Tom Cleverley interview: Watford's 'leader' on the lessons that shaped his career ahead of Manchester United reunion
From a 'rocket' by Ferguson, playing with Scholes, loan spells and his moves to Everton and now Watford, the English midfielder talks to Andy Mitten about his football journey and how it has developed him as a man and footballer.
It has not been a bad seven days for Watford Football Club.
Manager Marco Silva stayed in the role and his team defeated the Uniteds of West Ham and Newcastle 2-0 and 3-0 respectively.
Beating a third - second placed Manchester United - at Vicarage Road on Tuesday night will be a bigger ask, but the task will be helped by Silva remaining at the club which resisted all Everton’s approaches.
Watford’s frequent managerial changes make for an unusual model but it is one that is working, for the team from a town of only 90,000 are eighth in the Premier League table.
Watford score plenty – and concede plenty, too – but they have surprised many by occupying the middle of the Premier League since their 2015 promotion.
Their consistency and stability comes from players like midfielder Tom Cleverley, one of their best performers.
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Cleverley, 28, will play against his former club United because, like another former United midfielder Darren Fletcher, he plays every week.
Cleverley has been given 90 minutes in every Watford league game this season except in the 6-0 defeat against a Manchester City side he described as the best in the league. He was taken off for the last 25 minutes as City’s midfielders passed around him.
He is consistent, playing at the base of the Watford midfield. Though goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes is the team captain, Cleverley is Silva’s effective leader.
He is the one he called over for a last minute word as the teams prepared to kick-off at St James’ Park on Saturday, the one referees speak to when they want to get a message to Watford players.
“I don’t shout and scream all the time,” he told The National, “but I do communicate on the field and the manager trusts me to do that.
"I’m happy to be on the field, happy to be at Watford and I love playing every week in the Premier League.
"If you’re happy and confident then it brings the best out of you. We’ve got good players here and a good manager. We’re not aiming to survive and stay up, we’re aiming for a top 10 finish.”
It is Cleverley’s second spell at the club.
“The first time I played at Watford, I arrived as a boy and went back to Manchester a man,” explained the side's No 8 of a loan in 2009-10, having excelled for third tier Leicester City the previous season.
“I’d never cooked or washed clothes before. I looked at the empty kitchen in my flat and didn’t know what to do.
"The fitness guy at Watford came round to show me how to cook some simple chicken and pasta dishes. Nothing too complex, but it worked.
"Becoming more independent put me in the real world and that was a side of going out on loan that people don’t always understand.
"Watford were a Championship club then, but it was the right level for me at that time. I improved as a player and started to score more goals.
“I loved going to hostile places like Millwall. We also played Leeds away in the cup. I was a Bradford lad contracted for Man United.
"You can’t get a worse combination at Leeds and I got a lot of abuse, especially when I took corners. It didn’t bother me, I saw it as an experience.”
Cleverley was voted player of the year at Vicarage Road and Watford fans remembered the player who was spotted by Manchester United in his home city of Bradford aged 11, scoring a hat-trick playing for Bradford boys against rivals Huddersfield.
That was the start of a 13-year long association with United, in which he broke into the first team, played 79 games and won the first of 13 England caps.
Cleverley never reached the levels of his hero David Beckham, but there are not too many Englishmen who play consistently for clubs like Manchester United, Wigan Athletic Aston Villa, Everton and Watford in the Premier League for the best part of a decade. Some worked out better than others.
“To play for United was a massive honour and something I’ll be proud about telling my children,” he said. “I didn’t play a couple of times, I played almost 80 games in the best team in the country, one of the top three biggest clubs in the world. I’m very proud of that.”
Cleverley learned in good company.
“Players like Paul Scholes,” he said. “I’d sometimes just watch him because you don’t get much off him or even get near him.”
Though still a youth player, he can remember former United captain Roy Keane well.
“When I was in the reserves, just breaking through, he’d come back from injuries,” he recalled. “Roy hated losing, he was a winner, a perfectionist.”
Alex Ferguson, who took to Cleverley and insisted that he stayed at Old Trafford when others questioned if he would be big enough to play top football, described Cleverley as a “United type footballer, who likes to pass and move. He’s hungry and is a serious professional who has made sacrifices to succeed.”
Cleverley once made the mistake of answering Ferguson back.
"He gave me a rocket after an FA Cup match I 2013,” he said. “I stupidly answered him back.
"I wouldn’t do that again. He was right, too. I didn’t see how lucky I was at the time, a young player playing with all these legends and under the best manager in this country. The things he told me make sense now, like where we were going on a Saturday night and who we were seen with.”
As United started to lurch post Ferguson, Cleverley became a focus for supporter frustration in 2013-14.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “I made mistakes, not just on the pitch, but off it. You let things affect you but it gives you a thicker skin. I also learned to be able to switch off and spend time with my family.”
Cleverley also switched off his Twitter account with 1.5 million followers and his personal website. He was allowed to leave United in 2014 by Louis van Gaal, who preferred new signing Morgan Schneiderlin.
“Van Gaal was straight with me and said that my opportunities were going to be limited,” he said. “I wanted to play, I wasn’t going to do that at United. It was right for me to move on and it wasn’t a total surprise to me.”
He had several suitors, from Aston Villa to Everton. The Goodison Park club were interested after Cleverley did well for Roberto Martinez on loan at Wigan.
“Wigan was supposed to be about getting Premier League experience, but I learned lots there,” he said. “Roberto Martinez was very strong on tactics, especially against the best teams. I also filled out a lot physically thanks to fitness coaches helping me with my gym work.”
After a year on loan at a Villa side which reached the FA Cup final, Cleverley moved to Everton on a four-year contract.
The problem at Everton was that Martinez was fired after Cleverley had been at the club for one season, replaced by Ronald Koeman, who preferred Tom Davies in his position.
“I would have liked to have played more, but Everton’s a fantastic club,” Cleverley said. “I’ve never had a relationship with a chairman like I did with Bill Kenwright. He would text me after games and take a real interest in my development. He’s a top man.”
Desperate to play, Cleverley moved on loan to Watford, a move which became permanent for £8 million (Dh39.2m) in July 2017. He has barely missed a minute since.
“I’m very happy here,” he said. “I had good memories from the first spell here. I work hard. My parents taught me that. Sir Alex and the youth coaches at United also told me to work hard. You can’t have success without working hard.”
Cleverley lives in Essex, with wife Georgina and children Albie (one) and Nevaeh (four).
“Nevaeh comes to watch me now, but I don’t think she’s that into the football. Hopefully I’ll be playing at a good enough level that Albie can come and watch.
Silva rates Cleverley highly. “Tom’s a player everybody respects,” the Portuguese manager said.
“When the players see a player work as hard as Tom does every single day, they respect that. And he’s a player with quality. He can be a good leader in our team.”
What of his 13 England caps?
“It was my proudest achievement, even more than winning the league,” Cleverley said. “The thought of getting more caps motivates me but I’m concentrating on playing well for Watford.
"Maybe I’m not going to be involved in the trophies as much here, but I saw players like Gareth Barry play more Premier League games than any other. He’s not a bad example for me.”
Cleverley is racking up the games. His father Andrew has watched almost every one of his son’s career and estimates a total of 400 times, with every match programme, cutting and piece of memorabilia safely stored away.
On Tuesday, he is up against the club where it all started. He will be hoping that they do better than when the last Manchester team came into town.
Updated: November 28, 2017 10:23 AM