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‘United make you a winner on and off the pitch’

Published: March 2, 2013 | 10:45 am
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One of the many qualities making Manchester United such a force season after season is that they possess the right attitude, a winning attitude. It is embodied by senior players like Ryan Giggs and instilled in younger players like Chris Smalling.

Now 23, Smalling joined United in 2010 from Fulham and, notwithstanding some injuries, has developed well. “I’ve improved technically since coming here but also in attitude,” he said.

“At this club it’s always drilled in to me: ‘Make sure you’re a winner, go about off the pitch like you’re a winner.’ It helps when you have players like Giggsy and Rio [Ferdinand] who’ve won a lot. You see them side-by-side with you and that really drives you on.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the 93rd minute, Giggsy is making his jinky, mazy little runs. You could forgive him for maybe not coming out training every day, because he’s done so much in the game, but every day he’s out there. He doesn’t seem to need a rest.

“He’s not one of the noisiest ones in the dressing room but as we come in from the warm-up, he goes round, talks to everybody, gives them little information or says ‘good luck’. He’s very mellow. If one of the young lads might be nervous, it’s nice to see someone not getting too pumped up. When you see Ryan like that it chills you out.”

Smalling also watches Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic closely, looking and learning. “They do regular stretching with one of the physios and go in the pool after training for recovery. They’ve had long careers and us young ones want to make sure we can have a long career. Picking up pieces of information like that is crucial.”

It helps prepare him for match-day challenges. “Sergio Aguero is the hardest one to face. He’s quick and always running on your shoulder, threatening that space behind.”

Training can be as taxing. Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck await him at Carrington. “I get tested each day which is what I need. One minute you can be up against Chicharito and Wazza, and the next up against Robin or Danny. We’ve four great strikers. Chicharito stays very high in the attack, looking to play on your shoulder. Robin and Wazza like to drop in and try and play-make as well. They have great feet.

“Even before I joined United, I knew of Wazza as a hard worker. Now seeing it first hand in training and matches, he really does give everything for the team. Even if he has to drop into the hole, into midfield, maybe even sometimes go on the wing, he really does work hard. Danny’s done well. He’s played on the left wing as well as upfront. He’s a strong lad and another who likes to run in behind.”

Good attitudes all round. Michael Carrick, too. “He’s one of the first names on the team-sheet. When he’s playing well, the team plays well. Everything goes through him. He sees a lot of passes that really unlock their teams.”

The right attitude is also shown by David De Gea, occasionally criticised but parading his shot-stopping qualities against Real Madrid on February 13. “When he first joined, he didn’t speak too much English so it was a hard transition but he has taken to it like anything. In the last few months he has kept us in the game in a lot of games and made four or five good saves. He’s young as well, so it’s looking good for the future. He’s feeling a lot better. You can see him around the training ground now; he seems at home.”

After training on Thursday, Smalling visited Nicky Butt’s old school Wright Robinson College in Gorton to help the English Schools’ FA to take a coaching session. He first watched the pupils go online and select a training programme from a website run by The Coaching Manual. “It’s sessions taken from a lot of professional clubs,” Smalling said.

The centre-half owes a debt of gratitude to ESFA, which picked him for England Under-18 duty, an important showcase as his alma mater, Chatham Grammar School for Boys, mainly played rugby union, cricket and athletics. “I started off second row and then went on to the wing and centre because I was quite quick. I was glad to get out of the scrums and score some tries! At cricket, I was mainly a bowler and tried to bat. I hit the odd four or six and then got out! In athletics, I was mainly triple jump and 200m.”

Football obsessed him but opportunities were limited. “I lived on a main road and in the garden we had a really steep hill. I had to wait until I could play at school at breaks or after school.”

All the while, he followed Arsenal. “I was a fan. Tony Adams was a true leader. Him and Martin Keown’s relationship was very good at the heart of that defence. I liked Thierry Henry. I watched Arsenal so much on TV. I did get the chance to go to Highbury and the Emirates when it first opened.”

He played non-League for Maidstone United and was about to head to Loughborough University to study Financial Economics after getting three Bs and a C at A-level. “I got five offers from universities. I was a few months away from joining uni. Roy Hodgson watched me in a trial and took me under his wing.”

Hodgson has been a key force in Smalling’s career, now picking him for England. “He’s a coach I enjoy working with. Generally, he’s mellow. He can get angry. We’ve had a few games where things haven’t gone to plan and at half-time he’s had to address the team. He’s very experienced. I’ve been fortunate with the managers I’ve played under.

“Every day he [Sir Alex Ferguson] is out there on the training field. Talking to Giggsy and Scholesy, they say that from day one he’s not lost that determination. If somebody needs shouting at or needs an arm around them, he does it. He’s had that same hunger throughout all the years and it’s paid off in terms of how successful he has been.”

That right attitude shaped by Ferguson was seen in the way Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo visited his old team in the away dressing room at the Bernabeu. “He came in and was chatting a lot with the players he knew. It was good to see. It shows the good relationship he still holds with the manager and club despite [it being] such a crucial game and only halfway done.”

Smalling knows the danger Ronaldo poses next week. “It’s about not leaving yourself exposed one-on-one against Ronaldo even though I’m quite quick myself. The chances are that if he gets you one-on-one he’s going to beat you. It’s a hard battle. We feel pretty confident that as a team we can keep ourselves together, stay solid and make sure nobody gets exposed.”

Going for the Treble and aiming for a World Cup in Brazil, these are “exciting” times for Smalling. “I don’t think it gets much bigger than playing in a World Cup for your country. I’m very hopeful of the future.” He has the right attitude.


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