Roma won the Europa Conference League and Chris Smalling was their standout player in the final. He has come a long way. Again.
When the Feyenoord players collapsed on the pitch at the end of the Europa Conference League final in Tirana, their winning counterparts from Roma had something to celebrate. The trophy they had won was the club’s first in 14 years, and their first European trophy in over 60 years (unless you count the 1972 Anglo-Italian Cup, and it’s doubtful many will). In doing so, they became the first Italian club to lift a European trophy since Inter won the Champions League in 2010. It was also a night of vindication for José Mourinho, who by winning the first iteration of this competition set a record for becoming not only the first manager to win all three current UEFA competitions, but also the first manager to reach a major European trophy final with four different clubs.
But on the pitch, the Man of the Match award went to a man who, in the manner of Englishmen moving abroad, has become something of a half-forgotten memory in his home country. Chris Smalling put in an extremely successful performance and fully deserved his winner’s medal, his award and his clean sheet. And that performance may have sparked memories among some Manchester United supporters of a defender being replaced by Harry Maguire, an extremely expensive purchase who turned out to be something of a square peg in a round hole at Old Trafford. Looking back at the end of their respective seasons, the benefit of hindsight doesn’t make it hard to see who got the best finish out of those deals.
Smalling was never cut in the same way as most other Premier League players. Having been ignored by professional clubs, he began his non-league football career with Maidstone United, and his first professional contract came while working as a waiter, having gained three A-levels and then in preparation for studying at University. His first professional contract came with Middlesbrough, but homesickness made him return to London and sign for Fulham. He had only made 13 league appearances when Manchester United called.
By the time he was 24, he had already won the Premier League twice. But the second of those wins came in 2013, and it turned out to be United’s last to date. Smalling went on to play over 300 games for United in total and despite the subsequent narrative that the years since Ferguson retired have been nothing but relentless calamity for Manchester United, Smalling went on to win the FA Cup. , the Carabao Cup, and the Europa League. December 2018 turned out to be a busy month for him. He was confronted by an Arsenal fan, who was later convicted of assault, on the pitch during a match, and a week later signed a one-year extension to his contract with United. But just four days later, everything changed at Old Trafford again when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as the new manager.
There were more abuses after United’s Champions League defeat to Barcelona in April 2019, but the deciding factor behind Smalling’s move came in the summer of 2019 when Manchester United paid £80m to sign Harry Maguire, making him the most expensive defender in the world. Smalling’s departure to Roma was a one-year loan that became a permanent deal and cost Roma £15.25m in total. Tellingly, Smalling began learning Italian as soon as he arrived at Roma, another clever thought that he later attributed to seeing how foreign players who didn’t speak the dressing room language were more likely to get into trouble while at Old Trafford. . . Three years later, already reunited with José Mourinho, he now has a trophy to add to those he won with Manchester United, which he has not won since he left.
Smalling’s international career had already ground to a halt. He made 31 appearances in total, but the last of those came in 2017, when Gareth Southgate dismissed him with manager comments that Southgate would later confess to. he regret. But that regret has not translated into squad return calls, and now, at 32, Smalling seems unlikely to play for England again, having missed out on a place in the squad for the League summer games. of the Nations. The Europa Conference League may at least remind some people of a player dropped too hastily.
There is no easy path to the highest level of professional football, but Chris Smalling had it harder than most. He lost his father when he was five years old and grew up poor to the point where there were times when he couldn’t afford to travel to soccer practice. Professional clubs missed him and he had to start playing senior soccer in the Isthmus League. Getting from there to the Premier League is rare. Getting from there to Manchester United is almost unheard of, but as he confirmed his performance for Roma in the Europa Conference League final, he was always worthy of his place.
Gareth Southgate, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, some of the fans and certain sections of the media. He has proven everyone wrong, really, hasn’t he? Maybe he didn’t reach the level that Manchester United expected of him, but we all know how unbelievably high that level can be, we all know the extent to which players have deteriorated while at the club, and we all know what it means to them. happened. defending him since he left. But football’s growing tendency to binarize all players, managers and clubs as “successes” or “failures” is becoming one of its biggest blind spots.
Chris Smalling has now added another piece of silver to his account, and that’s all he or Roma will really consider important. But he is also entitled to whatever satisfaction he may feel for proving some people wrong.