered to his mum this week. The staff at his secondary school, Chatham Grammar School for Boys, which younger brother Jason, 17, still attends, were equally pleased for their former pupil. Head of PE Andy Anderson said: 'Chris was a very good rugby player, talented at basketball, judo we took him paintballing once and he was even good at that! We always said he could have been at least county standard at everything he tried. 'He was quiet, unassuming, well-liked. He was always immaculately turned out and well spoken. 'Sport dominated everything Chris did but he managed to hold down a job as well - he was a waiter in a hotel.'  Booted and suited: Chris turns out for Walderslade Boys at the age of nine Smalling studied travel and tourism, media studies and business studies to A-level, as well as economics at AS-level, and achieved good grades in all his subjects. 'There's a very level head on the shoulders of a very tall young man,' said head of sixth form Ken Burkett. After showing promise in the local Medway leagues, Smalling joined Millwall when he was 12 but travelling to London proved too much by the time the player reached 14. Ms Smalling, a single mum, didn't have a car and, although Millwall offered to help with the costs, she didn't want her teenage son travelling on his own. 'We just couldn't get up there,' she said. 'He would have been perfectly capable of going on his own, but I wouldn't let him. I had to take him out. He didn't play football fornearly a year. 'I was more upset than Chris, I think. He just carried on and worked his way up, playing for school and then Kent. He really put himself out there.' One previous owner: Theresa Smalling with Chris' old Renault Clio that he replaced with a Range Rover At 16, Smalling joined local non- League club Maidstone United, quickly progressed through the ranks from the Under 18s to the reserves and then the first team, who play in the Ryman League. Cornwell said: 'He had time, he was an elegant player, he played out from the centre of defence, he liked to pass the ball, he could read the game superbly well. 'His physical attributes are great (Smalling is now 6ft 4in) and he's quick.' 'And he had a wonderful Afro, didn't he?' interrupts Williams. 'We used to call him Shaft, from the TV programme in the 1970s.' 'But we were playing games in the Ryman Premier and he was man of the match every week,' said Walker. 'He was absolutely outstanding. He could play anywhere across the back four and even played in midfield at Under 18 level. But central defence is his best position. He reminds me of Rio Ferdinand, the way he plays, much more than Nemanja Vidic.' Pointing to the future: Bill Williams and Tony Cordwell at the site where Maidstone want to build a new stadium At 17, Smalling was called up for England Schoolboys, which brought him on to the radar of scouts from Middlesbrough, Charlton, Reading, Fulham, Chelsea andArsenal. Mother and son liked what they saw when they visited the North East and Smalling nearly signed for Middlesbrough, but the promise of a three-year deal much closer to home at Roy Hodgson's Fulham proved more attractive. The Cottagers' senior scout, Barry Dunn, now head of recruitment at Millwall, had got his man or rather, boy. Yet Smalling's desire to play for his country at amateur level and Maidstone's reluctance to stop him meant he never signed a contract with the non-League club. When Fulham came calling in the summer of 2008, the Premier League club therefore had no legal obligation to pay Maidstone a penny. Williams said: 'Because of the relationship between the two clubs (Hodgson is a former Maidstone player), Fulham gave us what they call a training compensation agreement, which is registered with the FA. 'At the time it was a great deal and we appreciated it. However, in the general scheme of things, it isn't so good. In your wildest dreams, nobody thought somebody would pay that amount of money (£10m) at this stage in Chris's career. 'It would have been nice if we had had a 10 per cent sell-on, which we asked for, because we've been striving for 15 years to build a stadium in the town and that money would've done it. I think they call it Sod's law, don't they?' Smalling still sometimes picks Jason up from school in the Range Rover he bought when he signed for Fulham his mum now uses the blue Renault Clio he drove as a 17-year-old and spends weekends in Chatham with his old mates whenever he can. This, of course, will all change when the England Under 21 defender joins Manchester United at the end of the season. His mum, whom he still visits regularly, says she will miss him, but she isn't averse to the idea of a move up north. 'I've been in this house about 14 years. I wouldn't mind moving, though!' she said.  ANDY TOWNSEND: Believe me, it takes time to make the jump in classFrom non-league to big league: the stars that began in amateur footballUnited complete deal for Smalling to join in the summer from FulhamMANCHESTER UNITED FC


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