by Daisy Cutter
Once upon a time, not very long ago, a Manchester United youth trainee showed such considerable promise that Sir Alex Ferguson earmarked him as a future first team regular. The player’s range of passing allied with a ferreting style of all-action midfield play often gained him the headlines in youth team match reports but it was the poise and temperament that set him aside from contemporaries and tagged him as a real star in the making.
His progress was monitored closely. He was schooled in the ways, traditions and expectations of the club. He was groomed for the top in the same meticulous and patient manner that was afforded the class of 92.
In January 2009, following a handful of League Cup appearances and pre-season friendlies, Tom Cleverley was now 19 years of age and at a crucial stage of his development where further reserve action would only risk stagnation. So Ferguson copied the successful Beckham-to-Preston formula and sent his young prospect – who he was already viewing as the long-term successor to the aging Scholes – to a Championship side – Leicester – to accrue invaluable game and life experience. Cleverley excelled until a shoulder injury ended his stint there prematurely but that summer he was farmed out to Watford and it was here that the boy from Basingstoke truly shined, rubberstamping his potential with a series of outstanding displays that eventually saw him voted Player of the Season.
Once he returned to Old Trafford it was widely expected Cleverley would be assimilated into the United squad and given ample opportunity to fulfil his destiny. This assumption was given further credence after he played such an influential part in the club’s pre-season tour of North America and after all, wasn’t David Beckham – at this identical juncture – thrown in with the first team legends and given licence to float goal-bound efforts from the halfway line?
Yet to the surprise of many he was again loaned out, this time to nearby Wigan. Why was this? Despite proving his credentials in the Championship did Ferguson privately hold doubts as to the player’s ability to impose himself in the top flight? Certainly a full campaign with the perennial relegation battlers who favoured open, passing football would expose any flaws in Cleverley’s make-up or conversely reveal his fortitude to show not hide when things got tough.
Perhaps the decision was based around Scholes letting on to his gaffer that this was going to be his final hooray in the big time. Let the ginger nugget pull the strings for one last season whilst his pretender to his crown acclimatised to the Premier League.
Whatever the reasoning it certainly worked, to an extent at least. Scholes put together a run of early masterclasses that had the pundits purring while his usurper-to-be quickly established himself as an integral creative force for the Latics and although the plan unravelled towards the season’s close (with Scholes fading badly and yet another injury striking Cleverley) United secured their twelfth title and the stage was now set for Tom.
It was a stage he stormed three months later in the Community Shield, coming on as a second half substitute with the Reds two down to City. Cleverley duly hauled and conducted his side to an unlikely victory with 45 minutes of energetic fizz their midfield had arguably lacked for too long and plaudits rightfully landed at his feet though with this being Manchester United it only took a few more impressive outings before the praise became lavishly excessive, not to mention a frankly underserved England call-up.
Possibly it was because of this hype and hyperbole that is routinely heaped upon his young starlets that Ferguson refused to fast-track his new prodigy. Perhaps this also explains the additional and unexpected loan to Wigan?
Whatever the truth however nobody could have foreseen what occurred next, a chance denied for the player to ride out the overkill or temper it with an inevitable loss of form. Instead injuries struck once more, this time almost back-to-back, which postponed his ascendancy until 2012/13. Worse yet, while the lad who had briefly provided United’s engine room with spritely, purposeful running was lying on a treatment table his replacements in there looked one-dimensional and sluggish, to such an extent that Scholes was required to forego his hard-boiled sweets and Bargain Hunt and come out of retirement.
Even with the maestro’s return however United looked unquestionably lacking centrally and in Cleverley’s absence his importance and reputation grew. Ferguson’s decision to once again eschew a signing in the Modric or Moutinho mould only propagated Cleverley’s standing further and with the story now up to the present the question must be asked – is there substance to the narrative of Cleverley’s rise to renown or is it ultimately a fairytale?
Certainly City supporters delight in referring to him with sarcastic relish as the ‘new Zidane’, a jibe aimed not at the player’s limitations so much as United fans’ hysterical over-evaluation of him.
But countering this are effusive references from some of the shrewdest names in the professional game.
Personally I would never dream of claiming my judgement of a player is better than anyone else’s but nor would I ever feel inferior in offering it. And after seeing Tom Cleverley on numerous occasions….I just don’t know.
At his best he possesses a waspish intent and always has the intelligence to recognise when to play it simple or venture with ambition: he is equally comfortable – and effective – cruising in second or revving through the gears in high-octane fashion. But crucially, all-too-rarely, have I seen him be the gear-changer and worse still has a tendency to lapse into anonymity. I recall an England Under 21 game from last summer that I was obliged to review for a publication. In typically amateurish manner I returned from the pub late and missed the team line-ups so had to resort to jotting down each player as he came into view. For forty minutes I had ten names down with a mysterious number 7 who occasionally flitted across the screen but was never mentioned by the commentator. It was of course Cleverley.
With the absence of Frank Lampard for the forthcoming international double-header qualifiers it offers perhaps the best chance yet to determine the legitimacy of Cleverley’s stature. To solve the enigma that persists on whether he is the future superstar of United and England or simply a very good player hyped hopelessly beyond his talents. I’m guessing they won’t though. I’m anticipating yet more flashes amidst the ordinary that will prolong the uncertainty.
Last week’s sublime effort against Newcastle should have gone some way to resolving the issue but typically – and entirely appropriately – it was a long-range curler that prompted doubt. Was it meant or was it a deep cross that got lucky?
The only thing I’m sure of is that, as long as the player avoids those cursed injuries, we will know much more by this season’s end. Cleverley will have finally revealed his hand.
Ferguson believes he is holding an ace of diamonds. Or is it a costly bluff?