“If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in!”
The announcement of the latest England squad saw national coach Gareth Southgate take on the role of a bouncer at the exclusive Three Lions club, with the doors to St George’s Park closed to anyone without an invitation.
Among those to have been left outside on the pavement was Manchester United defender Chris Smalling, with the likes of Joe Gomez, Harry Maguire and Michael Keane having edged ahead of him in the queue.
Ordinarily, exclusion from a friendly party would be no cause for concern, with such events intended to be experimental as those on the fringes of the fold are presented with an opportunity to grace the grandest of stages.
In Smalling’s case, though, the decision to leave him off the guest list feels more like a snub than rest or rotation.
In this instance, his omission appears to not be an issue of name, but one of his face, or more specifically his feet, not fitting.
Southgate said when quizzed on the decision to overlook Smalling: “I have huge respect for Chris. He’s a player who’s obviously playing at a big club. We want to play a certain way. The players we’ve brought in we want to see using the ball from the back and building up in a certain way. That’s a style I want to have a look at. There are some young players for whom this is a good opportunity.”
The problem here is that the 27-year-old does not fit the mould of how England want to play, seemingly in the present and future.
With ball-playing defenders very much in vogue, old fashioned ‘kick it and head it’ centre-halves are being phased out as a new generation emerges – with the influence of prominent figures such as Pep Guardiola stretching well beyond Barcelona, Munich and Manchester.
Smalling, it could be argued, is paying the price for failing to keep up with the Joneses (and the Stoneses, Cahills and Baillys).
When compared to his direct competition, in the areas of the game which are taking on ever-greater importance, the United man finds himself behind John Stones – the poster boy for modern day English defenders – Gary Cahill and club colleague Phil Jones.
Smalling’s passing accuracy places him fourth on a list of four, as does his success rate inside his own half – where he spends the most time on the ball – and his tackle success, while his error count since moving to Old Trafford has reached double figures.
It is not just internationally that he is being outdone either, with his numbers at United since 2010 also placing him some way down the charts.
Of those he has worked with since joining the Red Devils, only the more rugged talents of Nemanja Vidic and Marcos Rojo sit below him in the passing accuracy stakes, while he sits dead last when it comes to tackle success and top of an unwanted pile on error count.
Rio Ferdinand, Daley Blind, Jones, Jonny Evans and Eric Bailly have all proved to be better on the ball, and at winning it back, with United seeking to head in a similar direction to England – with Victor Lindelof acquired to help out on that front, and the promise of more big-money arrivals to come if the Swede fails to shake off his early struggles.
There has already been talk of Smalling being ushered towards the Old Trafford exits – with links to the likes of Stoke, West Brom and Crystal Palace emerging over the summer – while Mourinho publicly queried his commitment to the cause in 2016-17 .
The Portuguese told reporters while reviewing a foot complaint: "Smalling doesn't feel that he can play 100 per cent with his pain. For the team, you have to do anything. There is a difference between the brave, who want to play at any cost, and the ones for whom a little pain can make a difference.”
In the space of 12 months Smalling has seen his value questioned by his bosses for club and country, which does not bode well.
He has become more Hollyoaks than Hollywood in the eyes of those who really matter, with there a very real threat that a man who has grown accustomed to sipping champagne among the A-list could find himself on the other side of the velvet rope if his social standing continues to slide.