Chris Smalling in profile: The second English player in Roma history

In one of the more surprising moves of the transfer window, Roma have agreed to sign English defender Chris Smalling from Manchester United on a season-long loan.

It is becoming increasingly common to see English footballers move abroad – with Jadon Sancho earning a career breakthrough at Borussia Dortmund and Kieran Trippier reclaiming his place in the national squad after joining Atletico Madrid – but traditionally, the move from England to Rome has not been one made regularly.

In joining Roma, Smalling has become just the second English player to play for Roma’s men’s team – following in the footsteps of fellow defender Ashley Cole. For left-back Cole, his time at Roma represented the lowest ebb in his career. Widely viewed as one of England’s best full-backs of all-time, he came to Italy with a glistening record, having won the Premier League twice with Arsenal and once with Chelsea, lifting the FA Cup on multiple occasions with both and getting his hands on the Champions League and Europa League trophies with the latter.

However, at Roma, it just did not work out. Cole joined as a 33-year-old free agent, who had played in less than half of Chelsea’s league games in his final season there. It was hoped that his experience could help Roma, as he essentially replaced Dodo, more than 10 years his junior. But Cole quickly found himself behind Jose Holebas in the pecking order, and even after the Greek left for Watford at the end of the campaign, the ex-England international was not even assigned a squad number for his second term – and his spell with Roma was cut prematurely short in January 2016, half a year before it had been due to expire.

  

Before Cole, a few more players with British origins had donned the Giallorossi colours. Simone Perrotta, who was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, was the most successful. The midfielder spent the last nine years of his career with Roma, having spent all his time as a professional in Italy, the country of his parents’ birth. It was with Italy that Perrotta became a champion of the world, as one of three Roma players involved in the Azzurriโ€™s successful 2006 World Cup squad – along with Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi.

Like Perrotta, another player to have been born in England but identified as Italian was Mark Tullio Strukelj, hardly the most memorable name in club history. The Surrey-born midfielder, who had an English mother and Italian father, spent just one season with the club, making 11 appearances and scoring once. But although that spell was short-lived, he did get to play in the finals of the Coppa Italia and European Cup; Roma won the former, but lost the latter to the team Strukelj supported as a boy, Liverpool.

Rewinding the clock even further, Welshman John Charles, a Leeds United legend famous for a trophy-laden five-season spell with Juventus, spent one lesser known year at Roma in 1962-63. ‘Il Gigante Buono’ scored five goals in the 12 games he played for the Giallorossi, a season in which they reached the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and came fifth in Serie A.

Hence, Chris Smalling is joining a small group of players as he becomes the next Brit to play for Roma. Born in Greenwich, Greater London, the defender has worked his way up through the ranks. After being released by Millwall as a youngster, Smalling made his breakthrough at non-league club Maidstone United, earning a move to then-Premier League side Fulham in 2008. Just 19 years old when he joined, Smalling made an impression in the comparatively small number of games he played, and within two years, he had earned a move to Manchester United.

  
 

It was a dream move for a 21-year-old, with Smalling getting the chance to play under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. His time with United could not have got off to a better start, as he came on as a substitute to help his new side beat Chelsea in the Community Shield on his debut. One game, one trophy.

By the end of his debut year, that honours list had already doubled in length, as United regained the Premier League crown, becoming the club to have won the most league titles in English history. During the campaign, Smalling was also able to make his Champions League debut.

In September of the following season, Fabio Capello, manager last time Roma won Serie A, gave him his first senior England cap in a Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria. It was the first of 31 caps Smalling has accumulated for his country, with the centre-back being chosen in the Three Lions’ squads for the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.

It wasn’t long before Smalling was adding to his reputation with more trophies. In 2012-13, Ferguson guided United to their most recent league title in his final season in charge, with Smalling making 15 league appearances.

Ferguson’s replacement, David Moyes, gave Smalling more responsibility than he had ever had before, handing him 38 appearances in all competitions. It was not a successful year for the club, though, and Moyes lost his job before the end of the campaign. For the new season, in came Louis Van Gaal – under whom Smalling enjoyed the best period of his career.

With veteran centre-backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic also leaving that summer, and with Van Gaal initially planning to use a back three, it gave Smalling the chance to step up and become a regular. He made 29 appearances in all competitions, a decrease on the previous year due to United not being involved in Europe, and scored four goals – which remains to this day his joint-best goalscoring output, having matched the tally in 2017-18.

  
 

It was in Van Gaal’s second and final year that Smalling really nailed down his place. For the only time in his career, he made more than 50 appearances across the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and Europa League. Entering his prime at the age of 26, Smalling thrived on the extra responsibility, and by the end of the season, he had worn the captain’s armband for the first time. It was a bittersweet end to the season though, as United won the FA Cup final – but only after Smalling had been sent off. Nonetheless, Smalling was named by his teammates as United’s player of the year.

Positivity remained the outlook, and just two weeks later, he scored his first international goal for England, in a pre-Euro 2016 friendly. Smalling was named in the final squad for the tournament, but it proved to be one of the lowest points in English footballing history, as they were eliminated by Iceland in the Round of 16.

That summer, Smalling had a new manager for both club and country, with Jose Mourinho taking the Old Trafford hotseat and Gareth Southgate taking charge of England. Neither move really benefitted Smalling, with the defender falling out of international contention by November 2017, yet to be called up again, due to Southgate believing he wasn’t suited to his playing out from the back philosophy – perhaps the biggest concern Roma fans may have about him, given Paulo Fonseca’s preference for a similar style.

At United, Mourinho brought in Eric Bailly, adding competition for Smalling’s place at centre-back – although the Englishman still managed 82 appearances overall across the next two years, and also played all 90 minutes in the final as United won the 2017 Europa League.

Last season, his last before coming to Roma, saw Smalling play a further 34 times for United, meaning he passed the 300 appearance mark for the club – becoming the first centre-back to do so since former teammate Vidic, whose appearance tally he ultimately surpassed. When the time came for him to leave the club, following the signing of Harry Maguire this summer, Smalling had amassed 323 appearances for the Red Devils, with 18 goals and eight trophies.

Expectations upon Smalling at Roma are somewhat mixed, but as long as he can settle down quickly and adapt to the tactical nature of the league, his experience and physicality can benefit Roma. It may not have worked so well for players like Cole in Rome, but Smalling, likely to be a starter, will be hoping to make a positive impression for his new club – where he can become a flag-bearer for fans back home in England.

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