Smalling’s ‘Coming Of Age’ Moment

Every young player that signs for a club the size of Manchester United – however talented – must privately wonder for a moment if they can cut it at Old Trafford.

I would imagine it is a totally natural reaction to the enormity of representing one of the world’s best supported football clubs.

Imagine then the pressure on Chris Smalling this time last year.

At 20 years old and with just 13 Premier League appearances under his belt – the defender was leaving his home city of London for Manchester in a £10m deal.

Fast forward to 28th August 2010 and Smalling made his Premier League debut for Manchester United as a 74th minute substitute in a 3-0 win over West Ham.

Fast forward again to today (8th July 2011) and Smalling has signed a new five-year contract at Old Trafford after impressing for England at the UEFA European U21 Championship.

However – I believe the most signficant date in Smalling’s United career – and the moment he ‘came of age’ at Old Trafford was Saturday 12th February 2011.

Manchester United faced Manchester City at home – without Rio Ferdinand – who’d been injured in the warm-up before United’s last game – a 2-1 defeat at Wolves.

Jonny Evans – who’d replaced Ferdinand at Molineux – was also injured – so Sir Alex Ferguson decided to hand Smalling only his 4th Premier League start for United in one of their biggest games of the season.  

I was fortunate enough to commentate on the game – and it would be fair to say that there was much pre-match talk about whether Smalling could handle the occasion.

As it happened he barely put a foot wrong – turning in a calm, confident and accomplished performance alongside Nemanja Vidic – as United won 2-1.

That match will forever be remembered for one of the goals of the season – Wayne Rooney winning the game for United with a stunning overheard kick. 

Afterwards the media spoke to Smalling in the tunnel at Old Trafford and he came across brilliantly – particularly when a reporter remarked that the best compliment you could give him was that you barely noticed Rio Ferdinand was missing.

His reaction was humble and understated but the shy smile that went with it said to me that this was a young footballer who’d just proved something to himself.

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