Chris Smalling: Fulham move proof there's talent outside Football League

It's no flood, but there's still a trickle of talent from the non-league making it's way to the very top of English football.

It's no flood, but there's still a trickle of talent from the non-league making it's way to the very top of English football.

The latest to do it the hard way is Chris Smalling, now making rapid progress at Fulham after being snapped up earlier this year from Maidstone United.

By his own admission, going from the Isthmian League Premier Division to the game's elite competition is "a massive step up", but any self doubt that he could make the grade was quickly dispelled as he progressed quickly to become a regular in the Fulham reserve-team and involved with Roy Hodgson's senior squad.

Smalling told tribalfootball.com: “I’ve enjoyed every second to be honest! It was a massive step up going from a non-league side straight into a Premiership Club. The facilities, the coaching, the quality of the players etc there is a huge difference, but everything is going well, the coaches are pleased with how I’ve done so far and it’s just a great experience to be at a club like Fulham.

“In a year I’ve gone from playing non-league with Maidstone United to being included in the first team squad at Fulham for the last few Premiership games, so yeah I suppose you could say I’ve surprised a few, but I’ve always been confident enough in my ability and what I can achieve.

“But you’re right; looking back it has been a pretty unbelievable year! I’ve got my feet firmly on the ground though and know that there’s a lot more hard work ahead of me to get a chance in the first team here.”

While with Maidstone, Smalling was on the radar of not only Fulham, but also Middlesbrough and came close to signing for the Teessiders earlier this year.

“As a youngster I spent time at Academies with clubs in the Football League, but for one reason or another I just didn’t really settle in. Maidstone was my local club so after leaving my last Academy I decided I’d rather player first team football lower down the leagues and see where it took me. I was 17 playing against grown men so I had no option but to improve and get used to the physical side of the game, it helped me mature a lot.

“As I was still very young I kept my place in the England Schoolboys side, and my performances with them and at Maidstone obviously caught the eye of various scouts."

As the offers arrived, Smalling knew he faced a make-or-break move.

“It was a big decision for me, I knew that when I left Maidstone United it had to be the right move, to a club that I felt I wanted to be at, and where I could see a chance for me to progress,” Smalling recalled.

“There were a few clubs interested in me both from the Premiership and the Football League, but after speaking to Fulham and getting a feel for the place, I felt really comfortable and knew that it was the club for me, all the other stuff is in the past now and I just want to focus on doing well for Fulham and pushing to get into the first team.”

It was after a chat with Roy Hodgson that Smalling was convinced Fulham was the best option for him.

“Roy was fantastic with me; he watched me in training and during a match and then invited me to his office to talk about the club and how he saw me having a future here,” said Smalling.

“He has so much experience as a manager and has worked with some of the best players in the world, so it was a great buzz when he said he liked how I played and that he wanted me to sign for the club. As a young player it gives you a massive confidence boost and I’m determined to re-pay his faith in me.”

After his first six months as a Premiership player, Smalling can already see his game benefitting from playing with and against better players.

Comparing reserve-team football with the hustle-and-bustle at Maidstone, Smalling says: “It’s certainly a lot more technical. A lot of the players you come up against are first team players, so you know they have quality. Some people think reserve football is a bit of a waste of time, but I’ve benefited from the games I’ve played in and it’s helped me adapt and refine my game.

“With non-league it was very fast and very physical with less focus on touch and technique. However it was a great experience and I’d like to think that I’ve added elements of both styles to my performances!”

Smalling is sticking close to one of the big revelations of this season, Brede Hangeland, and admits he's already learning a lot from the Norwegian.

“It’s been good; you always want to test yourself against the best in your position and at Fulham we have a lot of quality defenders, so it’s great for me to train with them and pick up a few things here and there. The coaches at Fulham are fantastic as well, and I’ve noticed my game improve so much already training and playing with the likes of Brede, you learn things just watching them, reading the game, positioning etc..”

Another senior player full of encouragement is club captain Danny Murphy, who, Smalling says, is always available with advice.

“Danny is a great influence around the club, he has played at the top level and he is always on hand to give a word of advice and encourage the younger players. But all the players get on well, and the senior boys help us out during training and around the club. Players like Jimmy Bullard are great to be around; actually I can’t say a bad word about any of the lads as they all helped me settle in really quickly when I first joined up with the first team.”

The immediate future for Smalling is to continue his rapid progress. Being on the fringes of the first team, the young defender sees no reason to move away on-loan with a Premiership debut on the near horizon.

He said: "The manager has been pleased with how I’ve played in the reserves so far this year and I’ve been included in a few first team squads now, so the plan is for me to just keep on performing well in training and keep putting the pressure on the guys ahead of me.

"There is no rush to go out on loan, I’m happy with how things are at the moment, but obviously if the club tell me there is an offer which they are happy with then we’d have to see. But for the time being I’m just focused on trying to push for a place in the first team at Fulham.”

Smalling knows he's now a role-model for young players outside the Football League chasing their professional dreams - and is happy to accept. The 18 year-old insists there's been enough recent examples to suggest big English clubs are still looking beyond the pro leagues for new talent.

“I think there is definitely talent to be found out there," insists Smalling. "Players like Jermaine Beckford at Leeds United, Chris Dickson at Charlton and Michael Kightly at Wolves have all come from non-league clubs and they are doing really well so it shows the quality that non-league can produce.

"I think it’s just getting clubs to give the boys a chance. It is hard at non-league level, but you have to keep confident that you can make it and certainly there’s enough examples to prove it can be done, it’s not an impossible dream anymore.”

And if anyone is lacking inspiration, they only have to look to Smalling as proof that if you're good enough, you will be noticed.

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