Standing outside Wembley in bomber jacket, torn jeans and white trainers, Tom Cleverley looked like any other Manchester United fan before last May’s Champions League final. Just another twentysomething with high hopes for his team on a big night.
Fast forward just two-and-a-half months and things have changed for a young midfielder who has taken the scenic route on his way to the United first-team squad.
Two days ago, Cleverley played a significant role in United’s FA Community Shield defeat of Manchester City. On Wednesday he will be at Wembley again, this time with Fabio Capello’s England squad.
Delight: Tom Cleverley (right) celebrates with Nani during the Community Shield
Rather quickly now, 21-year-old Cleverley’s boxes are being ticked.On his Facebook page, Cleverley states that he hopes to ‘break into the Manchester United first team and go on to represent my country’.Time for a status update.
Those who know Cleverley are not surprised by the manner of his emergence at Old Trafford.
Former United reserve team coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer describes Cleverley as a ‘top-quality player and a top-quality human being’. United defender Patrice Evra, meanwhile, believes his young team-mate to be an emerging replacement for Paul Scholes.
Evra said: ‘He’s a fantastic player, I hope this season he will get a lot of opportunities.
‘In America on tour he played some amazing games, particularly against Barcelona in our last game.
‘In the second half against City you saw that he is not afraid and Manchester United need players like this. He’s a quiet lad, he’s a bit like Scholesy in that way. He never talks much, he just does his job on the pitch. He’s a very private guy. But to bring players through is what we do here. Players like him are the future.
From fan to star: Cleverley before the Champions League final
‘He knows he can help us to win more titles. That’s the Man United way. It’s always been like that.’
Some young footballers announce themselves in spectacular ways. Think Federico Macheda and his Old Trafford winner against Aston Villa at the age of 17 in 2009.
Others, however, take a different journey and Cleverley’s has taken him to Watford, Leicester and Wigan on loan. His ability has never been questioned, however, only his size.
Cleverley was almost released by United in his late teens. Only the enduring belief of Solskjaer and Under 18 coach Paul McGuinness prevented him being lost to the club.
‘He has developed slowly from a physical point of view,’ said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. ‘But he has always been wily. He has always had a great understanding of the game.’
Speak to managers who have worked with Cleverley — such as Nigel Pearson and Malky Mackay — and they all speak of the young player’s attitude, professionalism and adaptability. These qualities were in place from an early age.
Neil Cuthbert was coach of the Eccleshill United boys team in Bradford when seven-year-old Cleverley was brought along by his parents in the mid-1990s. He remains close to the family.
Cuthbert said: ‘He came to an open training session. He was seven. At that age kids’ attention can wander. They don’t always focus and concentrate for a whole session. But Tom was different. He would stand at the front of the group with this hunger in the eyes. I would tell him something once and that would be it. He would do it.
‘His dad would tell me that at home he couldn’t get him in the house. He was always out the back doing little drills that I had set for him.
‘His desire was amazing, so was his ability to take things in. He played for our Under 9 team when he was seven but he never feared anything, even though he was small.
‘Tom was obsessed with football and still is. His attitude has never changed and I don’t think it will.
‘His idol was always David Beckham and I understand that. Just like Beckham, Tom will always want to improve and will never think he knows everything. He will never be a big-time Charlie.
Star: Cleverley (left) impressed during the Community Shield at Wembley
‘The only time Tom will think he has made it is when he stops playing and can look back.’
One nod to Cleverley’s recent progress is the photo, now on his Facebook page, of him in the Wembley dressing room with the Community Shield.
Other than that, though, his page is unremarkable. No photos of wild nights out or anything to hint at brashness.
As Solskjaer, now manager at FC Molde in Norway, said: ‘He is the type of player you want in every squad.
‘There are talented players and then players like Tom who have everything. Tom is a class act as a person and a great player to have in a group.’
As United continue their efforts to sign Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder and await the return from illness of Darren Fletcher, Cleverley will no doubt find that a place in Ferguson’s first team will be hard to come by over the coming months.
Regarding England, it is to be hoped that his call-up to Capello’s squad results in something tangible against Holland.
Asked by a guy in a Manchester snooker hall not too long ago if he fancied playing for his pool team, Cleverley answered rather bashfully: ‘I tend to be busy on week nights.’
There doesn’t appear to be any likelihood of that changing anytime soon.