It’s probably a little over exaggerative to deem any 23-year-old as facing a defining season in the Barclays Premier League next term. And for a player as prodigiously talented as Tom Cleverley, it’s hard to see how he could possibly fail to have a long and fruitful career in the top tier of English football. But quite how high a level he is set to play, could well be shaped by his performances in the coming few months.
Interest in the Team GB football team felt relatively muted; almost something as an afterthought, throughout it’s duration during the Olympic games. But whether you got caught up in the rest of the team’s gold rush or simply didn’t give enough of a monkeys to tune in, Tom Cleverley’s participation in the team was a real bonus point. He didn’t quite set the world on fire under Stuart Pearce’s summer stewardship, but perhaps more importantly, he reminded the world that he’s still here.
Because last season was a tough one for the Basingstoke born midfielder. If you can cast your mind’s back to this time last year, the talk around Old Trafford was that the artistry of Wesley Sneijder was set to grace the Theatre of Dreams. It was thought that the Dutchman could plug the Paul Scholes shaped hole that had emerged in Sir Alex Ferguson’s midfield. The transfer wasn’t to be, but after a few weeks, it didn’t feel like it mattered. That was down in no small part to Cleverley’s emergence.
Supporters were unsure of what sort of fate awaited Cleverley as he returned to Manchester, following a successful loan spell at Wigan the term before. He’d shown enough at Wigan to suggest he had a bright future ahead of him at this level, but perhaps some were unsure about his prospects in the United first team. Under Roberto Martinez he had prospered in a team playing the right brand of football, even if at times it seemed to blow up in their face. Cleverley was at the cusp of much of Wigan’s best football and the 2010-11 term demonstrated an exquisite range of passing and a superb sense of awareness in midfield.
His performances didn’t go unnoticed, either, and more than one club courted Cleverley’s signature last summer. But most importantly for Cleverley, Fergie had sat up and took notice. The United supremo has always rated Cleverley, almost as something of a protégé, since he joined the club as an 11-year old in 2000. It was no accident that he went on loan to a team that played the brand of football that Martinez employs. Cleverley was developing and Ferguson was happy to breed him into the United first team during last summer’s pre-season.
From there, Cleverley’s United career began to solidify and he set about building some pretty solid foundations for the new season. His performance in a marquee friendly against the vaunted stars of Barcelona, prompted Ferguson to denote him as their most impressive player and he caught the eye further with an impressive performance in the Community Shield victory over Manchester City. It felt as if Cleverley had done enough during that summer to earn himself a shot at the big time- Ferguson certainly seemed to show the faith.
And as the 2011-12 term got into full swing, Cleverley was deployed as one of United’s first choice central midfielders. United’s start may not have been too representative of what was to come for the rest of the season, but for the opening run of fixtures, they felt unplayable. The football that was played in their first four games was at times, scintillating and Cleverley was at the centre of it pulling the strings. A steady win at West Brom was followed by a 3-0 hammering of Tottenham Hotspur and the now immortal 8-2 victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford. The doubts that surrounded Cleverley’s place in the Manchester Untied first team were subsiding and Ferguson’s backing of the youngster was vindicated.
Although misfortune often seems to strike at the cruelest of times in football and unfortunately for Cleverley, Kevin Davies brought his flying start to a crunching end in United’s 5-0 thrashing of Bolton Wanderers. The cult Bolton hero had focused his pre-match crosshairs on the harassment of David de Gea, but a cynical eighth minute slide saw him bring his game to Tom Cleverley instead. The result was a broken foot and the consequence was United’s fledgling midfield talents’ season in tatters.
His league comeback against Everton at the end of October saw him carry on where he left on and he again put in a superb performance in the heart of the midfield but it was sadly the last time he’d start in the league for the Red Devils all season. His foot injury resurfaced and his breakthrough season was as good as over. A few substitute appearances beckoned at the back end of the season and he finished with 15 appearances in all competitions.
Cleverley knows that he has to start the season in a similar vein to last season. No one can ever account for injuries, but football is a sport with a short memory and a fickle mind. Nick Powell might not make a breakthrough this term, but he is one more prospect that Cleverley has to compete with. If he’s unable to take the opportunity in United’s midfield, then soon enough, someone else will. But Cleverley seems determined to break back into Sir Alex’s plans.
Speaking in Berne ahead of England’s friendly with Italy, which he’s in with a shout of starting for, Cleverley said:
“Sometimes you can get frustrated and think, ‘I’ve missed this, I’ve missed that’, but at the end of the day I was 30 seconds from winning my first Premier League winners’ medal, which would have been nice.
“These things (injuries) happen and it’s how you bounce back from them. There’s still a lot I can achieve in my career and I’m not going to let a bad four or five months change that.”
Cleverley is saying the right things and displaying the sort of attitude at temperament that will see a player succeed at Old Trafford. Manchester United have invested too much time in Cleverley to let him become an afterthought,, but however unlucky he may have been last season, he can’t afford another long spell out on the sidelines.
He’s already shown enough glimpses to suggest that he has what it takes to make an impact for Manchester United at the highest level. Now it’s time for him to repeat the trick of last season, hopefully, for a more extended period.
Can Tom Cleverley have a similar impact to what he had at the start of last season? Or do you think that he’ll struggle to get back into this United side? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and bat me all of your views.