The curtain-raiser for the new season was halfway through and Manchester City had eased into a comfortable 2-0 lead, with every prospect of denying their cross-city rivals from Old Trafford any chance of a sniff of comeback. During the break however, Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps considering there was little to lose, decided to throw a young Tom Cleverley into the fray for the second period. When the referee brought the game to an end, United had turned the tables and won 3-2, with the young midfielder, fresh from a season-long loan period at Wigan Athletic the star turn.
A couple of weeks later Cleverley was selected by Roy Hodgson for the England squad. For a player who a few short months earlier had been toiling away in a Wigan Athletic midfield fighting against relegation, and who was about as far from an England call up as it was possible for an English premier League player to be, to call the rise in fortunes meteoric is probably a bit of an understatement. Was it a case of selecting the team shirt rather than the player? Maybe. Was it all too much, too young? Perhaps.
Potentially promoted ahead of time, Cleverley quickly came to be recognised as much of what was wrong with United’s midfield. Where once there had been the steel of Keane, and the craft of Scholes, Cleverley appeared a poor substitute for either. Nevertheless, the opening period of the 2011-12 season presaged by the virtuoso cameo at Wembley appeared to herald a new red dawn for United. The opening five games produced no less 18 goals with Cleverley prompting effectively from the team’s engine room. An injury then forced the young player out of the team, and progress stalled. After being pushed back into playing too early, Cleverley broke down again, and was out for some four months.
Whether it was down to him or his advisors, in the time off the pitch a website was produced for him, and a clothing range under the tag of ‘TC23’ was launched. For a 22 year-old novice it was way ahead of the curve, and resulted in him picking up the less-than-affectionate nickname of ‘The Brand’ back at the club. The following year he played 32 times for the first team and won a Premier League winner’s medal. It was the top of the hill however.
As David Moyes shifted uncomfortably in a manager’s seat that seemed too big for him, not many of the United squad progressed, and despite playing several games under the new regime, Cleverley fitted into that box nicely. When things turn against you, it can be a rapid descent. Around this time last year, there was even an online campaign to ensure that Cleverley wasn’t selected for the national squad. Shortly afterwards, the player was quoted as admitting, “I am not a player who’s going to beat three or four people and stick it in the top corner or go round tackling people like Roy Keane.” Nobody was likely to dispute the assessment, but it seemed a cry from the heart of a young player who had become lost in a swirl of hype and publicity.
With just a season left on his contract, and Louis van Gaal now ensconced at old Trafford, Cleverley was offered a chance to revive his career with a loan to Aston Villa. With the move running the length of his remaining contract at Old Trafford, it didn’t take a whole heap of insight to work that Cleverley’s time with United was probably done. His time working under Paul Lambert however has not been an ideal recuperation, as Villa have struggled around the lower reaches of the league table.
Now-departed manager, Lambert has been quick to defend the player who received ironic cheers when he was substituted against Chelsea. “Tom is one of these guys who never hides from the ball. I never criticise anybody for looking for the ball if they make a mistake. Tom never hides. He gives it everything he has got, everything to try to do well. He wants to do well here and sometimes that is part and parcel of football. It is not nice to hear.”
Of course it isn’t, and for a player low on confidence, the booing can hardly be of any help. Lambert went on to say that, “Tom has played in massive games, he is no novice. Confidence goes when you don’t want to take the ball. He has got confidence, it is nothing to do with hiding from the ball, the boy takes the ball and gives everything he has got. He may be trying too hard which can go against you. He keeps on going with the ball and that is a big testament.” The question however will be raised as to where the player, once seen as indispensable at Old Trafford will end up.
Rumours abound that during his brief tenure as assistant to Lambert, former United legend Roy Keane, once sought out Cleverley for what is described in diplomatic circles as a ‘full and frank exchange of views’ by knocking on his door. It’s understood that the player declined to answer.
When the season closes however, the door to the future must be opened. Will Cleverley be offered a contract at Villa Park, and if so, will he take it. With Lambert now out of the door, the new man in charge may view the value of Cleverley differently. Another intriguing possibility is that a move to Everton, under Roberto Martinez, who showed so much faith in him whilst the pair were together at Wigan may appeal. Whichever is the case, it’s unlikely that Cleverley will don the red of Manchester united again. For a player who rose so high, so quickly, and then fell back to earth, a wise choice is required.