In 2008, I watched two young graduates of Manchester United's academy make their first-team debuts in unusual locations. Daniel Welbeck was a 17-year-old substitute for a friendly game in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where, in front of 70,000, he missed a last-minute penalty that would have levelled the score.
His teammate and close friend Tom Cleverley made his debut in another lucrative friendly, this time in Pretoria, South Africa. Years later, Cleverley asked whether it was possible to get a copy of the programme from his debut. I like it when a footballer is interested in the nuances of his own career, because plenty aren't.
Summer transfer window roundup
- Premier League: Team-by-team ins and outs
- Transfer Centre: All the done deals
- Marcotti: Mind-boggling transfers
- Delaney: What did we learn on deadline day?
- Horncastle: European transfer grades
- Smith: Transfers more important than the game?
- Macintosh: We worship goals, not balance sheets
In subsequent years these two young men, both United fans, would be sent out on loan to continue their development with great success. Welbeck thrived at Sunderland; Cleverley at Leicester, Watford and Wigan Athletic.
Then they returned to the United nest and played for the first team: Welbeck 142 times, Cleverley 79. Like any footballer, they had their ups and downs. They also had an admirer in Sir Alex Ferguson, who pushed, encouraged, disciplined and nurtured their talents. When they played in the side that destroyed Arsenal 8-2 three years ago, they showed they could excel at the top level. United's starting XI that day: David De Gea; Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Ashley Young; Wayne Rooney, Welbeck.
Ferguson, clearly, was a genius. All the players from that young side were expected to enjoy long and fruitful careers at Old Trafford. Some may yet, but Nani has returned to Portugal and Anderson is being paid a lot to do very little. Though he was a great hope of Brazilian football in 2007, United couldn't find a suitor for him in the transfer window.
Cleverley and Welbeck both signed contracts to leave Old Trafford on transfer deadline day -- Welbeck to Arsenal and Cleverley on loan to Aston Villa. Welbeck had been at the club since the age of 8, Cleverley since he was 11. The day he left, Cleverley's father sent me a photo of his son in his first day at United in 2000. A tiny boy, the red shirt dwarfed him.
"He never did grow into a United shirt," opined a critic on Twitter. Cleverley has had much worse abuse than that. He's also played 79 times for United's first team, more than all his contemporaries bar Welbeck. He made it when so many didn't. He would have liked it to have been for 500 games, but it's 79 more than most.
Cleverley hoped that things would work out differently, will admit to making mistakes and, ultimately, was judged to not be good enough to play in central midfield for United. Ferguson thought he was; Louis van Gaal doesn't agree, and United's fans would be inclined to side with the new boss. A change will hopefully be as good as a break for the 13-time England international midfielder who has stopped being an England international.
I can understand why he's going and that sentiment is thin in football, but part of me was sad to see several home-grown players depart Old Trafford. It's better when a club has those players who, like Ryan Giggs, can anchor the dressing room and tell arrivals what United means to the city and community.
Cleverley was linked with several clubs, and it was intriguing how football fans forget the human aspect behind transfer moves; the footballer who has to change his life at the drop of a hat because someone else has made a decision on his behalf. Who has to move his family and kids from their school to a strange town where they know nobody.
SUMMER TRANSFER WINDOW ASSESSMENTS
PREMIER LEAGUE: Arsenal | Aston Villa | Burnley | Chelsea | Crystal Palace | Everton | Hull City | Leicester City | Liverpool | Man City | Man Utd | Newcastle | QPR | Southampton | Stoke | Sunderland | Swansea | Tottenham | West Brom | West Ham
Money is supposed to compensate for all, but it doesn't. Fans have little sympathy for very well-paid (read: "indulged") footballers. When Michael Owen was having an awful time living in a hotel in Madrid with his wife and then-2-year-old child, nobody knew of it. What would have been the point of him telling the story?
After his mediocre start to the season, the club wanted to sell Cleverley while they could, while he was in contract and they could get a fee for him. The player felt he held most of the cards and control over his own contract. An out-of-contract player can negotiate a far more lucrative deal. Newspapers carried stories linking him to various clubs, and a few days before the transfer window, there was "news" of a bid from Valencia.
Fans, not unreasonably, then began to discuss such a move on behalf of the player. They talked about whether it would be good for him, whether he'd fit into Valencia's style and Spanish football. The reality was that he was never going to Spain. He's just become a father and brought a new house. He didn't want to stray far at all from the support network around him. Not that fans saw that, and why would they? It's his private life. As for the "bid" from Valencia, they weren't even convinced it was genuine; agents without players tend to bid on behalf of clubs and concoct plausible scenarios.
I'm glad the transfer window is over, but it's clear that it's a highlight of the season for some football fans and they can't wait for the next one in January. I don't like the way that Sky Sports try to dominate the day in the UK, like they have a monopoly on transfer deadline news and all other media outlets don't exist. Football didn't start with the Premier League in 1992.
I had a phone call this week from a face from United's past, Michael Knighton. He was one person who saw the potential of television rights when he looked set to take over at Manchester United in 1989. I'd never spoken to Knighton but was asked to write a piece about him 25 years after he famously ran onto the Old Trafford pitch juggling a ball. He wasn't impressed and, on Monday, rang to tell me how he felt. He was polite, friendly but believed he deserved the right of reply. Which he does.
I appreciated that but it was a reminder, if I needed it, that in football opinions can make or break careers -- whether those opinions are informed -- or, in the case of much transfer speculation and comment, grossly uninformed.