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Smalling raring to go as United youngster set to play major role

THE CN Tower, once the tallest free-standing building in the world, casts a large shadow over the 50,000-capacity Rogers Centre in Toronto. Even to those who have seen a few sights, it is an impressive backdrop for a football match.

For Chris Smalling, it has also offered a dazzling reminder of how quickly his life has changed. Three summers ago, the defender's pre- season with Maidstone United consisted of a friendly against Whitstable in north Kent. Last week, he made his Manchester United debut against Celtic in Canada in a game that was televised as far away as Asia.

"There were no luxurious trips," he said of pre-seasons with Maidstone. "It's a complete change now to how things were."

Smalling signed for Fulham from Maidstone in 2008, but he was still largely unknown by the time that the news broke in January that he had agreed to join United in a deal that could be worth up to £12m.

He made only 15 starts for Fulham last season but is one of several youngsters at Old Trafford that Alex Ferguson is pinning his high hopes on.

United may have confirmed last night that Nemanja Vidic will sign a new long-term contract next week, but with concerns over Rio Ferdinand's long-term fitness and Wes Brown and John O'Shea considered more as full-backs these days, Smalling knows he could be given little time to bed in. It is a case of sink or swim.

"I think I'll be expected to hit the ground running," the England U21 centre-half said. "The manager said I would be thought of as part of the first team and that I'll have to be ready. I've had since January to get my head around the move and get some more games at Fulham, so I'm focused on trying to play as many matches as possible."

Smalling endured an inauspicious start on his debut. Although he looked comfortable on the ball for the most part, he was caught out under pressure on a couple of occasions and conceded a penalty when he clumsily pulled back Joe Ledley, from which Celtic scored in United's 3-1 victory.

There was some improvement as a substitute in his second appearance, against the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, and he will be given another runout when United face the Kansas City Wizards tomorrow.

Tall but with good feet for a gangly figure, Ferguson hopes Smalling will develop into the new Ferdinand, but the player is loath to make comparisons.

"I'm not really feeling the pressure, there's quite a lot of other young players that the manager is bringing through and he's done that a lot over the years," Smalling said.

"Hopefully we can bounce off each other."

Meanwhile, Vidic is expected to sign an agreed £90,000 a week contract, bringing an end to the speculation surrounding the defender's future.

© The Times, London