Scott Carey looks at the converging fates of two footballers that have taken very different routes to the top
On Friday September 2nd 21 year old Londoner Chris Smalling found himself in a dressing room in the depths of Eastern Europe ready to pull on the famous three lions shirt emblazoned with a starting number 2, the same number his former team mate Gary Neville wore 85 times for his country. It was the moment one of the great footballing fairytales was about to be complete and the young man didn’t seem fazed at all.
Just four years after he left non-league Maidstone United the young defender was preparing to start a key Euro 2012 qualifier given the key task of nullifying arguably the opposition’s biggest attacking threat, Bolton’s Martin Petrov. The faith put in him from Sir Alex Ferguson and now Fabio Capello has been extraordinary and the young man never looked like he wasn’t going to grab the opportunity with both hands.
Smalling has settled in at Old Trafford better than even Alex Ferguson could have expected and there will have been few faces in the changing room of the Vassil Levski Stadion whom he would feel overawed by. England’s best player, Wayne Rooney, is his teammate at club level and he had Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Ashley Young and his Under 21 defensive partner Phil Jones there for moral support. Smalling’s performances in the Champions League last year have already shown an extraordinary level of maturity at the highest level.
The only truly envious glances may have been from club and country rival right back, Micah Richards.
Richards rise to the top took a very different route to Smalling’s, however this could be said of most professionals playing at international level today. Richards was spotted before he hit double figures and his break out season came in 2006, when current England U21 coach Stuart Pearce saw his potential by handing him the no.2 shirt at Manchester City. The same year he became England’s youngest ever capped defender.
Brimming with confidence Richards’ career got off to a flyer and drew interest from the nouveau riche side of the moment, Chelsea, who were reportedly preparing a £13m bid for the teenager. His career since has slowed, albeit from a very frenetic pace, but one must feel City’s first choice would have fancied himself to get the nod on Friday night. Instead he didn’t even make the substitutes bench.
Smalling’s rise has not been so explosive but simply the solidarity of his start to life in the big leagues, and, perhaps the more cynical of us might say the club he finds himself at, has been enough to draw him to the attention of the England hierarchy. Smalling may see his future at centre back, and possibly alongside the player I will discuss now, but the young Londoner must be pretty content with the Manchester United and England right back role for the time being. He is still only 21.
Phil Jones on the other hand may not have been so surprised to find himself in the England set up so soon. Jones’ rise from Blackburn graduate to England senior may have been more conventional than Smalling’s rags to riches story but the consequences of this sporting up-bringing will only act in his favour. While Smalling was playing part time while taking his A-Levels at Chatham Grammar School, Jones was already deeply ingrained in the academy system of a Premier League club. His education has always been on the field and his technique will always be superior for this, with the versatility he has shown by slotting into midfield testament to this.
Jones, still only 19, two years Smalling’s junior, captained Pearce’s Under 21s in Denmark this summer and many have him down as a future leader for club and country. United legend Bobby Charlton has already paid the youngster what many will see as the ultimate compliment, a comparison with Duncan Edwards: “You can see that dynamic style on a couple of runs he did when he took the ball out of defence. He’s very much a player who will galvanise those around him. You can see others looking to him. He could well captain club and country eventually. You can see him becoming a totemic figure for United and for England.”
Smalling’s raw athleticism, physical stature and natural eye for a pass no doubt attracted Ferguson to part with £12m for the youngster. However his lack of top level coaching leaves him sometimes lacking in technique. Smalling’s talent is undeniable but you always feel he needs a Hangeland, Vidic or later Jones to keep him in line.
Both players are quick, composed, read the game well and can come out of defence comfortably. Where Smalling is not so much a natural defender as he is a footballer Jones is strong, committed and more naturally adept at the finer arts of marking, tackling and blocking. Jones will often be the man to mop up after the taller Smalling attacks the first ball. Much in the same way as Ricardo Carvalho did for John Terry and Nemanja Vidic has done for Rio Ferdinand in recent years.
Jones has recently spoken about how playing together for England U21s has helped their understanding: “We’ve done really well together with England and kept quite a few clean sheets. We communicate well and read each other’s game, which is a good thing to have in a partnership at the back.” Both will need to improve in one on one situations and make sure they don’t get caught out behind, although one would feel this will simply come with time.
I remember watching Jones impressive debut live and thinking it extraordinary that the 5’11″ youngster could put in a man of the match performance and nullify the threat of Didier Drogba so effectively. This was no freak performance, and as Zonal Marking pointed out at the time, a true talent had emerged.
Few doubt that Smalling and Jones have the talent and mentality to lead from the back for club and country for years to come, and Sir Alex’s faith appears to already be paying dividends. The only real question is whether the competition can learn a thing or two about investing in youth.