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Exclusive: Adrian Leijer speaks on Fulham relationship with Man Utd defender Smalling

This tale begins at Craven Cottage back in 2007 when a young and promising Adrian Leijer had made his way across the world to follow his dream to play in the English Premier League. Leijer, 21 years old, joined Fulham on a propitious move from Melbourne Victory.

Off the back of winning the A-League Young Player of the Year award and winning the A-LeagueChampionship, things were heading in the right direction for the defender.

In his first year at the club, Leijer strove hard to make it into the first team. Speaking with Tribal Football, Leijer reflects: "I was one of the youngest guys in the squad, so you get pushed pretty hard.

"You play a game in the reserves the night before and then you're back on the pitch the next day training because you've got to help the first team get up for the weekend."

Despite not breaking through into the first-team in his first season at the club, Leijer had represented Australia during that period and continued to battle it out.

This is when the plot develops as during the next transfer window, a young 18 year-old English centre-back walked through the doors at Motspur Park, signed from lower-league side Maidstone United. His name: Chris Smalling.

"He came in from the lower leagues and I sort of took him under my wing because we played in the same position, we played next to each other there and I really tried to look after him and I got on really well with him."

An unlikely mateship was born between the two men, one from Dubbo, New South Wales and the other Greenwich, London. This distance might have spanned over 16,000 kilometers, but the two went about lining up next to each other in the trenches each week, with the task of keeping the goals out for Fulham reserves.

Despite their early friendship, things started to go adrift for the Australian who only managed to be included in the squad once, while Smalling took Leijer's number 37 when the latter went off to a loan-spell at Norwich City.

"(I) probably looked after him too well because he sort of went past me and the rest is history," said Leijer.

Following that 2008/09 season, the two were split up as Leijer returned to Australia to rejoin Melbourne Victory. He went on to captain his side for many seasons back home, before making the move to Asia where he played in both China and South Korea, and then returned home where he now plies his trade at Dandenong City.

Smalling, on the other hand, pushed his way into the first team at Fulham before making the big move to Manchester United. He went on to captain the Red Devils, won 2 Premier League titles, a Europa League title and represented his country 31 times. Smalling is now playing in Italy on a loan move from United.

All these years later, Leijer contemplates:

"He's a really really good guy, he's a really smart guy...He's done really well for himself. Every time I watch Man United play or now Roma play, I look out for him because you feel like you played a small part when he was a nobody and I suppose you take a bit of satisfaction from that as well."

This story may not have been a perfect fairytale for Leijer, who's time at Fulham did not hit the same heights as his mentee, but their companionship highlights the broader value of his time in England and the significance of giving every person support and guidance, as you never know how things might turn out.

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Eli Rubenstein Sturgess

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