Smalling's big journeyThe journey from the Rymans League to the Champions League took a little over two years. The path from Maidstone United to Manchester United is not a common one and, though Chris Smalling had a stop-off at Fulham, he completed it at startling speed.
Yet, not so long ago, there were doubts over whether he was ready for first-team football: not at Old Trafford, but at the Bourne Park ground Maidstone shared with Sittingbourne.
"It took a lot of persuading for the first-team management to take more of a look at him," Darren Lovell, Maidstone's secretary, said. "They wanted old players with experience and they didn't fancy him against the old-time gnarled centre-forwards who had been around the block a few times."
The unsung hero of Smalling's rise, even if he would not use the phrase himself, is Peter Nott. Now manager of Whitstable, he was then in charge of Maidstone's reserves. Having tracked the emerging defender from the age of ten or 11, he invited Smalling for a trial when the teenager left Millwall, signed him up and repeatedly argued that his protégé should start as first-team manager Alan Walker expressed doubts.
"The Rymans League is a very, very physical league and Chris was always six foot-plus but very, very wiry and had no real muscle on him," Nott said, "and as a centre-half you are up against some big burly players. There were some concerns if he could handle it physically. I had to keep pushing and pushing and pushing his case. I said: 'He will win his fair share of headers and he gives us so much more'."
Once chosen, Smalling's qualities soon became apparent. It is a combination of ability and attitude that accounts for his rise, Nott believes. "Chris has worked exceptionally hard but he was a talent," he said. "He had speed, awareness ... he always had to be careful with his distribution, not the most naturally talented, but he learned to give a simple pass. Nothing ever fazed Chris, from Under-18s to reserve team to first-team football. He didn't get nervous, he never moaned and he never missed training."
At Maidstone, there is a sense of bemusement that Smalling slipped through the net: it was hard to miss him. Chief executive Bill Williams said: "He stood out the first time we looked at him. He had this massive afro, like a larger version of a young Michael Jackson, and he was very tall. Once you watched him you would see he had a good touch, read the game well and was quick."
Lovell added: "I remember one particular game where the ball came down from the sky and there was an opponent closing him down. Chris took it down with one touch and then did a Cruyff turn and left him for dead. Everyone clapped - it was an outstanding piece of skill."
However, it was not his performances for Maidstone that brought Smalling to wider attention. A fine display for England Schoolboys against their Australian counterparts alerted Middlesbrough, who almost signed him, and Reading. Maidstone's most famous old boy then intervened. "Fulham came about by me talking to Les Reed and Roy Hodgson, who used to play for Maidstone," Williams added.
A profitable move for the Cottagers, who subsequently sold the defender on for £10 million in 2010, earned Maidstone rather less. Because Smalling was in full-time education - he completed his A-Levels and, but for his footballing prowess, would have gone to Loughborough University - rather than a contracted player, the non-league club were not entitled to a fee when he left in 2008.
As a goodwill gesture, the Premier League club nevertheless made a discretionary payment. "They didn't have to pay us a single penny, but it was the equivalent of loose change in Bobby Zamora's pocket," Lovell explained.
They do, though, benefit from association with the England international. Smalling still keeps in touch and his presence at the club's end-of-season awards has been appreciated. "He has just sent us a couple of shirts signed by all the United players for our sporting auction," Williams added. "They are like little bits of gold dust."
Smalling's extended contract at Old Trafford is estimated to be worth £50,000-a-week. His past was rather less lucrative, with promise coming at a cost. "Chris was probably getting an expenses payment of £30 a week, if that," Lovell explained. "It was little more than petrol money for two training sessions and a game, but if you weren't playing you didn't get that, and he was away quite a lot of the time with England Schoolboys."
But he bade farewell to the Kent club in distinctly unglamorous surroundings. "His last game was Maidstone Reserves against Ramsgate Reserves after the deal with Fulham had been agreed," Lovell remembered. "I said, 'What if you get injured?' but he said, 'I want to play. These are my friends'. It was little more than a park pitch but it was typical of the guy that he wanted to play."
The rather smoother surface of Old Trafford beckoned before long. Nott said: "You always thought he would go on to better things, but it is unbelievable." The exception can now serve as the inspiration. "In the modern game, a lot of boys get picked up at eight or nine. It proves there is still an opportunity if you put in hard work."