Chris Smalling is thriving in Italy with Roma
Credit: SUSAN WRIGHT
For friends and colleagues in Rome, Chris Smalling is already “Smalldini”, a moniker that could only ever be a compliment in Italian football even if the name of the legendary defender from which it is adapted played his whole career at AC Milan rather than Roma.
On a call from his home in the city, Smalldini himself chuckles at the mention of his nickname and admits that he does rather like it. It was first coined by a friend of his from Manchester, Jordan Cooper, years before Smalling ever considered a move to Serie A. Now in his second season at Roma, Smalling’s impressive performances caused others in Italy to alight upon it. Whether or not the great Paolo Maldini himself approves he is yet to say, although Smalling did meet him briefly last season.
Life has certainly changed rapidly for Smalling in the last 18 months, from being a regular at United to being told by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that he was no longer in first team contention at the start of last season – albeit after the English summer transfer window had closed. He had to decide quickly to take a loan move to Roma and spent a successful first season in Serie A, encompassing lockdown earlier this year before another summer in which his future was decided in the last hours of deadline day.
- Comment: Smalling a blameless victim of United’s transfer paralysis
During Smalling’s wait for a permanent move to Roma, which was completed on Oct 5 with minutes to spare, it was clear just how much the Italian club wanted him. The initial fee of around €13 million was virtually all the money the club spent on transfer fees last summer, and this for a player who is 31 on Sunday. Roma’s new owner, the US billionaire Dan Friedkin, made Smalling’s signing a priority. In Italy his qualities have been recognised at a club that usually invests in young players with sell-on potential.
Chris Smalling (second left) has been his career revived at Roma
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“The plaudits and the love I get from the fans – I think what they want in a central defender is someone who is stable, strong and able to lead,” Smalling says, “and that is something I felt like I have been able to bring. That was what the club wanted by bringing me back this summer.”
Last season, manager Paulo Fonseca switched to a back three with Smalling at its heart. When his left knee has fully recovered from an awkward landing in training he will play the same role this season alongside younger team-mates like Roger Ibanez, Gianluca Mancini and Marash Kumbulla.
A vegan, he has already found Rome’s best vegan restaurants. His wife Sam, young son Leo and mother-in-law Andrea are all happily settled in the new family home in the city. He is growing more confident in his mastery of Italian and aims to do interviews in the language early next year.
“I should hopefully be fluent soon enough,” he says. “It would not be as much of an achievement as getting Roma to win a trophy but it would be something that I could hold onto for the rest of my life. That is a real big aim of mine… it is so impressive when you see people mix between languages. I would see it as a massive life skill.”
Chris Smalling in Rome…
And yet all this might never have happened were it not for the chaotic course of events that took Smalling from United, where he had been a regular for most of his nine years until 2019, to Italy in the space of a few days last summer. Now that he has left the club he joined as a 20 year-old, he has greater freedom to discuss how Solskjaer wrote him out of the script last year.
It should be said there are no hard feelings any longer, and Smalling is glad that the day after his transfer was agreed, he was able to say farewell to Solskjaer, his staff and players at Carrington. It had not been the case the previous summer when he had no inkling, until after the English transfer deadline passed in August, that his time was up at United. Indeed, he had turned down approaches from Premier League and overseas clubs earlier in the window.
“We could have finished the season [2018-2019] better but I was a regular and I was up for the battle that was to come,” he says. “Obviously there was a rumour that Harry [Maguire] was going to come in. I have spoken before about how each year the manager brings in a centre-back and by the end of the season I [still] do play more games than most. I knew that was coming. I was focused on getting better and playing for United. The interest from English clubs and others I just totally dismissed because I didn’t see myself going anywhere. As that season started I found myself not even on the bench which is something I have never experienced.
“I guess that was maybe the lowest point at United. That was the shock I didn’t expect. How it was handled… if I was told earlier that summer – and I don’t want to have a dig at Ole – I would have made other plans.”
Chris Smalling's time at Manchester United ended on a sour note
He acknowledges that it all eventually lead to a happy conclusion with his move to Roma but at times it has felt less serendipitous and rather more like negotiating an obstacle course. “I knew that my days under Ole were pretty much numbered,” he says. “I was just a bit frustrated. One, I would like to have been told earlier and then, secondly, I was only able to go with just a day left of the Italian window being open. The English window had shut. I was left in a very s— situation. I had to decide. After I had that chat [with Solskjaer] it was a case [from him] of, ‘I’m not sure when your next game will be’.
“In an ideal situation I would have known early in the summer and made plans and it almost got to the stage where I had a day left. My wife had just had a kid as well. There was a lot going on that happened at the last minute.
“And I really wanted to play. I had not been used to sitting on the bench. Even if he [Solskjaer] said, ‘OK, you’re now third-choice but you have a chance of playing’, that was all I needed to hear. I would have stayed. I obviously made that decision to go and my wife was very supportive. She had just had a kid and now half the time I was going to be away with the team. I can’t thank her enough in terms of her support.”
Last season in Roma was a success for Smalling. On Nov 24 he scored his second goal for the club against Brescia and also provided two assists. Five days later, at the end of a Europa League game in Istanbul against Basaksehir, Edin Dzeko handed Smalling the captain’s armband for the last 20 minutes. There was a bad run of three defeats in February which saw Roma drop out the top four but a fifth-place finish was an improvement on the last season. He played 37 games.
When he spoke to Solskjaer towards the end of last season it was clear to the player that nothing had changed. It then became a case of hoping that the two clubs could agree a fee – negotiations that took the full 10 weeks of the transfer window. “It was challenging at times,” Smalling says. “I had to have some direct conversations with Ole. I had to speak to Ed [Woodward, executive vice-chairman] to try to get some clarity and to get some movement.
“The previous season I was ultimately very lucky [to get the loan move to Roma] even though I was left in limbo and told at the last minute. Otherwise I was basically going to be sitting in my [hospitality] box in the stand. It was a case of, ‘You can either do that [watch from the stand] for the season or you can go to another country’. I had been left in the hands of United. This year I almost wanted to take some ownership of my career. I had all summer to think about the best option and have the time to be able to do it.”
Even so, it was an anxious wait with his agent James Featherstone after the Italian deadline passed at 8pm Rome time on Oct 5 before confirmation came from the Italian Football Federation that his transfer had been approved. “There was more than one occasion when I didn’t think it was going to happen,” he says. “Even in the week before. There were a couple of times when it was very close and it was pretty much off. It was probably 50-50 for quite a lot of it. We knew everything had gone through our side but then it hadn’t been ratified. It was probably for the next hour we were still waiting for that conformation.”
Chris Smalling's transfer to Roma went down to the wire
Smalling appreciated a message that Woodward sent him in the aftermath, thanking him for his years at United. “Sometimes these negotiations can get a bit messy and they go on for a few weeks but against that you’ve had nine years of fantastic moments,” Smalling says. “I was glad I was able to see everyone and end it right.”
And what of the theory that United have made a mistake letting him go? They are currently in 14th place with three defeats already and Maguire, Smalling’s replacement, has had a forgettable few months. As one who knows only too well the pressure of playing for United, it is a difficult question for Smalling to answer but there are a few things he wants to say.
“When United start the season not as strong as they should… given it is United everything gets questioned. Even when I went on loan, I made no secret that if I have that chance [to get back in the side] I will back myself. I don’t have to be told I’m first choice but as long as I have that chance. When Eric Bailly was brought in or [Victor] Lindelof, I backed myself to be in contention. As soon as that was off the table it was a totally different situation. My goal was always to play and stay at United. When that is taken out of your hands…”
He leaves that point hanging in the air, but there is something more to add. “A lot of what I have read and heard from fans was really touching. A lot of messages of, ‘I wish you were still here and you could have an impact’. That does speak volumes and that is what I wanted to do. Ultimately that has to be on the right terms because I am used to playing. It was nice to hear a lot of positive things said over the summer: Roma fans wanted me to stay and United fans too.”