On the surface it would be easy to dismiss Nick Hornby’s book Fever Pitch as the irrelevant rantings of a middle class Arsenal fan whose meanderings have no bearing on what it means to follow Manchester United. Once you look past the fact his heroes are the likes of Charlie George and Tony Adams, rather than George Best and Bryan Robson there’s a lot from Hornby’s novel that resonates with any football fan – including us Reds.
One particular passage that stands out is Hornby’s take on the career of Gus Caesar a former Gunner’s defender many of you won’t have heard of and for good reason. Caesar was an academy graduate from Arsenal’s youth team who rose through the ranks to make the first team and seem destined for greatness, before it all came crashing down, with an errant swing of a leg in the League Cup final of 1987.
Hornby notes that despite ending his career at Hong Kong Rangers, his 12th club that included such heights as a solitary appearance for Dagenham and Redbridge and an unsuccessful trial at Partick Thistle, Caesar was an extremely talented footballer, who lost his way. Unlike Chris Smalling who was an extremely talented defender and remains one to this day.
It may seem somewhat daft in the current climate of criticism aimed at the former Fulham man to claim he’s anything other than an aberration in United’s defence. There’s a case however, that Smalling suffers not from a lack of ability or form, but the need for many fans to pile the ills of the team onto one players’ back and ridicule him as much as humanly possible – then ridicule him a little bit more for good measure.
Without getting too deep, it’s the way of the world at the minute, polarisation is the key, you’re either far left or far-right, pro-remain, or a racist, unsure of Anthony Martial, or Martial FC, there’s no place for middle ground in debates anymore. Your views need to be extreme and completely explainable in 240 characters, otherwise don’t bother because we can’t possibly spare the time on reasoned, articulated thoughts on any subject. You stupid bastard.
Just as Hornby notes of Caesar, Smalling’s career trajectory is something of a Roy of the Rovers tale that would make a pretty good movie of the week, one that featured some bloke from Hollyoaks and a lesser known member of S Club 7.
When you look at Smalling’s rise, it’s hard not to be impressed, here’s a player who unlike many of his peers, doesn’t take the easier route to the Premier League of being part of a top tier club’s academy but instead begins his career at the somewhat less glamorous setting of Isthman League outfit Maidstone United. After less than a dozen appearances for a club in the fifth tier of English football, Smalling’s performances are that impressive he’s signed by Premier League club Fulham, instantly bypassing four divisions of English football.
If his rise so far is meteoric, what happens next can only be described as reaching the absolute pinnacle as with just 13 Premier League appearances under his belt, he’s signed by the biggest club on the planet; Manchester United. Now Smalling isn’t signed by a desperate David Moyes, frantically looking for any young defender he can add to his squad, nor is he part of the spending spree Louis van Gaal would eventually embark on as United manager. No, Smalling is signed by the greatest manager in the history of club football and he’s signed to replace one of two players who could each justifiably claim to be the best centre back the Premier League has ever seen.
In his first season Smalling wins the Premier League, winning it again in his third season and gradually becoming more than just an understudy to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, picking up over 30 England caps along the way.
So why despite winning almost every trophy available and amassing almost 200 Premier League appearances for the Reds, is Smalling still being not just questioned but lambasted by so many fans on a regular basis? Let’s not forget last season United had the second best defence in the Premier League, with Smalling playing a huge part in that – not to mention scoring a credible four goals along the way.
For many United fans though the issue isn’t that Smalling isn’t good enough, it’s that he’s not consistent enough, with his mistakes being blamed for costing United dearly far too often, with David De Gea preventing Smalling from being a complete disaster.
Gareth Southgate, unofficially the nicest man in football even questioned Smalling’s ability when dropping him from the England squad, causing the defender to note:
“But you don’t play for one of the biggest clubs in the world for as long as I have and won every trophy bar the Champions League without being able to do everything a top defender needs to do – be it playing or defending. This year, as a team, we’ve got the best defensive record [in the Premier League] and I’m very proud to be part of that. While I’m playing regularly under Jose and he’s happy, then I’m happy with that.”
“I don’t really feel like I need to prove anything to Gareth. Like I said, I play for one of the most successful managers in Jose and he’s only going to pick the best players. “
Smalling has a point and even this season, despite United’s defensive troubles, he’s remained one of the only centre backs that Jose can truly rely on, even helping Victor Lindelof enjoy something of a rejuvenation alongside him.
There’s little doubt that 300 senior games in Smalling should be commanding his defence more and being a bigger influence on those around him, but while it may be popular to lambast the former Fulham man, unlike the criticism of Gus Caesar, it’s far from fair for a player United would be far worse off without.