In the week leading up to the 2011 Champions League final, Manchester United hosted a media open day at the club’s Carrington training ground.
The media stood behind temporary barriers alongside one side of an indoor pitch as the entire United squad were obligated to walk by us and stop and talk about their thoughts on facing Barcelona in that weekend’s final at Wembley.
Imagine the red carpet before the Oscars if the event were held on artificial grass in a drafty indoor complex south of Manchester.
Some players did their duty and stopped, while others fixed their focus on the exit at the end of the line and ignored all requests for a quick word.
At the end of his debut season at Old Trafford, Chris Smalling was comfortably the most generous with his time, stopping and talking to almost everyone.
The defender was charming and polite, and I recall he even asked questions of the journalists about where in the world they had travelled from that day.
He wore the appealing demeanour of a wide-eyed innocent, someone who still couldn’t quite believe he was playing for Manchester United.
Only three years earlier, he had been turning out for Maidstone United in the Isthmian League, but his talent had been too big to remain so far down the ladder, and via a spell at Fulham, he was brought to Old Trafford.
In those early years, Smalling’s potential was obvious, but so was the fact that his transformation from non-league to Premier League would take time.
For three years under Sir Alex Ferguson, he was used mainly as an understudy to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as they wound down their careers or as a makeshift right-back.
When Ferdinand and Vidic departed in the summer of 2014, a year after Ferguson’s own departure, Smalling was handed the chance to make the centre-half position his own.
The 25-year-old always had the makings of a great defender—tall, fast, good anticipation, a threat in the box—but it was often undermined by being too rash or too timid.
This rashness saw him shown a red card after he had needlessly dived into a tackle against Manchester City last November, which helped condemn United to a narrow 1-0 defeat. Louis van Gaal told the BBC Smalling had been “stupid.”
But the Dutchman liked Smalling, and he kept faith with him, having already turned down the chance to sign a more established centre-half that summer, as well as rejecting Arsenal’s request to swap him for Thomas Vermaelen.
It was expected Van Gaal would bolster the centre of his defence in the most recent transfer window, and he certainly tried to with Sergio Ramos, but the Spaniard would have come to Old Trafford as Smalling’s partner, not his replacement.
This season, Van Gaal’s belief in Smalling has been rewarded, as the south Londoner has emerged as both Manchester United and England’s best defender.
As reported by the MailOnline, Smalling’s team-mate Wayne Rooney recently declared to United Review that Smalling was now one of “the best three centre-halves in the world,” a statement that would have made some wince a year ago but now had many nodding in agreement.
In recent weeks, there has naturally been a fixation with United’s failure to score, but it has also served to obscure their success in stopping their opponents.
After 12 games in the Premier League, United boast the best defensive record, having kept eight clean sheets and conceded only eight goals.
By beating West Bromwich Albion 2-0 on Saturday, United made it 550 minutes—more than nine hours—without conceding a goal in all competitions, their best defensive run for more than a decade.
It is Smalling who should take the greatest credit for this run, for while the players around him have been chopped and changed all season, he has been the only ever present in the United side, playing in all 20 games
The potential Ferguson first spotted in the player over five years ago, when he was breaking through at Fulham, is now finally and gloriously being realised.
Smalling is a commanding presence at the heart of the United defence—the main man whose partners revolve around him.
He serves the same role for England as well, and his growing stature has helped Roy Hodgson’s revived side qualify for Euro 2016 with a perfect record of 10 wins from 10 games while only conceding three goals.
Smalling is now England’s best defender, towering over international partner Gary Cahill and the retired John Terry as they struggle in Chelsea’s implosion, as well as United team-mate Phil Jones and the emerging John Stones.
An admiring Ferdinand has recognised Smalling now plays in something he likes to call “beast mode," when ability and belief combine to make a defender almost unbeatable.
While there is a growing frustration with Van Gaal’s cautious approach, chants of “attack, attack, attack” ring out from the stands, at the heart of his defence stands probably the Dutchman’s greatest success story at Old Trafford: the imperious Chris Smalling.