Roma defender Chris Smalling will have mixed feelings as he plays at Old Trafford tonight for the first time in nearly two years.
Having spent a decade at Manchester United – winning five major trophies including two Premier League titles – the place no doubt holds plenty of fond memories for the 31-year-old, but he could be forgiven for wondering what might have been. He may even feel he should still be at the club, and it’ll certainly be strange playing front of an empty Stretford End for the first time.
Smalling has endured an injury-hit second season in the Italian capital but returned to fitness last weekend, just in time for the visit to his former club in the Europa League semi-final.
Chris Smalling returns to Old Trafford tonight as part of Paulo Fonseca’s Roma side
Smalling lifts the Premier League trophy in 2011 and 2013 – United’s last two titles
Smalling celebrates Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal in the 2017 Europa League final win over Ajax
He may have been deemed surplus to requirements by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Gareth Southgate, but Smalling is a vital part of Roma coach Paulo Fonseca’s team. Playing in the middle of a back three, Roma have lost just three of the 18 matches (16 per cent) that Smalling has played this season, but have struggled without him.
Their push for a top four spot has faltered badly since Smalling picked up an injury at the end of January, with six Serie A defeats in their last 13 matches leaving them down in sixth place and 11 points off fourth. Roma have lost nine of the 28 matches Smalling has missed (32 per cent) and only their Europa League run has kept Fonseca in his job.
Fonseca will therefore be delighted to have Smalling back and will be hoping he can replicate his form of last season. The Englishman was regarded as one of the best defenders in Serie A in 2019-20, convincing Roma to turn his loan move into a permanent one for £13.5million.
This season has been far more challenging for Smalling though. As well as the pandemic and a succession of injuries – knee, bicep and thigh – his wife and young son were the victims of a shocking armed robbed at their villa south of Rome just two weeks ago. The intruders made away with £100,000 worth of jewellery and luxury watches and left his family ‘shaken up’.
Smalling said his family were ‘shaken’ but ‘unharmed’ after a shocking armed robbery at their home in Italy (pictured: wife Sam Cooke, 35, Smalling, and son Leo, two)
Smalling provided a positive update on Twitter after the frightening ordeal
The young family (pictured) moved to Italy on a permanent basis after Smalling joined Roma
Smalling has previously spoken of how well he and his former glamour model wife Sam Cooke have settled well in Italy since their initial move to Rome on loan in 2019. If he was happy with how life started in Italy though, he won’t have be happy with how it ended in Manchester.
After a brilliant start under Solskjaer which earned the Norwegian the permanent job, United’s 2018-19 season fell apart at the end, with eight defeats in Smalling’s last 10 matches – including heavy and embarrassing defeats by Everton and Cardiff (his last Old Trafford appearance). He was made the scapegoat that summer as United looked to rebuild their defence around the £80million signing of Harry Maguire.
Maguire also took Smalling’s place in the England team in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, as Southgate looked to promote what he perceived as Maguire’s superior ability on the ball. He is also three-and-a-half years younger than Smalling, which no doubt played a part in both Solskjaer and Southgate’s decisions too.
Smalling always divided opinion during his time at United. He attracted Premier League scouts while excelling as a teenager for non-league Maidstone United, and was soon snapped up by Roy Hodgson at Fulham in 2008. Just 18 months later, despite making just a handful of appearances at Craven Cottage, Sir Alex Ferguson had seen enough to pay Fulham £10m to sign the then 20-year-old.
From 2010 until Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, he was slowly building Smalling and Phil Jones up into the potentially world class defenders he saw. Few doubted Fergie’s judgment then, as Smalling played roles in the 2011 and 2013 titles wins as back-up to the first-choice pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
Smalling during the 4-0 defeat by Everton in April 2019 (left) – and with Fulham in 2010 (right)
Ferguson’s departure was a watershed moment for every United player and fan – just as it was for English football – and through a succession of bad managerial appointments and signings, the club have still not won a league title since. Unfortunately for Smalling, like Jones, he came to symbolise United’s lack of world class quality in this era of failure. He showed promise, had spells when he looked like he really would become the player Ferguson imagined, but ultimately never delivered on that promise.
It is not all Smalling’s fault, of course. Had Ferguson stayed on for a few more years, he might well have developed into a world class defender who lifted countless trophies. Instead, he had managers like Louis van Gaal, who infamously forgot his name in a press conference.
Ironically, Van Gaal showed more faith in Smalling than Solskjaer, Jose Mourinho or David Moyes – he played 55 matches under the Dutchman in 2015-16, comfortably his most ever in a season – but calling him Mike Smalling in front of the watching world in 2015 only made that Fergie-shaped hole look even bigger.
Injuries have been a constant thorn in Smalling’s side, too, and no doubt hindered his progress. It only seems fair then that he is fit to get the chance to play at Old Trafford again and show Solskjaer what he is missing. Ultimately though he will be remembered by United fans as a defender who was good, but not quite good enough.
Louis van Gaal introduced Smalling as ‘Mike’ in a 2015 press conference (pictured)
Solskjaer (right) let Smalling go in 2019 and built his defence around Harry Maguire instead