Why It’s Time To Sink Or Swim For Much-Maligned Tom Cleverley

There’s something rather sad about the story of Tom Cleverley. 

It’s that time-honoured tale of a gifted young English midfielder, ruthlessly jettisoned from one of the biggest clubs on the planet for absolutely no reason at all, save for an extended period of uselessness that has made him a national laughing stock. 

Alas, his ejection was anything but dignified. Presumably his agent, Simon Kennedy, will say that he had a duty of care to ensure the maximisation of his client’s earnings, but the clubs involved in his late, late deal are said to be furious about his conduct. We say ‘presumably’, because Unibet did try to contact him, but his office said that they didn’t know where he was. 

Aston Villa knew where he was on Monday, however, when time was running out to complete a deal. He’d dashed up to Everton with Cleverley because higher wages were believed to be on offer. The only drawback, reportedly, was that Everton couldn’t actually afford the transfer fee.

Caught in the middle of the causeway as the tide came in, Cleverley’s hopes of first team football seemed to have been washed away. He is rather fortunate that the Premier League saw the deadline as more of ‘a minor illness line’. 

If a pond was to turn as stagnant as Cleverley’s career, you’d be able to walk across it without getting wet. The 25-year-old’s confidence seems to have vanished, which is hardly surprising given the stick that he’s taken from all angles. At Wigan, on a successful loan spell in 2010, he looked a very special player, with vision, touch and lashings of derring-do. At United, he’s become a sort of retro-Henderson, an unimposing presence more given to a sideways pass than a cutting through-ball, a style of distribution that is less a recycling of possession and more an abdication of responsibility. It hasn’t taken Louis van Gaal long to conclude that, in his present form, Cleverley offers absolutely nothing to the cause. 

Cleverley responded to his critics last season in a thoughtful interview with Oliver Holt of The Mirror where he suggested that his style of football would be more appreciated by Spanish fans, who he felt responded well to sideways passing. 

With that in mind, and with Cleverley’s contract now in its final year, perhaps it would have made more sense to seek a move to Spain. In his own words, “I am not a player who’s going to beat three or four people and stick it in the top corner, or go round tackling people like Roy Keane.”

Well, if you take out running, shooting and tackling, there really isn’t an awful lot left. Expect Keane to make a similar point to Cleverley at their first training session together.

You have to hope that Keane’s influence rubs off because very few young English players leave Old Trafford and actually improve. Roy Hodgson, limited to an available national pool of players he could fit in a single train carriage, needs Cleverley to kick on and not to fall away. That might happen at Aston Villa. But if it doesn’t, it’s imperative that his next move is the right move. 

Cleverley would do well to look at the example set by Micah Richards this week. Once considered the future of England’s right side, the 26-year-old made only two Premier League appearances last season and as Manchester City’s third choice right-back, he might not have made many more this year. However, his homegrown status gave him a certain value for the Champions League and the club were prepared to offer him a new deal and a big pay rise. He rejected it. 

Richards had the chance to stay local and move to West Ham or Sunderland, but he rejected those offers too. Eager to start afresh and to challenge himself, he moved to Italy for a year with Fiorentina. It’s a brave, bold gamble and he deserves it to pay off.

After this loan spell expires, Cleverley will have to make a decision. Does he want to slide down the table, too busy clutching his payslip to reach for a handhold or does he want to play regular top level football and be the best that he can be? Well, when his contract expires next summer, we’ll find out what really motivates him. 

Cleverley's Aston Villa are 12.00 to win at Liverpool