Cleverley: The patient virtuoso
After making his long-awaited England debut, Tom Cleverley again demonstrated that, for all the setbacks and frustration of his fledgling career to date, his talent is ultimately worth every second of the wait…
It doesn’t take a jaw-dropping introduction to make a lasting impression.
Wayne Rooney and Kiko Macheda opened vacuum-packed infamy with goalscoring United debuts, while Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes immediately showed glaring traits which would become their hallmarks for decades to come. But while they immediately took centre stage in their teens, Tom Cleverley has taken the long road to prominence.
Even his England bow against Italy – labelled ‘outstanding’ by ITV pundit and Reds legend Roy Keane – came at the third time of asking after earlier call-ups were curtailed by injury and, slightly surreally, the 2011 London riots. As he demonstrated with a devastatingly functional outing in Berne last night, Cleverley’s patience is invariably validated.
For years a prisoner in an unfledged physique which forced his deployment out of position and spawned a string of serious impact injuries, the Bradford-born schemer made his competitive debut 11 years after joining United, having embarked on three loan deals and four pre-season campaigns with the Reds.
“He’s had to be patient, ” admits Andy Cleverley, Tom’s father. “He’s waited, ridden the frustration of being slow to grow, stuck to United’s development plan for him and it’s all been worth it now that he’s broken into the first team setup. He’s worked so hard for this for most of his life.”
Graft has always been on the menu for Cleverley junior. At just four years old, he would partake in professional training drills with his father. Touch, control, pass. Both feet. Hardly boot camp, but still invaluable foundations for all that followed. This went on virtually every weeknight until Tom joined the United Academy in August, 2000.
Cleverley’s career path only deviated towards the Reds at the last minute, when it had been set to take him elsewhere. An outstanding member of Bradford City’s School of Excellence – who spotted him playing for the under-11s side of local team Eccleshill United at the age of seven – Tom was soon being circled by bigger sharks. Leeds and Blackburn had made him offers before United pounced.
“We got home from a family holiday there was a message on the answer machine from [United’s local recruitment officer] Derek Langley saying Manchester United wanted to sign Tom,” recalls Andy. “It took around a nanosecond for us to decide our next step!”
Halfway into a four-week trial at Carrington, Tom was offered terms to join the club and he went straight into United’s under-11s, climbing through the ranks year-by-year, usually as a full-back because of his diminutive stature, until he came to the under-16s. At this point, Cleverley began to suffer non-growing pains.
“It wasn’t that he was being bullied by bigger lads,” says Andy, “because he’s always been fearless. It was the running that got him down. He was being outrun by lads who were worse runners than him, just because they had much longer strides, and of course he couldn’t do anything about that.
“That used to frustrate him because he knew he was playing against lads who were inferior to him football-wise, but they were dominating him physically. He was genuinely tiny, and when the time came to move up to under-18s football, there was no way Tom was physically ready for it.”
That posed a problem to United’s coaching staff: sever ties with a player patently unprepared for the next step, or manufacture a situation to aid his progression. Fortunately, Tom had believers in high places.
“Both [Under-18s manager] Paul McGuinness and [former director of youth football] Jimmy Ryan never had any doubt of Tom as a footballer,” says Cleverley Senior. “They were absolutely convinced about his technical capability and Paul persevered with him. I think Paul stuck his neck out for Tom because he believed in him so much as a footballer. I’ve no doubt that if he was at any other club in the country, he’d have been released at 14 or 15 because he was genuinely tiny.”
“Sometimes you just get a feeling about people,” recalls McGuinness. “Tom was very dedicated. Even when he was very young, you could see he had good eyes. When you were talking, he was listening. His eyes were popping out of his head. He was staring at you, sucking it all in. Although he was not outstanding as a player at that stage, you could see he was bright.
“He had talent and was a lot smaller than everybody else but that desire hit you in the face. He wanted to learn. He’s a sensible boy and was willing to listen and do whatever you said. We went away to a tournament in Kenya when he was 16 and the way he went about things – on and off the field – showed that he was worth giving a chance to.”
McGuinness proposed that Tom be held back a year and remain an Academy student, rather than follow the rest of his age band into the 2006 Academy intake. Though akin to repeating a year at school, the youngster shrugged off any embarrassment.
“He was already close mates with Danny Drinkwater and Danny Welbeck, so dropping down a year and playing with his mates didn’t faze him too much,” says Andy. “That season did him the world of good in terms of giving him confidence.”
Belatedly, Tom’s body began to match his mind’s readiness. He became an integral part of McGuinness’ under-18s in 2006/07, and was an ever-present in United’s FA Youth Cup run until he suffered a broken leg before the semi-final, second leg. That, at a time when his body was acclimatising to its own substantial changes, would provide the first instalment of niggling misfortune with impact injuries.
He would play just once more for the under-18s before making the step up to the Reserves. In 2008, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge of the second string, began fielding Cleverley in midfield and imbibed him with self-confidence. “Ole gave Tom the belief that he could make it to the top,” says Cleverley Senior. A rip-roaring opening to the season convinced United’s coaches that Tom was ready for competitive league football.
He joined Nigel Pearson’s Leicester City in early 2009 for a successful 10-week spell latterly soured by a dislocated shoulder. It proved almost a dress rehearsal for his full-season loan at Watford in 2009/10, where knee ligament damage – suffered amid a tangle with West Brom behemoth Jonas Olsson – couldn’t stop the midfielder romping to victory in the Hornets’ Player of the Year voting.
“That season was an unbelievable experience for him,” says Andy. “The first half of the season was sensational. He scored on his debut against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. I’m a Forest fan and I was in the visitors’ section jumping up and down like a lunatic celebrating a goal against my team. My old man would have turned in his grave!
“But he kept scoring and had eight goals in his first sixteen games. The thinness of the squad began to show, though, and they slipped down the table, but even that was a good education for him – I remember Tom saying at the time that nobody wanted relegation on their CV.”
Cleverley returned to United and, for the third summer in succession, played a goalscoring role in the first team’s pre-season tour. When he failed to make the campaign’s first five squads, however, the youngster implored Sir Alex Ferguson to sanction a loan deal with Wigan, a move which ultimately benefited all parties as the Latics stayed in the top flight and Tom savoured a season of Premier League experience.
Another impressive contribution to the Reds’ 2011 US Tour suggested that he was ready for first team involvement; an inkling confirmed when he flipped the Community Shield on its head, starring as a proactive hub of industry as United came from two goals down to triumph.
The midfielder’s first four Premier League outings whet the collective appetite, until a lunging challenge from Bolton’s Kevin Davies damaged his ankle ligaments and ruled him out for six weeks. The legacy of that tackle was aggravated in his next start, at Everton, and he limped from the fray for almost four months.
Cleverley returned to full fitness at a time when the team was going full pelt to retain the Premier League title, restricting him to substitute cameos until the end of the campaign. As breakthrough seasons go, 2011/12 was a bittersweet campaign for the midfielder.
In keeping with his career to date, setbacks and frustration rotated with brilliance and acclaim, but the negatives were used to galvanise the positives. Small but tough. Modest but confident. Eager but calm. Nothing to grab headlines, merely a soothing fluency in the basics of touch, control, passing and movement.
Crucially, for all his ability, Tom Cleverley underpins his talent with level-headed work ethic and patience. This young man’s tale has been a long time in the telling, but the next few chapters should be well worth the wait.