Glass speaks to footballer Chris Smalling


Game changer – Glass talks to footballer Chris Smalling about his vegan revolution, fighting racism and his unusual journey to the top of the game


It’s hard to get the measure of Chris Smalling. He’s supposed to be six foot four, but as he steps out from behind a curtain half dressed for the next part of our shoot for Glass Man, you’d swear he was at least a couple of inches taller. This may have something to do with the size of the small robe stretched across his shoulders, and the fact that the sleeves barely reach his forearms. Or, perhaps, his “official height” is a ruse intended to fool opposition into underestimating his real size, an illusion intensified by his mild-mannered persona – think Clark Kent during working hours. Whatever the case, and whatever his actual height, reaping the benefits of being underestimated has worked out rather nicely for Chris Smalling.

Throughout adolescence, growing up in south London and Kent, 29-year-old Smalling was passed around many of the capital’s top football academies, and admits that as the years passed, “The football dream definitely started to die a little bit.” By 2008, with an offer from Loughborough University on the table, he set his sights on higher education, and was ultimately one post-exam lads’ holiday away from giving up on professional football entirely.

“The thing is, even when I was playing at Millwall, when I was a lot younger, there’s always two or three players who are supposed to be the next Messi or Zidane … but nine times out of ten, by the time they’re 20 they’ve not even got a club, which really stresses the reality that nothing’s guaranteed in football. Having a so-called back up, something you know you can count on regardless of whether you make it in football or not, is vital. I was very lucky that my mum made sure that school was always number one.”


Chris Smalling. Photograph: Adam Slama

When Smalling was just five years old, his father passed away, leaving his mother Theresa to raise Chris and younger brother Jason on her own. “She made a lot of sacrifices in her own life to make sure that me and my brother were very on it. She’d sit us down, make sure we’d done all our homework and keep an eye on us … [In 2008] I was fully set to go to university, I had a couple of trials before term started, but it was a case of ‘I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll go for it.’ I was a week away from going away with my mates to Zante to celebrate all of us leaving home … and I was happy with that. If [football] was my only hope and everything was riding on it, things probably wouldn’t have worked out the way they have.”

One of these trials was, of course, successful, and after a further period of brief uncertainty (Middlesbrough F.C. withdrew a contract fearing he’d suffer homesickness in northern England) Smalling would eventually sign for Fulham. Two years and just 18 appearances later, legendary coach Sir Alex Ferguson came calling, and Chris swapped west London for Manchester United, where he was a lynchpin of the side for almost ten years. Homesickness be damned. As a rare constant during a period of mass upheaval at the club, Smalling, at just 30 he had, begun to feel like one of Manchester United’s elder statesmen. He credits a drastic change in diet for feeling, and playing, better than ever. Smalling is now on loan to the Serie A club Roma.

“It started with my wife,” he tells Glass Man “… she was always vegan, so I learnt a lot from her. Once she opened the door, I started doing more research, watching documentaries, reading more books… I think it’s only aided [my performance]. Going plant-based has got everybody talking at the minute, everybody wants that added edge, to be able to kick on.”

After going public with his new diet, Smalling was made the face of PETA’s Try Vegan campaign, aimed at raising awareness of animal welfare and the environmental effects of the meat industry.

Given the ease with which Smalling discusses his new diet, it would be easy to downplay the significance of going Vegan as a Premier League footballer with 31 England caps. While the sport is gradually shedding its macho boys’ club reputation, certain social stereotypes remain: meat is macho, and machismo is essential for men to physically compete. Or so we’ve been told. “Since I’ve started reducing red meat, over the space of a year I’ve felt gradual improvements. I’ve just got stronger and stronger, in terms of football but also my recovery.” And his teammates? “Very supportive, actually! I am the only vegan [at the club], so that was the last step really: going vegan at work.

“It was just about getting the chefs onside and the nutritionists … once I spoke to them I got my own section at the team buffet. There were lots of different questions to begin with, but now the dishes that are supposed to be just for me are often half gone from other people trying.” So is football culture finally growing up? In some ways, perhaps, but equally it feels trivial congratulating a culture for opening its doors to a plant-based diet, when the same culture still can’t universally embrace non-white players. As a spokesperson for the anti-racism initiative Show Racism the Red Card, Smalling has been fighting for change in the sport since 2015. “There needs to be a change. Full credit to all the players that are speaking out; the more players speak out, the more people will see the racism [that exists] in football, and the more people will call for change,” Smalling tells me. “But ultimately it shouldn’t be the ones who are being affected by it who should have to step up.”

Chris Smalling. Photograph: Adam Slama


In March this year, during a 5-1 victory away in Montenegro, England players Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose were subjected relentless monkey chants and general racial hostility. The expected punishment for the Montenegrin national team is a €50k fine and a one-game stadium ban for their fans. “I think the punishments we have now – fines or the odd game behind closed doors – aren’t enough. It’s sad that you can have a stadium of 40,000 people and there’s a small minority that are ruining it for the rest, but I think we need bigger sanctions … Sadly [racist abuse in football] seems to be getting more common.”

However, in spite of the despairing situation, Smalling remains hopeful. “We know that our voices and where we are in the game can influence people, and ultimately you want to set an example, especially to the younger generation … you want to change that mindset because I do think it’s a generational thing.” A general desire to positively impact future generations of fans and players has taken Smalling to his new role as a patron for education charity Football Beyond Borders (FBB), which uses football as an engagement tool to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, helping them to develop the skills, attitude and character to succeed in education, work and public life.

FBB was founded in Brixton, not far from where Smalling grew up, he’s been the face of its recent expansion into his adopted home, northwest England. “I’d seen a lot of FBB’s work with Nike, and was eventually introduced to Jasper Kain, the founder, down in Brixton and spent an afternoon there. It just felt like the perfect fit. Everyone knows school is tough. It’s tough socialising with other kids let alone concentrating and trying to progress on an educational route as well… so FBB using football as the source for bringing everyone together, I think it’s perfect, and something I was really keen to get involved with.”


Chris Smalling. Photograph: Adam Slama


Be it with his animal welfare activism, or his community engagement, it’s clear that Smalling has made it his purpose in recent years to be known as more than just a footballer. The “role model” tag is often wantonly attached to athletes, but it’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. “I think growing up I didn’t have any role models as such; as much as you look up to your family or your teacher… or a footballer you might think is a role model, but ultimately is just a good footballer.” He laughs, “I’d like to be known as a good footballer too, but mainly as a positive influence on anyone who knows my name. I used to think that it was my calling to play football, but ultimately, I want to be remembered as a good person, to be a role model. I think that’s my purpose, to spread as much good as possible and to be known as a good guy.”

As the football season gradually expires, he would be forgiven for looking ahead to the summer break. Smalling and his wife Sam are keen travellers, eschewing the typical footballer trip to the Hollywood Hills to spend their last two summers in Thailand, Vietnam and Peru. However, first comes the task of keeping Lionel Messi at bay over the course of two legs, in this April’s Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona. The questions is how does one prepare for facing arguably the greatest footballer to ever live? “I’ll prepare like I always do. I think it’s something that I relish; playing against the best is why I want to play football.”

When faced with a diminutive South American football God, there’s a certain expectation that, if you’re a 6ft4/6ft8 British centre-half, you’ll rough the little guy up early on. Nothing dangerous, of course, just a warning to not try anything funny. In football this act of roughing up is called “a straightener.” Having gotten to know Smalling, though, it’s safe to say that he’s an exception to these archaic tactics, and is obviously above such roughhousing, right? He looks surprised. “A straightener on Messi? Maybe just a little one,” and he cracks a smile, as if to say – never underestimate Chris Smalling.

by Charlie Navin-Holder


Photographer: ADAM SLAMA
Styling: KUSI KUBI
Photography assistants: MARCO PEREIRA and RUFAI AJALA
Talent: Chris Smalling

Look 1
All clothes: LOUIS VUITTON

Look 2
All clothes: PRADA

Look 3

All clothes: GIVENCHY