Sitting in a classroom at Chatham Grammar School for Boys, a studious sixth-former could be forgiven for allowing his early-May thoughts to wander to foreign shores. It’s May 2008 and the pressing concern is a Travel and Tourism A-Level exam.
Fast-forward to May 2014 and that same student faces his biggest test yet. Selected by Roy Hodgson in England’s 23-man World Cup squad, Chris Smalling has come a long way in six years.
As the Three Lions touch down in Manaus for their opening match against Italy, people will talk about journeys. A journey into Amazonian jungle. A journey for the national side that has seen the Class of 2010 disbanded and expelled. Lessons have been learned.
But of all the journeys to Brazil, Smalling will have had the longest. Plucked from obscurity in the Isthmian Premier League, Hodgson showed the faith in Smalling to take him from Maidstone United to Fulham. Now, he is taking him to Brazil.
Exactly what role Smalling might have for England is unknown, but his ability to play either centrally or at full-back makes him an attractive option. With Kyle Walker ruled out through injury, the versatility that has at times seemed a hindrance to securing his preferred role in the heart of the Manchester United defence now becomes Smalling’s greatest strength.
Following the announcement of Hodgson’s squad, questions have been raised about his inclusion, but - with the only realistic alternatives being the inexperienced Jon Flanagan and John Stones - Smalling provides the safest bet as Glenn Johnson’s understudy.
Following a £10 million move to Manchester United in 2010, Smalling has been studious. Premier League titles, Champions League football and the 10 England caps represent an education that Flanagan and Stones simply don’t have.
In an underwhelming season for United, solace can be found in the end-of-term report, which shows that Smalling was far from being one of Old Trafford’s biggest slackers last season. No regular defender achieved a higher duel (50/50 challenges) success rate in the Premier League last season (70%) and, of all the defenders in Hodgson’s squad, Smalling had the highest cross completion percentage (40%). He offers value both defensively and offensively.
It has been a long road to Rio for the 24-year-old defender, but Smalling could be about to graduate with distinction.