Only a few months ago Chris Smalling was yesterday’s man – surplus to requirements at Manchester United, not wanted by Gareth Southgate in his England set-up, the central defender looked to be heading down a career cul-de-sac.
Then Italian giants AS Roma came calling, and now the 29-year-old has gone on a road to Damascus style recovery and in a week where he became the first Englishman to score for the club from the Eternal City, it looks like his future lies in the Italian capital, not M16.
But, what’s responsible for this sensational turnaround in form? Here are five things we think have put Smalling on the brink of football immortality.
Where the streets have no name
Smalling was becoming more frustrated with his inability to take the wife shopping in Manchester city centre. Any trip down Market Street to the Arndale Centre would see Chris besieged by well-wishers all wanting selfies with United’s best defender since Nikola Jovanovic. Now Mr & Mrs S can stroll down the Corso Italia, stopping off at some of Italy’s biggest fashion houses, without being hassled by delirious tifosi all clamouring for a photo. With a potential 18m quid move now on the cards next summer however and having produced match-saving clearances like the one last weekend against Napoli, how long can Smalling enjoy the fruits of one of the world’s most beautiful city’s, before becoming one of the most recognised faces around town?
Dinner times at Carrington were often basic affairs; after a stern morning work-out, Smalling and the rest of the United squad would sit down to a plate of pasta with chicken or on the day before a game, a nice plate of fish. Since his move to Italy, Chris has discovered a new love for food with Roma’s Trigoria training complex serving up some of the best grub in European football. The pasta is still a vital part of the footballer’s daily diet of course, but friends have reported that Smalling has been “taken aback” by the amount of different types on offer. It’s not been confirmed, but it’s believed by sources inside of the club, that his favourites are the bow-tie shaped ones and the big square ones chocked full of meat. The coffee is also a vast improvement on the stuff served up at his parent club, with Smalling reported to be getting at least 25 miles to the gallon on a double espresso.
Keeping away from the Jones’
Having spent years playing alongside Phil Jones, Smalling can now take a look around the dressing-room at the Stadio Olimpico and feel ten feet tall before taking to the field with chiselled hunks like Federico Fazio and Leonardo Spinazzola. No more does he have to play alongside the man whose facial features are so disturbing he makes Freddie Kruger look like a sex god. When he now faces an aerial bombardment, the confidence of knowing there’s an 80 per-cent chance it will be dealt with competently by one of his team-mates rather than crapping his pants as Jones screams “My ball!”, can only be positive for his own development.
Chariots of fire
A stroll around the ancient city of Rome is enough to inspire anyone and Smalling is no exception. Having spent nine years in the city that gave us Coronation Street, how different it must now be for Chris to be able to walk around a place that brought us cinema classics such as Roman Holiday and Ben Hur. Setting foot inside the Circo Massimo, which was the setting for the famous chariot race in William Wyler’s 1959 epic, Smalling can probably imagine himself as a modern-day Charlton Heston, with the Roma shirt as his Gladiatorial garment rather than a bit of leather over the top of a skirt. If things ultimately don’t go to plan, of course, Chris could always apply for the job of being a real Gladiator and spending his days prancing up and down outside the Coliseum charging tourists 10 quid a photo.
Since his arrival in the Italian capital at the end of August, Smalling has let his feet rather than his mouth do the talking. No burping into a reporter’s microphone on arrival at Fiumicino Airport, or throwing his toys out of the pram because there’s no tomato sauce with his lunch for our Chris, as he settles in to his new environment. Smalling has quietly gone about his business with the minimum of fuss and has taken on board everything coach Paulo Fonseca has explained to him in training. It would have been unthinkable for Smalling to have had more than a 50 per-cent passing accuracy in a game six months ago; on Saturday he managed to secure a whopping 83 per-cent as he helped his side to a third consecutive league win. He also has yet to blot his copybook in the same way as Ian Rush did when asked what the difference was playing for Juventus rather than Liverpool and replying; “It’s like playing in another country like”.