During the summer of 2008 a talented young defender plying his trade in non-league football wrote a letter to Fulham Football Club requesting a trial. Enclosed was a list of his team's forthcoming fixtures and his CV to date, including experience with England Schools U18s.
The letter Chris Smalling of Maidstone posted to Fulham was to have a quite remarkable impact on the course of his life. A few weeks later Smalling was being watched by Fulham's experienced Youth Scout, Barry Dunne. His initial reports were positive and the defender was watched six times in the space of four weeks. Shortly afterwards Billy McKinlay handed Smalling a chance in a Reserve Team game. Within 15 minutes Roy Hodgson, watching on the sidelines, had seen enough and Smalling was offered a professional contract with FFC.
Smalling's impressive attitude, athleticism and hard work on the Training Ground over the course of last season earned him the Development Squad armband, international honours and a First Team debut on the final day of the 08/09 season. Smalling acknowledges that he could have quite feasibly been sitting in a classroom with his mates rather than turning out for England and Fulham this year.
"Well, before I signed for Fulham I was looking at University courses," Smalling explains. "So if things hadn't worked out how they have I would probably be a student right now. I was looking at Loughborough where I was going to do Business and Management. My mates are always moaning about essays and assignments that they have to do, so I'm very fortunate. I would have liked to have gone to Uni, but football was all I ever really wanted to do.
"It has been quite tough, especially the pre-season. That was something I had never experienced before, well at least at that kind of level and intensity. It was always going to be difficult because it was a massive jump that I made, but I think I've been eased in quite well and there hasn't been too much pressure.
"It's a challenge that I've enjoyed. I'm around established professional footballers every day and learning and working with a lot of experienced people. That's been the biggest difference - just being in the environment of a Premier League football club.
"It's been a good season. It's great just to be playing, but to be captain of the Development Squad has been been brilliant. It's a big honour, and I think it shows that Billy McKinlay has a lot of faith in me."
Smalling was handed his First Team debut on the final day of the 2008/09 Barclays Premier League season at Craven Cottage. Aaron Hughes made way for the final 15 minutes of Fulham's clash with Everton and the Northern Ireland international captain clearly believes Smalling will play an even greater role for Fulham in the future.
"He’s done really well in training and it’s good the manager threw him on for 15 minutes to give him a feel for it. He’s been one of the most improved players this year who haven’t been on the pitch. His fifteen minutes against Everton were well deserved. Hopefully he won’t do too well too soon because he’ll be kicking me out of a spot!
"It’s good that if we do need a bit of depth in Europe next season we’ve got people like Chris Smalling, Chris Baird and Toni Kallio – all guys that can slot in and do a good job. He’s big and strong and he’s great at blocking shots. His improvement has come from his decision making. He’s a lot more confident in training."