Maligned Cleverley gets his chance
DENVER -- Downtown, Friday evening. The city is buzzing with summer activity, especially around the Four Seasons hotel, where Manchester United are staying.
By 10 p.m., several of United's travelling party have finished their day's work and have time to enjoy the city's nightlife. Not the players, though. They're upstairs in a meeting room on the orders of new manager Louis van Gaal. He wants them to finalise studying the tactics and formations of AS Roma, United's friendly opponents in the Mile High City on Saturday night. Maybe the players are tempted by the packed bars and restaurants they can see outside the hotel, but they'll have no nights out on their three-week tour.
It's a long way from the early days under Sir Alex Ferguson, when United's players went out until dawn on a preseason trip to Japan and finished the night arm wrestling with U.S. Marines in a bar. Clayton Blackmore said he was only narrowly defeated in the final by a Marine he claimed was twice his size.
United's players are getting used to Van Gaal's methods, and they're liking it. It's hard, but the 20-time English champions aren't going to return to the top by arm wrestling with Americans at 5 a.m.
Van Gaal has given every player except Wilfried Zaha a chance on this tour. The former Crystal Palace player wasn't the most professional of players at Old Trafford last year, and his United career has yet to take off. There are doubts that it ever will.
Several of his teammates, meanwhile, are playing for their futures at the club, and Van Gaal will be fair to all. For their 3-2 win over Roma in Denver, he made Tom Cleverley captain. That's the same Tom Cleverley who suffered so much abuse from football fans (including his own) last season that he deleted his social media account.
The vitriol grew unchecked when his manager, David Moyes, didn't come out and defend his under-fire player. England manager Roy Hodgson eventually did, but Cleverley's international experience has been a double-edged sword. After Cleverley made one trip away to play for his country, Ferguson told him he'd done far too many interviews and firmly instructed him to let his football do the talking.
It was heeded, but Cleverley's online presence caused consternation. Though he was hardly that active on Twitter, the decision for him to have a slick personal website with lifestyle photos when he was barely out of double digits for United didn't go down well with fans who, like Ferguson, felt it was too much too soon. Cleverley, a pleasant, inoffensive Yorkshireman, was only doing as he was advised, though when he described his hero as David Beckham, some thought that he wanted the limelight away from football.
The player known as "Chunks" (he struggled to pronounce "trunks" as a young player) had impressed since joining United at 12 from Bradford. Ferguson called him "Thomas" and helped nurture his talent, even though he was tiny compared to his teammates at 14. He grew and worked his way through the ranks when his close mates moved on to play with Hull and Leicester. Cleverley played for Leicester, too, but as a loan player. He took three loans, moving up a league each season until he was with Wigan in the Premier League. Wigan coach Roberto Martinez liked him and made him a mainstay of his side. Martinez was a suitor last season when Cleverley wasn't having a good time at Old Trafford.
Before that, assistant manager Mike Phelan had been a major influence on the midfielder, but he left United after Ferguson and Cleverley was quickly shorn of two of his prominent mentors. Last season was not a good one for him, and he received more abuse than most United players as the club finished seventh. He didn't go to the World Cup with England -- it was Hodgson's decision rather than that of the fans who had booed his appearance in one game and started a petition that he shouldn't go to Brazil.
Cleverley stayed at Old Trafford; despite the abuse and huge dip in popularity, there are senior staffers like Ryan Giggs who believe in his talents. They also think it's important to retain a player who's been at United 12 years. That matters to a club which lost a huge chunk of experienced players in the last 12 months. Cleverley may come good there, but if he doesn't, he'll still be given a chance under Van Gaal, and the decision to hand him the armband lifted his confidence. Cleverley, 24, believes he is Van Gaal's type of player.
He'll be judged by his performances, and while the heat (30 degrees), altitude (Denver is 5,280 feet above sea level) and pitch made for difficult conditions and required two in-game water breaks, Cleverley performed well, adding balance, retaining possession, linking and connecting. He'll need to do more to get into the team ahead of the other midfielders, Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Darren Fletcher, Marouane Fellaini and Michael Carrick.
The No. 23 (Beckham's old number at Madrid) was substituted for Javier Hernandez after 69 minutes and can be excused for initially forgetting to pass the captain's armband on. Van Gaal and Giggs both patted him on the back and the feeling in the dressing room was that it had been a positive afternoon for the stand-in skipper.
United were excellent in a 15-minute spell before the end of the first half in which they scored three goals -- two of them superb efforts from Rooney and Mata which Van Gaal described as "remarkable, fantastic" -- without reply, and nine changes were made at halftime. Without their best players, United's possession was reduced in the second period and the Dutchman opined that they "didn't play a good match."
For Cleverley, he needs to play many a good match to win back the hearts and minds of supporters who don't think he's good enough to play in midfield for Manchester United. It looks like he'll get that chance.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.