Guest Author: Doron
Follow Doron on Twitter
After a 14 year association with Manchester United, Tom Cleverley has taken his first steps towards leaving the club to further his career elsewhere, initially on loan with Aston Villa. His departure is more likely to be greeted with cheers rather than tears by the majority of United fans, but, in truth, what became of his career at Old Trafford is incredibly unfortunate.
A great deal was written about Cleverley’s youth career when he inititally broke into United’s first team, however, a quick recap sets the scene nicely and provides good insight into his character.
There is little doubt that many of United’s fans today would have been angry that he was even appearing for the U18 side in the 2005/06 season. A small, weak player, used often as a fullback, there appeared little reason for United to want to keep him on as a scholar and then, later, a professional. Those who watched him a bit closer talked of a technically sound player, a hard worker who was eager to learn. Indeed there are similarities between him and Jesse Lingard (amongst others), and United have always been open to retaining players who are either small or late developers, as their faith in Paul Scholes and David Beckham, respectively, can attest.
A long injury lay-off aged 17 wasn’t enough to derail him and he returned in 2007 to become an important player for the Reserve side. Still small and now in a more advanced role, he was made captain of the Reserve side aged 18 and was rewarded with a first team appearance on the pre-season tour of 2008, in which he scored. By January 2009 the club felt he was ready to take the next step in his development and he went on loan to League 1 side, Leicester City.
Although his loan spell at Leicester ended early due to injury, he played his part in helping them to be crowned League 1 Champions and for the second season running was nominated for United’s Reserve team player of the year award. This marked great progress for a player that at this point, had never been capped by his country at any youth level. At this stage, he had still remained firmly under the radar.
During the following season, the 2009/10 campaign, a wider audience started to take note. Watford were expected to struggle having had to sell numerous players and Cleverley, with no experience at Championship level, was brought in on loan to play at the heart of a youthful side.
The Watford loan is probably best remembered for his goals, one every three games, but there was much more to it than simply putting the ball in the net. He played with freedom and pace, a quick one-touch style that, along with Lansbury and the talented Don Cowie, ensured Watford were entertaining to watch for a struggling side. As at Leicester, the loan spell was cut short due to injury but he had done enough to help Watford avoid relegation and win their player of the year award. He was their second highest scorer, with eleven goals to his name, and one of only three players to score more than five goals in the season.
He returned to United full of confidence and as a member of England’s U21 side. Pre-season with United couldn’t have gone better, and although at one point it seemed he would stay and be part of the first team squad, he was eventually sent on loan to gain Premier League experience with Wigan Athletic. It would be another successful loan spell and, for the second season running, he helped his adopted side avoid relegation.
September 2011 – Bolton away
Along with Welbeck, Jones and Smalling, Cleverley was set to become a key part of a new-look, younger, fresher, quicker United side for the 2011/12 season. It started well as he played his part in possibly the best goal United have scored for many years; a move of intricate one touch football around the penalty area that finished with Nani scoring, as United went on to beat rivals, Manchester City, in the Charity Shield. That goal transpired to be little more than a tease as United struggled to replicate that kind of football throughout the season, despite starting with convincing wins over Spurs, Arsenal and Bolton – the latter two thrashed.
That game against Bolton was an important landmark for Cleverley’s career at United, for all the wrong reasons. Kevin Davies scythed through him early on and, despite attempting to continue, Cleverley’s match, and good start to the season, was over. The damage was to ligaments in his foot – the impact of which is still felt today.
Understanding injuries as people who don’t play the game is incredibly difficult. I am lucky to have had some exposure (via my work) to athletes who have suffered injuries of varying severity. It is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one; the constant worrying about whether the injury will fully heal or whether the body will forever be scarred, and the difficulty of finding the motivation to go through all the rehabilitation on your own when your team-mates are going about life as normal. It’s too easy to assume that they should simply ‘deal with it’ because they earn a lot of money.
Cleverley had been through this process before, with injuries suffered at youth level and out on loan, but it was different on this occasion. This time, he had to come back at the highest level, and into a Manchester United side whose central midfield had been decimated. Fletcher was ill; Anderson, like Cleverley, started well but had also suffered injuries; it had been left to Scholes, returning from retirement, and Giggs, to partner Carrick in the middle.
On his league return away to Everton he was outstanding but suffered another injury in that game and by the time he returned again, United were low on confidence, surrendering an eight point lead to allow their neighbours to win the title. By the end of the season, one that had started so brightly, Cleverley had managed to start just five league games, with Carrick the sole central midfielder to start more than fifteen.
Kevin Davies’ tackle in early September had done more than derail Cleverley’s season; it shattered his confidence and marked the point at which the player began to lose his vitality. Although it had only been a few games at the start of the 2011/12 season prior to his injury, he (and Anderson) had taken hold of them and wanted the ball. He was a major reason why United had played such positive football. That player, sadly, did not return, or at least not on a regular basis. Instead, he became associated with ‘crab’ football, constantly shifting the ball sideways and, United fans would bemoan, never taking risk. At times this was unfair; United’s midfield had become puritanically functional, with clear instructions to get the ball out to the wide players. However, statistically, the fans had a point, and of the central players, Cleverley played the fewest forward passes. With the pressure mounting on United’s increasingly desolate midfield, the safest option for all the midfielders tended to be the least adventurous and with that the pressure and discontent from supporters only continued to rise.
To many, the player built up unfairly as the next great central midfielder came to symbolise United’s demise in central midfield. Having barely had time to adjust to games in the Premier League for United due to injuries in the 2011/12 season, Cleverley was thrown in at the deep end the following season and seemed to hide from physical situations, maybe for fear of injury again. The pressure of playing for United is enormous, some can hack it and some can’t.
Despite United’s title success in 2012/13 there was no sense that Cleverley had improved. Carrick had his best campaign for United and all the football went through him. In previous loan spells, Cleverley had been best when he’d been the player everyone looked to in the middle but at United, this wasn’t the case. This lack of importance encouraged him to take the easy option and defer to seniority as Carrick was the ‘out-ball’. With Rooney, van Persie and Hernandez contributing nearly 50 league goals between them, there was no added pressure on the central midfielders to weigh in with goals. Instead, they merely had to keep things ticking over.
United had become about function rather than flamboyance. Players weren’t necessarily encouraged to express themselves and with City as reigning champions, winning by any means was the only fundamental requirement. Whilst this method brought success with the title returning to the red half of Manchester, it wasn’t the right platform for Cleverley to improve as a player and by the end of the season, he had regressed to the role of bit-part player having been a regular during the earlier months of the campaign.
The David Moyes shambles of 2013/14 saw Cleverley become one of the main players to take flak. He had not improved and was part of a midfield that yet again wasn’t encouraged to play at a quick tempo; as a result, his performances in a side bereft of confidence were unsurprisingly poor. By now he no longer got into goalscoring positions or looked to be a creative spark and instead was, at best, a stable link-man who struggled against stronger opponents in a two-man midfield. It reached the point where he simply had almost no positive impact on games and was unrecognisable from the ambitious and confident player who’d done so well a few years earlier out on loan.
This move, assuming it’s a stop-gap between United and a permanent move elsewhere, is a chance for him to reluctantly draw a line under his United career. He’s become the butt of many jokes with a worrying number of United fans seriously believing he’s not even good enough for the Premier League. He needs to rediscover his inner belief and play regularly with freedom to express himself, potentially in a three man midfield. In the right team he may be able to unlock the Cleverley we briefly saw in August/September 2011 and thrive again.
Clearly, for both Manchester United and Tom Cleverley himself this is the right decision; his confidence is shot and United need a different type of player in midfield, especially as in the current plight they cannot afford any passengers. However, what has become of him was to some extent not his own doing – ill-timed injuries; playing under two managers who favoured systems focused on central solidity with little scope for ambition; and the abuse from fans, all undoubtedly affected him. He is a good, hard-working professional who can at least leave having captained United; even though it was on a pre-season tour, this was something he was incredibly proud of.
The victories as a younger player to overcome injuries and being small, the loan successes and the bright start in the first team were no fluke. I hope he isn’t damaged beyond repair and that his new manager can coax some of the old Cleverley back again. If they do, he’ll be back in the England team before long and United fans may just wonder what could have been if it wasn’t for Kevin Davies or if style had been favoured over substance and functionality in a midfield supplemented by better (or indeed any) signings.
Finally, those rejoicing at his departure have lost sight of what their football club represents. For all United’s success, it is the ability to bring players through from the academy to first team that is the most long-standing. On this basis, Tom Cleverley is a great success who, in different circumstances, could have had a career as a squad player at United for a long time, following the likes of O’Shea, Brown, Fletcher etc in recent years – players who have been key to the success that supporters demand. As it stands, he has ironically followed the same United career path as Darron Gibson, the man whose place in the squad he took; promising youngster that the fans want to see involved, turned scapegoat, forced off social media by said fans and whose exit is widely celebrated. A player who has been at the club for fourteen years deserves better than that.
Many thanks to @KarateJesus82 for helping to edit this!