Chris Smalling Was Always Going To A Star: An In-Depth Chat With A Maidstone United Club Official

Manchester United’s Chris Smalling has certainly been one of the revelations of English football over the last couple of seasons. Within 4 and a half years he has gone from playing for Non-League side Maidstone to becoming one of the most recongisable young players in the Premier League.

I sat down last friday before United’s 3-1 win over Chelsea yesterday with Maidstone United’s club secretary Darren Lovell – @Darren157, whom I know in my connections in Non-League football getting his take on Chris’s development as a young player in Stone’s reserves, the moves that saw him move to Fulham and United as well as what the future lies in store for our young defender.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

What do you remember when Chris was bursting through the ranks at Maidstone. Back then did anyone have even the inkling of a thought that you could have an England international on your hands?

Chris was always a lad that stood out, both as a decent player and for his big hairstyle! He had been coached through from Under 16 to Under 18 and Reserves by Peter Nott (who is now manager of Whitstable Town and Tony Cornwell who is now manager of Bearsted.) I first saw him playing in our Ryman Under 18 side. That was a team with some decent players in it as two (Chris and Butch Ulph) played 7 games each for England Schools that season and another (Rob Lyall) went on to study at Loughborough University which is famous for it’s high quality sportsmen.

Chris was a tall and fluid player. Good in the air, unhurried in possession and with a very good touch on the ball. I remember one game vs Tooting & Mitcham United Under 18s where Chris scored but there was also an exciting player in the Tooting side – Michael Antonio. He scored a stupendous 40 yard effort (it’s on You Tube I think) and it didn’t surprise me to see that he signed for Reading and has since played for Southampton. The standard of the Ryman Youth League that season was pretty decent.

As a person Chris was fairly quiet. He was very polite but also obviously a bright lad too. He was doing his A Levels at Chatham Grammar School at this time (he got the grades required for entry into Loughborough.) Peter Nott kept on at our then first team management duo of Alan Walker and Lloyd Hume to put him in the first team but they didn’t fancy the skinny kid at all! Eventually, a combination of injuries, suspensions and local cup fixtures gave Chris his opportunity, initially as a late sub to play senior football.

He eventually got a league start and immediately his performances were assured. He dealt with the challenge of kick it and lump it old fashioned centre forwards with no problem. When he had the ball he rarely lost it because he always moved the ball on intelligently. One problem was that England Schools always had first call on him and this meant that he missed a lot of football for Maidstone United due to England training, trials and matches. This was a strange situation for a non league club to find itself in! Considering we also had Butch Ulph in the England squad too, it became quite frustrating that the league would not let us postpone games due to international call ups!!

In one game (and I can’t recall who it was against I’m afraid) Chris pulled a high ball down on the half way line with his instep, killing it with one touch. He was immediately closed down but without even seeming to move he produced a kind of “Cruyff Turn” to beat his man and made him look like a child playing in a mens’ game! The main stand all sort of made an “ahhh” sound and then clapped the skill. At that point it was obvious we had a real gem in our midst. Not too many non league players produce that kind of move!

Chris made his debut for Maidstone in a 4-1 loss against Tonbridge Angles in the Kent Senior Cup a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the Premier League. Aside from the result being a disappointment for you, what are your memories of his performance that day?

 To be honest, losing to Tonbridge Angels is a very painful experience for Maidstone United followers! To lose 4-1 just makes it even worse as they are very close local rivals to us. I don’t remember an awful lot about the game to be honest except for I think it was Jon Main (who went on to AFC Wimbledon) that did most of the damage that night.As is the norm these days, managers use minor cup ties to try things out (especially young players and trialists) so any appearance by youth or reserve team players that night would have passed by almost unnoticed.

Not many people will know that Chris almost signed for Middlesbrough in April 2008, shortly after ending his first season involved in Maidstone’s first team. Reports suggested that the move to the Riverside was cancelled due to Chris not wanting to re-locate to the North East. What’s the full story?

Chris was feted by quite a few teams at that time. There was a casual passing interest from Chelsea and Arsenal but Middlesbrough were by far the most interested. Gareth Southgate invited Chris up to Tees-side for 4 or 5 days and they got him training with them. They put him up in a decent hotel and he had a room next to their new Brazilian striker Afonso Aves!

Chris, I believe was on the verge of signing formal papers with Boro but he had the strength of character to consider the bigger picture, which was pretty impressive for a young kid. He lived with his mum Tina and his younger brother Jason and I think that being closer to his family was a very important thing for him at that time.

With the greatest respect to residents of Middlesbrough, it doesn’t have a reputation as being one of the best places to live in this country (a mate of mine went to Middlesbrough Polytechnic and always spoke ill of the place!) and so, when Fulham made their move it ticked all of the right boxes for Chris.

They were a Premier Division club, in the South East and with a top quality manager in Roy Hodgson (a former Maidstone United player!) When Chris moved to Fulham her shared a flat with goalkeeper David Stockdale in Motspur Park which is near to Fulham’s training ground. It was a very nice coincidence that when Chris made his England debut against Bulgaria that David Stockdale was also in the squad.

Do you think that Chris would have developed to the level that he is at today, had he signed for ‘Boro or would due to his ability was it just a matter of when not if, he would develop into a talented young defender?

Who can tell? I think (from memory) that Boro were soon relegated to the Championship, so things may well have panned out completely differently for Chris. I know that he loved his time at Fulham and that learning his trade under coaches Billy McKinley and Ray Lewington and playing with defenders like Brede Hangeland worked out very well for him. Fulham is a perfect “big” football club for a youngster to sign for,

Of course Chris as you’ve said signed for Fulham in June 2008. Could you tell us a little bit about how the move came about and why at first there was not a fee involved in the transfer?

The decision to join Fulham was a decision made by Chris and nobody else. The reasons were as I said previously purely personal to Chris.

As for there not being a transfer fee paid to Maidstone United, the answer to that is simple. The FA rules regarding people in full time education at school are very clear. Any football club that entices a person to leave full time education (whilst they are under 18) breaks FA rules. Therefore we couldn’t place Chris on contract while he was doing his A Levels.

He could only sign a contract from 31st July (ie after the school term had been completed,) We wanted Chris to consider signing a pre-contract agreement with us but he declined to do this. To be honest, this was the correct thing for Chris to do as it did not place any barriers in the way for him when signing for a pro club. Fulham (and Middlesbrough) knew this and acted absolutely within the regulations.

The irony of this situation is that this rule is really designed to stop big professional clubs from taking kids out of school to play football rather than to finish their studies. It wasn’t designed to prevent smaller clubs from receiving suitable compensation for developing players. However, in this case this is what the rule did.

The FA understood our disappointment at the situation but “rules are rules.” We did manage to negotiate a small payment from Fulham based on appearances for the first team at Craven Cottage but in reality the amount we received was, in the grand scheme of things, little more than the loose change in Bobby Zamora’s back pocket!

Was it also not a coincidence that he signed for the Cottagers, as Roy Hodgson after all was a Fulham player? Had he perhaps been ‘tipped off’ about Chris before other clubs got involved?

No, I don’t think that it was a coincidence at all. I think that Fulham did their homework better than the other clubs in the Premier League. Les Reed was their Chief Scout and I think that he did some good business for Fulham in that period of time!

When you consider that Fulham sold Chris less than two years later for anywhere between £7 million and £12 million (depending on where or what you read at the time) I would say that that was very good business indeed!

Of course Chris worked hard at Fulham and made his Premier League debut on the final day of the 2008/09 season at home to Everton. Everyone at your club must have had a smile bigger than a Cheshire Cat when you heard the news surely?

Absolutely! Everybody was (and still is) totally proud of Chris. I live less than 5 minutes drive from Chris’ house in Chatham and I can assure you that home for him in Chatham was very modest. An average three bed, former council semi on an estate built in the late 50’s/early 60’s. You couldn’t get any more normal or down to earth.

It’s not the kind of place you’d expect England internationals to come from! I’m actually writing this article a couple of hours after United have beaten Chelsea 3-1 this afternoon. Now I’m in no way a United fan but I did holler when Chris headed home the opening goal. Just the same as I did in the Community Shield game at Wembley (I was at the game sat in the City section!!)

How surprised were you the following January when Manchester United announced that they had signed Chris. Where were you when you heard the news? I can only imagine everyone at your club was talking about it at your next match.

I was Gobsmacked! I saw it on Sky Sports News like most people did. It was very strange seeing him as the centre of a major news item on TV. We’d got used to seeing him play on telly and we we’re still getting a buzz from that but this was something else!

We had a massive amount of media enquiries from Fleet Street and television and I got most of these on my telephone at home! As a club, Maidstone United did pretty well with the way we dealt with the media interest I think. We made sure that our club photographer Steve Terrell got credit (and payment) for his pictures of Chris at Maidstone.

The press seemed to love our “Panini style” sticker picture of Chris with the big afro hairdo! We also tried to supply a lot of the video footage that was taken by John Gooch, a Stones fan who runs the Stones TV video website. You never know what important media material you have until something like this crops up!

Last season saw Chris develop even more at Untied; where to his credit he played a vital role in the run-in last season. Due to injuries and the rate in which he’s come on, he’s started the season at right-back. Is his versatility at the back his best asset?

Is Chris versatile? I should say so! He’s one of those people who is good at almost any sport that he tries. He was a GB karate international at Under 14 level and when his school had a major rugby final they asked Chris to play at fly half despite the fact that he hadn’t played a game of rugby for nearly two years. Chris played. Chatham Grammar School won the cup and according to the PE staff he “ran the game.”

I can also remember a pre-season training bleep test session at Maidstone where Chris outran everybody in the squad comfortably. It had got to something like Level 17 and Chris was left with just Mo Takaloo (the brother of pro boxer Takaloo.) Mo stopped and was totally exhausted but Chris just carried on for a couple more shuttles before casually stopping. I felt that he could have gone on for a few minutes more. Basically, he is a very natural athlete.

As I said earlier, Chris is a bright fella. Playing at full back or centre half is not going to be a problem for him, although I would say that he has a preference for centre back. I think that he showed against Man City in the Community Shield what he is capable of. He is very attack minded but has the physical ability to recover his position quickly and effectively. There are not many people in the game at any level that can do that.

Of course now he’s just been capped by England and has clearly impressed Fabio Capello. Do you think he will make into England’s squad for the Euro 2012 Championships?

Personally I think he’ll achieve far more than that with England. Fitness and injuries permitting I believe that Chris will earn many, many international caps. I even think that one day he could wear the armband. He has those qualities in him.

As a comparison, I think Chris could achieve for England what Ashley Cole has done (ok, I know he’s not popular with United followers but I’m talking as an England fan here!) Cole has played close to 90 times for his country. Chris is young enough and good enough to achieve that kind of career too. The surprise to me in the future will be not that Chris Smalling is in the England squad but that Chris Smalling is NOT in the England squad.

In an era where footballers are criticised for their heavy-spending lifestyle, do you think that due to Chris’ humble beginnings in Non-League that it has taught him never to be complacent and always work harder?

I know for a fact on a personal level that Chris Smalling knows and understands the value of material things. It is entirely because he comes from a very ordinary background that he sees things in that way. I’m not naive enough to believe that the wealth and trappings of a professional footballer will not affect him in some way.

Even when he was at Fulham he already had a nice Range Rover instead of the Renault Clio that he drove after he passed his driving test! He also quite likes nice clothes too! However, doesn’t everybody want nice things when they start earning their own money? He is a level headed person and I am sure that for the majority of his career he’ll feature on the back pages rather than the front pages.

Lastly when was the last time Chris popped down to your home ground Bourne Park for a visit Has he taken the time out to go back to his roots in football and what has the reaction been like if he has come back to say hello?

With the hectic lifestyle that Chris leads now, it isn’t easy for him to physically pop down to see everybody at Maidstone. I haven’t spoken to him personally since he joined United but whilst he was at Fulham I spent some time with him when he came back and presented medals to our youth team players at their presentation night (we had 29 teams at the time!) I asked him where his next game was and he said “We’re going on pre-season tour to Australia to play Perth Glory and some other Aussie teams.” I said, “Oh that’s nice. We’re going for a weekend in Bournemouth to play Bournemouth Poppies!”

It was at that point that we knew that our paths were moving further and further apart I think! Chris recently gave his backing to our project to build a new stadium in Maidstone at James Whatman Way and we know that he keeps tabs on things fairly frequently because the lads he played with in our youth and reserve teams are still his mates.

We’re still getting plenty of media coverage on the back of Chris Smalling’s roots. We’ve had Sky Sports News at our training sessions, Sky Sports interviews on the Champions League nights (with yours truly!) and even Japanese TV crews coming to film and interview us all because of the international footballer who started in non league. 

Thanks For That Darren!

By @ADennehey87

If you would like to be interviewed for our site or fancy contributing to our site, get in touch with us via the comments/contact section of our site or give us a tweet @WeAllFollowUtd.

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