Chris Smalling is a player who splits the Manchester United fanbase. While he goes through periods of top form, it always feels as though a mistake or an injury is around the corner. He was supposed to form the next great United defensive partnership with Phil Jones, following on from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but it never really worked out that way.
But with over 300 appearances for United under his belt, he can hardly be disappointed with the way his career has gone, particularly after the difficult start.
In an interview in The Times, Smalling talked about his father dying when he was a child, and the hardships he faced as a result. Not only did he have emotional and financial difficulties, his career was slow to get going. He didn’t make the county team, he was released from Millwall’s academy when he was 16, before finding himself at non-league Maidstone.
My dad died of cancer. I don’t have memories of him, I was only five when he died, but I have a few pictures, one in particular of my dad holding me and my brother. I see a sports psychologist every few months, and I created this collage with the picture of my dad and different phrases like ‘no regrets’, which I look at before every game.
My darkest moment was growing up. Everyone had the typical family, two parents. We didn’t. I’d see kids getting a lift to school with their dad, and we’d always get the bus. We never had a car. As a family we never really spoke too much about my dad.
We were very good at cracking on with things, but not divulging what happened. We’d lie about it at school, saying, ‘Dad’s working away’ or ‘He lives in London so we don’t really see him’. We’d make things up, just because we felt uncomfortable.
After my dad died, we got moved into a house in Medway, Kent. My mum was on council benefits and everyone knows it’s very little. We lived in a council house, ate a lot of processed food, fish fingers, waffles, potato things, yellow food. My plate was never colourful. We drank cheap cans of cherryade.
I’ve never forgotten how little we had. Sometimes you see people in football lose their head, and the spotlight is on you, lots of things are thrown at you, so it’s no wonder some do something crazy but my childhood did cement that feeling of never taking anything for granted.
It was even harder for my mum because she was on her own when she was used to being with someone. She didn’t think about herself. That was the sacrifice she made. She put her all into us. She was always on about education with me and my brother and we did quite well at school.
What happened has driven me in my career. I’ve had so many setbacks and disappointments along the way, not getting into county, dropping from Millwall. Growing up when you’ve not got a dad around can be tough.
As much as my mum did everything for us, it would be nice being with Sam [his wife] and we are lucky enough to have a family. Becoming a father will be even more special because I lost my dad. I can’t wait to give my child everything.
While things have gone well for Smalling in his club career, making the move to Fulham and then United, his international career has taken a nosedive since Gareth Southgate became manager. He publicly criticised our defender, doubting his ability to play out from the back, and left Smalling out of the last World Cup squad. Even dross like Gary Cahill got picked ahead of him.
I got used to being in the squad all the time, and playing, and then it gets taken away because of someone’s opinion. I did think it was unfair. I played a few games under him, like Germany away [in March 2017], played quite well, spoke to him after the game and he was singing my praises. Come that summer, it all changed.
I can only respect what he says. I can’t say I agree. As much as it knocks my confidence, I’m not going to lie. But I know I’ve played under Louis [Van Gaal], José and Sir Alex, all these top managers who’ve backed me. It probably pushes me, what he said. After that I was more determined to make sure that I stuck in this team and contributed. I feel I have done. I’ve not spoken to Gareth not since it all happened. Whether he’d go back on it, or see something different…