Cleverley leading United's rampage
When, with a two-goal deficit to their local rivals, the three stalwarts of the side made way for a trio of what appeared fringe players, it may have looked as though the white flag was being raised. Instead, a bold change of direction was being signalled.
Some 45 minutes later, Manchester United had performed a thrilling comeback against Manchester City to win the Community Shield. Some three weeks on, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones, the youthful arrivals, were to play pivotal parts in the 8-2 humiliation of Arsenal.
Now Cleverley, for the second time in a month, has received an England call-up. Should he debut against either Bulgaria or Wales over the next few days, a rise to prominence will have been cemented with the official approval of both Sir Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello.
These are heady years for a player United considered releasing in his teenage years. His excellence as an attacking midfielder is one reason their summer-long pursuit of Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder ground to a halt; indeed one of the banners the champions' supporters have unveiled reads: "Who needs Wesley, we've got Cleverley."
It would be easy to get carried away by such praise, incorporating the idea he has saved United £35 million (Dh210,485m), or the suggestion that, with his ability to pick a pass, Cleverley is the natural successor to the retired Paul Scholes.
The 22 year old's response is admirably guarded. "I don't think you can compare anybody to Paul Scholes," he said. "He was a great player and an individual, and that's what I want to be as well. I want to make my own name in the game."
A rise that strikes others as meteoric has been downplayed by the midfielder. "It's been a steady progression," he said. "Maybe it has happened a little bit quicker than some people expected, but I have to carry on working hard now if I want to stay in the team.
"Although I feel as if I've improved this pre-season, I'm still the same player and still the same guy. Just because I'm playing in United's first team, that doesn't all of a sudden make me a great footballer. It's a bit strange when people are talking about you and you see your name in the papers, but, in my head, I'm still the same footballer who was sent out on loan to Wigan last year. The only difference is that I'm turning out for Manchester United now."
There is actually a second difference. Cleverley's technical talents were often deployed on the left of a front three at Wigan Athletic, allowing him to cut in and use his favoured right foot. For United, however, he is trusted in a central midfield partnership, a role that has rather greater responsibility.
"He's got good discipline," Ferguson said. "Tom Cleverley, physically, isn't the strongest lad but he's wily and he has a great idea of the game. He's a good footballer, a good passer and has good eyes."
The message from Wigan, where Cleverley scored goals to help the Latics avoid relegation, is that his attitude equips him to excel.
"There's a real satisfaction because he was a really important player for us but it's not a surprise," Roberto Martinez, the manager, said. "His talent was quite obvious but he was an example for us in terms of his character, his daily standards and his personality. If you ask anyone at Wigan, we knew he was going to have that impact going back to Manchester United. Probably we didn't expect it that quickly and that speaks volumes for how highly he's rated."
Now he is in the vanguard of Ferguson's youthful revolution. Change has happened quickly: only two of the players who began May's Champions League final started Sunday's thrashing of Arsenal. Cleverley, while coming through the United academy, is both long-term employee and newcomer. He had made 75 appearances for Leicester City, Watford and Wigan before his competitive debut for the club this season. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is particularly close to Danny Welbeck, another who has been farmed out.
"With Danny, in particular, it's great because we've grown up together at United," he said. "There are a lot of young lads in the team at the moment and they're all in a similar situation to me, so that's helped me to settle in."
A member of United's next generation, he looks up to a southern-born, technically gifted midfielder from the club's past, as he showed when offered a lower squad number. "The manager offered me 22 or 23, but due to superstition I prefer wearing odd numbers," he said. "Also David Beckham was my idol growing up, and he wore 23 at Real Madrid and still does with LA Galaxy."
The world can seem to be at his feet, but the Galaxy are in his thoughts.
Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM