Having played alongside each other in central defence for England U21s, the potential of a future Smalling-Jones centre back partnership has been widely talked about amongst United fans but with Ferdinand and Vidic still going strong, plus the welcomed growth of Jonny Evans at centre back, the pair haven’t really had chance to test their partnership.
But, on Wednesday 16 January against West Ham in the FA Cup Third Round replay, we were finally given a glimpse of what our centre back partnership could be in the future.
The Hammers are well known for playing the long ball game so Jones and Smalling were given a real physical test up against former England centre forward Carlton Cole and ex-Bolton Wanderers utility man Ricardo Vaz Te, but the way they dealt with the pair was tremendous.
They were reminiscent of the Rio and Vidic partnership when it was at its peak. One of them was always prepared to get stuck in and play physical whereas the other would clean up and carry the ball out of the defence with relative ease.
It seemed like they had being playing together for years. Many reds were probably a little optimistic to say they least when they saw the pair in the starting XI as both have been struggling with injuries in recent times. But had you not known that, on the basis of their performance, you wouldn’t have guessed it how little football they had played this season.
Manchester United are renowned worldwide for nurturing top class defenders with the likes of Gary Neville, John O’Shea, Wes Brown and most recently Jonny Evans all making the grade at Old Trafford. But a recent dip in the development of centre-backs has resulted in Sir Alex Ferguson looking elsewhere for centre backs with the signings of Chris Smalling from Fulham and Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers.
Smalling was signed from Fulham in January of 2010 after a crazy three years for the youngster. Having signed for non-league side Maidstone United, Smalling went on to represent England at school boy level in 2008 and became an integral part of the team. He then signed for Premier League outfit Fulham where he made his professional debut in May 2009.
His talent was quickly spotted by the United scouts and he made the move to Old Trafford in the summer of 2010. He got off to a shaky start at Old Trafford when he gave away a penalty on his debut in a 3-1 win over Celtic in a pre-season friendly but since then, Smalling has got better and better at United and he is now seen as the future, along with fellow centre back and utility player Phil Jones.
Jones was scouted by Lancashire side Blackburn Rovers at the age of ten and he progressed all the way through the age groups to eventually make his first team debut in the League Cup against Nottingham Forest in September 2009, at the age of just 17. Blackburn could see Jones’s potential and quickly tied him down to a new five year contract.
At the end of the 2010-2011 season, Jones was being heavily linked with top Premier League clubs including United. Then, just days before he was set to represent England at the UEFA U21 European Championships, United confirmed that a deal had been agreed with Blackburn which would see Jones sign for United once he got back from international duty. He quickly put pen to paper to complete a £16.5m deal which would see him become an integral part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s future plans at United.
They are Manchester United players. They are the types of centre backs in which we nurture. Who knows how far this partnership could go. If both end up playing at centre back for England and Manchester United, then the sky is the limit for them. Hopefully this time in five or so years, we will be remembering last Wednesday night as ‘The night the future became the present’.