Friday 22 March 2019

New spring in Smalling's step as feel-good factor returns to United for both players and fans

Chris Smalling has set some challenges for the Manchester United chef by his conversion to veganism. Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire
Chris Smalling has set some challenges for the Manchester United chef by his conversion to veganism. Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire

James Ducker

Chris Smalling did not even need to look as far as the Old Trafford stands to appreciate that Manchester United had become a hard watch in the post-Alex Ferguson landscape.

It was, he says, written on the faces of his own friends and family. Yet the sense of anticipation and excitement that was synonymous with watching United play is being re-established under the temporary stewardship of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and, according to Smalling, the players - like the fans - feel just as liberated.

"I definitely get that," the United defender said. "Even my own friends and family, and people who stop you in the street, there is that feel-good factor. It's going through the team and that translates to the fans."

Solskjaer's superb start was given a sharp reality check on Tuesday night when Paris Saint-Germain inflicted his first defeat in 12 matches - a reminder that United still have a way to go to emerge triumphantly from the troubles of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho's reigns.

Monday's trip to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in the FA Cup fifth round offers the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly against a side who are smarting from their own setback after a 6-0 trouncing at Manchester City.

"I think a wounded animal can be dangerous opposition but we just lost a game as well so they'll be wary of that, too," Smalling said.

"I watched [the City game]. Was it a 6-0 game? I don't know but they [City] were clinical and we'll watch it, dissect it and see what we can hurt Chelsea. Monday is a huge game now. PSG was obviously a disappointment but we've got some big games to really relish."

Relish is the right word. United no longer look cowed, a consequence, in part, of a mindset change where the focus is once again on where they can hurt teams, rather than obsessing over opponents' strengths.

"Obviously there has been a big turnaround," Smalling said. "You can sense if you give us a lot of chances we'll score a lot of goals, and that's the fear factor.

"PSG is that step up in the Champions League that we need consistency for. But we're definitely feeling that Old Trafford fear factor again and teams come here now where they're maybe relying on getting a draw or a lucky result, whereas before they maybe had more hope.

"You do see the difference in terms of our high press now. It goes hand in hand with confidence. No matter who we're playing, we want to press high and get after them and use the pace we've got up front."

Smalling has been cultivating a feel-good factor of a different kind this week. He has become a patron of Football Beyond Borders (FBB) and will be tasked with leading the expansion of the Brixton-based education charity in the north-west of England.

The starting point came with a visit this week to Salford Academy, one of 45 schools across England that FBB is currently partnering with in a bid to inspire and motivate disengaged or disruptive students through football in the hope of addressing worsening exclusion rates in schools.

Smalling can certainly relate to many of the disadvantaged kids he is now trying to help. Having lost his father at a young age, he was raised on benefits by his mum, dependent on council housing, surviving mostly off frozen foods and was dropped by his local team, Kent, at 16 because he could not afford the bus fares to and from training.

With a career in professional football looking a "distant dream", Smalling recognised the need to work hard in school and was just five weeks from going to Loughborough University to study financial economics before Fulham plucked him from non-league Maidstone with the offer of a professional contract.

"One of the things that struck me straight away is that for a lot of these children this programme is the only stable thing in their lives," Smalling said.

"You hear a lot of kids say it's changed their lives so it's something I wanted to get involved in.

Traditional

"I didn't come the traditional route (into professional football). I grew up with my mother and brother and I was in education to 18 so I feel I can relate to them all."

Smalling says he has reached the age where he wants to use his experience and profile to give something back.

He has already been involved with the Barnabus Homeless Shelter in Manchester, raising £29,000 on his 29th birthday in November by cooking and washing the dishes, but there have been other, more personal changes in his life, too.

His wife, Sam Cooke, is expecting their first child and she was instrumental in his conversion to veganism, which is starting to interest some of his United team-mates - and tested the culinary skills of the club chef, Mike Donnelly.

"Mike had not cooked much vegan food so there's a bit of influence from my wife in terms of her recipes (at the training ground)," Smalling said. "Mike bought a load of vegan books.

"The other players do try it, it's quite surprising. A couple of the options are for me and sometimes they'll be like, 'Ooh, that looks nice'. It might be a Thai red curry and sometimes half of it's gone!"

Smalling has mostly been a spectator during the Solskjaer transition and only returned from a two month lay-off in last weekend's 3-0 win at Fulham but he immersed himself in the culture change during his spell out.

"Injured players don't have to go to the meetings but I thought it was important that I was involved," he said.

"I didn't want to miss out on anything so that when I did get back, like against Fulham, I could hit the ground running and impress.

"If we can win a trophy and get into that top four, I think we can consider it an improvement considering how the first half of the season went." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Chris Smalling is a patron of Football Beyond Borders, an education charity whose schools programme exists to transform the behaviour and attitude to learning of students who are passionate about football but are not fulfilling their potential at school. For more information, visit www.footballbeyondborders.org

Telegraph.co.uk

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