x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tom Cleverley: the rapid rise of United's next star

Tom Cleverley is ready to follow in the footsteps of his heroes at Old Trafford when he returns to the club from Wigan.

Tom Cleverley, front, has been loaned to Wigan Athletic by Manchester United, but is expected to be recalled by Sir Alex Ferguson in January.
Tom Cleverley, front, has been loaned to Wigan Athletic by Manchester United, but is expected to be recalled by Sir Alex Ferguson in January.

Premier League footballers unwind in different ways, some less respectable than others. Manchester United's England Under 21 midfielder Tom Cleverley likes a game of snooker in an unpretentious club in south Manchester. He currently is on loan at Wigan Athletic, where his profile is much lower than at United.

"I was playing snooker last week when one of the regulars at the club came over," Cleverley said in a part-Mancunian, part-Yorkshire accent. "He had no idea what I did for a living and said, 'You're pretty decent. Do you fancy playing with the snooker team on a Tuesday night?' I laughed, said thanks and told him that I had other commitments."

Cleverley, 21, is unlikely to benefit from such anonymity much longer. His value continues to rise, though an agreement between the two clubs means that he will not be playing for Wigan against United at Old Trafford tomorrow in their Premier League clash.

Sir Alex Ferguson already has said that he plans to bring the versatile Cleverley, who can play anywhere in the midfield, back to Manchester in January.

The United manager said that Cleverley has "outstanding goalscoring qualities" and is a "United-type footballer, who likes to pass and move. He's hungry [and] is a serious professional who has made sacrifices to succeed."

For now, Cleverly is content.

"I'm enjoying Wigan, training and playing alongside a lot of different nationalities," he said. "That's different, as I've always played under British managers for predominantly British teams, but I'm enjoying working with Roberto (Martinez). He lives and loves football and knows everything about all the other teams."

"I'm closer to the British lads because there's no language barriers, but we all get on. We have alternate songs on the iPod in the dressing room - one English and then one Spanish."

Cleverley was born in Basingstoke, southern England; his father, who worked in banking, was based there. Three months later, the family relocated to Bradford, hometown of Tom's mother.

"I'm a Bradford lad," he said. "Most of my best friends are lads who I met growing up when all we did was play football in the street. We didn't touch PlayStations. I played for my school team and then Bradford boys."

Cleverley was a Bradford City fan.

"I had a season ticket on the kop at Valley Parade. Bradford were in the Premiership and I saw players like Benito Carbone. I dreamed of playing for Bradford and maybe I will before I retire."

Aged 11, Cleverley scored a hat-trick playing for Bradford boys against Huddersfield. Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers both wanted him and he was about to sign for Blackburn when his father, Andrew, checked his answering machine.

"It was Manchester United," Andrew said. "We went there and Tom loved the facilities and the club. His mum then drove Tom to Manchester three times a week. It wasn't easy and they spent a lot of time on the M62, but it was worth it."

Cleverley moved to Manchester at 15 to stay in the same residence near the Carrington training ground where Gerard Pique and Darren Fletcher once lived. Fletcher remains an influence.

"He got where he is through hard work and talent and I respect him for that," Cleverley said. "When you play for United you don't have to look for idols."

Cleverley was a late developer. As a child, he was given the nickname "Chunks" because he could not pronounce the "tr" sound and referred to his swimming trunks as "chunks". He matured late physically, as well.

"At 16, I was a boy in a team of men," he said. Television footage of him celebrating in youth tournaments shows far bigger teammates throwing him in the air like a child. "We'd play Liverpool or City and they'd beat us because they were bigger." Far more of the United players are now making a living as professional footballers.

He was played as a full-back rather than in the more physical midfield and United received special dispensation from the Football Association for him to stay down a year and play with smaller players. There had been only one precedent at the club, Danny Simpson, who is now on the verge of a full England call-up after doing well with Newcastle United.

Cleverley progressed through United's reserve team, where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave him advice on finishing. He was also a late call-up for United's pre-season tour of South Africa in 2008, where he scored on his debut in front of 50,000 in Pretoria.

"I saw the attention United get worldwide and thought, 'Wow!' But I still felt like a kid in a team of men."

In 2009, he went on loan to third-tier Leicester City.

"It felt real," Cleverley said. "I felt like a proper footballer. I went from playing in front of 300 for United's reserves at Northwich to playing in front of 20,000 at Leicester.

"I was very nervous before my full Leicester debut and didn't think nerves would hit me that much. I was daunted by the crowd, the away fans singing. It was a shock. We went behind and I couldn't relax. I'd give the ball away for no reason. I was up against a big, experienced pro who was playing for his win bonus.

"I had a word with myself at half time and remembered what United had told me: work hard, be a winner. I relaxed in the second half. After that, I was fine. That's why players are sent on loan, to gain real match experience."

Leicester were promoted to the Championship and there was talk of him staying, but a new loan agreement was reached with Watford, also of the Championship.

"I did some background checks on him from Ben Foster [the goalkeeper] and a fitness coach at Old Trafford and they said very positive things about Tom's attitude," said Malky Mackay, the Watford manager.

"From the first minute I got him, I could see that they were right, that he had what he takes to be a top player. Watford became his priority and he went to supporters' evenings. Tom's very level-headed, very professional. And he was very harsh on himself when he made a mistake. I told him not to be despondent, but to get on with things."

Cleverley made his Watford debut after just one training session.

"I didn't know half the other players' names," he said, "but I scored on my debut. I got three goals in my first four games and people started looking at me as a goalscoring midfielder.

"I felt my game changing, felt more confident. I started getting recognised in the street, the fans sang my name and you have to be careful that it doesn't go to your head. But I want to be recognised at Manchester United, not on the streets of Watford."

The step up brought new challenges.

"I saw him develop physically," Mackay saidy. "His legs became stronger and I saw him ride tackles in the Championship, which is a physical division. He was also very cool-headed in the opposition box and impressed by finishing on target."

Cleverley scored 11 goals in 33 Watford games.

"I loved going to hostile places like Millwall," he said. "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. I want to play at Liverpool and City with United."

"Tom was low-maintenance and a great learner, too," Mackay said. "He was inquisitive and would ask me questions after every game about what he'd done wrong. He was from a good family and coming from Man United, he was very professional and you could see that he'd watched Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and was influenced by the way they handled themselves in training and off the field."

While at Vicarage Road, he was called up for the England Under 21s. He already had scored twice on his debut for the U20s.

"I told him to believe in himself and that he'd soon become a starter in that team," Mackay said. "Within six games he was a regular and one of their best players."

Cleverley was voted Watford's player of the season last term and returned to Old Trafford in the summer, where he starred in United's pre-season American tour.

"We played in front of 70,000 in places like Houston and it went well for me," he said. "I was playing alongside Scholes, who has brilliant technique and never gives the ball away. The passing is the difference at United. There are so few mistakes and the control of players like Dimitar Berbatov in small spaces is unmatched."

Cleverley scored against Celtic in Toronto, and his superb individual goal in the MLS All-Star game was the best of the five-game tour.

However, when the Premier League season started, Cleverley was not in United's first three squads. Impatient to play, he went to see Ferguson, with whom he enjoys a good relationship, and a loan to Wigan was agreed.

Cleverley continues to fulfil his potential, now at the highest level.

"I'm a goalscoring midfielder with good energy and fitness levels," he said candidly. "I can cross but need to work on my heading and my left foot. All I need now is experience."