In an age when 18 year olds can command seven figure sums and even a 21 year-old can be considered past his best, it’s almost a rarity to see a player develop from almost not good enough to make it, to the brink of the England set up.
That’s exactly what happened with a certain Thomas William Cleverley, born in Basingstoke 22 years ago. After joining Bradford City’s academy he left to come to United at the age of 15. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the young midfielder however, as at the age of 16 when his team mates were given scholarships, Cleverley was put on a different scheme where he was asked to split his time between United and school, mainly because the club weren’t fully confident he’d make it.
Cleverley, who even now isn’t the tallest player, was a lot smaller than the other youngsters and has admitted it was hard for him at the time due to his size. They say the cream always rises though- regardless of size- and sure enough Cleverley managed to earn himself a place in United’s under 18 side in the 2005/06 season. The following season though, Cleverley suffered an injury that saw him ruled out for seven months, at a time when he’d also made an impression on the reserve side.
Never one to be knocked without getting back up, Cleverley emerged in the 2007/08 season as a reserve team player to take notice of and was subsequently ‘rewarded’ the following season with a loan spell at League One Leicester- after he’d made his United debut during the club’s tour of South Africa, bagging a goal against the Indie band Kaizer Chiefs who were too busy singing to mark him properly.
It was at The Walkers Stadium that the nineteen year old Cleverley began to show the world what he was capable of with two goals and three assists in ten starts not to be sniffed at, unfortunately a shoulder inury shortened his loan spell although he did receive a League One winner’s medal.
Next season would hold the real test for Cleverley has he was thrown into the firepit that is the Championship with stuggling Watford. Cleverley didn’t so much survive as positively shine with a series of impressive displays plus eleven goals and five assists proving he was more than equipped for the tough physicality of one of footballs toughest leagues.
Cleverley himself noted in an interview last season:
“The hostility of places like Millwall and Leeds toughens you up,”
“I went from a boy to a man in the Championship.”
The Watford fans certainly agreed making him their player of the season.
Many Reds, myself included thought Cleverley had done enough to earn himself a place in United’s squad, not least after his superb displays in the clubs US tour of 2010 bagging two goals in the process.
Like much of Cleverley’s career it wasn’t going to be that easy and he’d have to spend another season on loan, this time at Premiership Wigan. At the time, I commented that hopefully Wigan could do for Cleverley what Bolton did for Jack Wilshere, in giving him a taste of Premier League football at a struggling club where he’d be one of the side’s key midfielders.
Cleverley did what he’s always done, rising to the occasion and despite an injury mid-season which kept him out for a couple of months, he played a vital part in keeping the Pie Eaters in the top flight, bagging three goals and two assists but more importantly giving them a real bit of class in the centre of the park, or out wide, depending on where he was deployed.
In the Summer Cleverley played twice for the England in the European Championships before coming on in the second half of the Community Shield and having an ‘absolute worldy’ as United came from 2-0 down to beat City 3-2.
Many Reds actually believe United don’t need to pursue Sneijder, or Nasri for that matter due to the quality that Cleverley has shown, an opinion I’ve shared for many months.
Sir Alex Ferguson has already praised Cleverley and indicated his faith in him, not bad for lad once told to stay in school as he might not make it in the professional game.