Whatever the travails of Jonny Evans this season – it has been the worst campaign of the Irishman’s short career – the greatest stumbling block to the 22-year-old’s progress might be close to home. Indeed, Chris Smalling drew praise from Sir Alex Ferguson, declaring the player as the “club’s future” following an assured display against Stoke City last night.
Smalling’s performance was another confident step by the 20-year-old former Fulham defender in a career that has progressed rapidly from the player’s days in non-league football at Maidstone United. And while the defender has started just eight games this season, mostly in Europe and the Carling Cup, he has looked increasingly at home among more illustrious company.
“Chris Smalling was excellent,” said Ferguson today. “At 20 years of age he is doing very well. I am pleased with his improvement. He is certainly the future of the club.”
It’s a long way from the jitters Smalling suffered in the second half of last season with Fulham, when the proposed move north seemingly affected the players form. Then Fulham manager Roy Hodgson was moved to joke that Smalling was “getting all his mistakes out-of-the-way” before he officially joined United on 1 July.
However, the 6′ 5″ giant began pre-season in the United States in similar fashion, prompting one writer on this website to dub, with tongue firmly in cheek, the player ‘Appalling Smalling’.
That Ferguson was moved to defend the player after Smalling conceded a penalty in United’s 3-1 pre-season defeat to Celtic was evidence to some of the Scot’s folly in paying £10 million for the player.
Ridiculously, one prominent writer moved to declare Smalling “poor”, and claim England Under-21 central defensive partner, Blackburn Rovers youngster, Phil Jones as “twice the player”.
No longer so, with the £10 million signing improving with each outing and visibly growing in confidence. Ferguson’s praise is empty perhaps but the promise of a player who has plenty of pace, a strong touch and potentially outstanding passing skills is strong.
Moreover, the London-born defender sports a humble down-to-earth nature that will serve him well under the intense Old Trafford spotlight.
“It is nice to hear some positive words from the manager,” said the England Under-21 international.
“At the start of the season I got to play every other week but I haven’t had a game for the last few weeks. Hopefully I can make my presence felt and get many more.
“For the time being, it is all about concentration and consistency.
“That will improve the more I play. I know Vida and Rio are the first choices, I just have to make sure I do equally well when I come in, so I know I am playing my part.”
By contrast Evans would probably commit murder for a decent performance in a United shirt. He might even settle for just a partially incompetent one, such has been the defender’s utterly woeful form this season. Repeatedly out-muscled and often targeted by physical opponents, Evans has suffered the worst season in his time with United.
All is not lost but for now Evans might even benefit from a loan spell away from Old Trafford. After all, he is unlikely to feature much for Ferguson’s outfit in the coming months bar an unforeseen defensive injury crisis. It’s unlikely to happen with Ferguson not boasting enough central defenders – with Wes Brown out-of-favour and John O’Shea injured – to feel comfortable with a reserve departing.
Yet, the Irishman’s problems are not insurmountable. Physically the 22-year-old is bullied at times, with opponents quickly clocking the intimidation that Evans tends to wilt under. Mentally, low confidence has shown in an increasing positional uncertainty.
Neither lack of confidence or intimidation phases Smalling now, whose physical presence alongside Nemanja Vidic last night did much to negate Kenwyne Jones’ influence. Indeed, it was the United captain who strayed from his position to allow Stoke’s headed equaliser shortly after half-time.
And yet the decision on Ferdinand’s succession is not that far away. The 32-year-old England captain has seemingly shed the injury problems that plagued him for more than 18 months but age is no friend. Vidic too will pass 30 before the year is out.
Of course Paolo Maldini played at the very highest level into his 40s. Ferdinand’s composure might enable the Dagenham-born player to match his erstwhile hero. The player’s back might not.
In the meantime Smalling appears both willing and able to step into the beach.