A petition calling for Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley to be banned from England’s World Cup campaign garnered nearly 20,000 signatures. Having made 22 league appearances for runaway champions Manchester United in the 2012/13 season, you’d think such a player would have earned the respect of his own fans. So what exactly is it about Tom Cleverley that makes him so hated by so many?
Among the most consistent arguments against Cleverley’s place in the United team are that he doesn’t appear to do anything in particular, or that he simply "isn’t a Manchester United player." This, however, is not a fault per se. From David May and Brian McClair to John O’Shea and Park Ji-sung, Manchester United have always utilised a plethora of talents who are able to play in a regimented role and provide a service that isn’t always appreciated.
Tom Cleverley’s role in the United squad is not a glamorous one, but he is essential in connecting the play. Yes, this is a cliche that is often affixed to subpar players in an attempt to justify their inclusion, but in this case it is vindicated. Without a balanced range of instruments in place, the team simply won’t function effectively as a unit.
So why doesn’t Tom experience the same level of loyalty from the more appreciative Old Trafford contingent who’ve seen similar players serve the club for years? Perhaps his off-field choices help explain this.
After succumbing to injury early in his United career, Cleverley was lambasted for branching out into a self-publicising brand called TC23, capitalising on his shirt number and Manchester United association to promote his new website. Although Rio Ferdinand has pursued similar avenues, Cleverley didn’t have the history of trophy-winning performances that his teammate did to justify his extra-curricular pursuits. Compare this to the humble persona of the man he was supposed to be replacing, Paul Scholes, and it is easy to see how Cleverley hasn’t quite done all he can to endear himself to the supporters.
Fans find it easy to stand by players that have certain distinguishable characteristics. Javier Hernandez has failed to recapture the form of his debut season back in 2010/11, yet maintains a place in many fans’ hearts. Antonio Valencia is one of the most one-dimensional wingers in the Premier League. He frequents his own stop-start sprinting method and refuses to use his left foot, yet picked up the Manchester United Player of the Year awards (both fans’ and players’) in 2011/12.
In the age of Twitter, people love to be able to sum up a player’s strengths in a sentence or two, and Tom Cleverley does not fit that formula.
Cleverley enjoyed a promising start to his career. After successful loan spells at Leicester, Watford and Wigan, he made his debut for United against fierce rivals Manchester City in the Community Shield. Coming on with City two goals ahead, he was instrumental in the 3-2 comeback. Everything was going to plan for Cleverley, who played regularly in subsequent weeks, including the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal and an impressive 3-0 victory against Spurs, before getting injured against Bolton Wanderers.
Such was the impact of Cleverley on the team that he was rushed back prematurely. He lasted just 57 minutes against Everton, delivering another stellar performance, before being subbed off and ruled out for another four months. In his absence, United suffered a dip in form, getting knocked out of the Champions League and being humiliated 1-6 against Manchester City at home. With Cleverley back in contention the following season, United waltzed to the 2012/13 title with four games to spare. Is this simply a coincidence?
In terms of goals and assists, Cleverley simply isn’t pulling his weight at United. This is an important factor he will need to work on if he is to be a United mainstay for years to come. Elsewhere, however, his stats indicate that he contributes to the team like no other.
In 2012/13 his 90.2 per cent pass completion was higher than any other player at the club, he had the second highest number of passes completed after Michael Carrick, and his average pass length was 17 metres—slightly longer than the depth of the penalty area. He was dispossessed on average less than once per game, making him the best United player at ball retention, an integral tool in controlling the tempo of the game. All in all, impressive stuff.
There is no end to the praise Cleverley has received from respected figures in the footballing community. Roy Hodgson has likened him to Cesc Fabregas while Sir Alex Ferguson labelled him as “probably the best midfield player in Britain, potentially.” Established pros such as Ryan Giggs, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have all spoken highly of him.
Giggs told Sky Sports News (via Sports Mole) in 2012 that Cleverley is "a really good player," while Lampard said that same year in an interview with ITV1 (via the Daily Mail) that the youngster was "a pleasure to play with" for England.
Having managed him at Wigan, Roberto Martinez said, per the Guardian:
There are only a few players in this country who have had the sort of education where they look as if they could have been brought up in Holland, Spain or France. Tom is one of them.
What has happened is not Tom's fault. I think he is as good a talent as we have in the English game, and he is still growing.
Tom Cleverley is far from the finished article. His rare goals for United have hinted at his finishing ability, though it is an attribute he must demonstrate far more often. This will come with confidence, yet the unparalleled abuse he has received has undoubtedly hindered his development. An interview earlier this year with the Mirror's Oliver Holt revealed in no uncertain terms how much the criticism has gotten to Cleverley.
It stung. I feel I’ve been made a scapegoat.
I don’t mind hearing stick off 19 of 20 Premier League clubs. But when it comes from your own fans, it hurts a little bit more.
The intense criticism of Tom Cleverley by United’s own fans is undeserved and ill-advised. In shattering the confidence of a fairly young player before he has established himself in the team, the criticisms become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To develop into the player he needs to be to represent United, Cleverley needs and deserves the backing of his own fans. As it stands, Cleverley’s career is in the balance.