16/08/2012 10:05, Report by Steve Bartram
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Tom: The patient virtuoso

was listening. His eyes were popping out of his head. He was staring at you, sucking it all in. Although he was not outstanding as a player at that stage, you could see he was bright.

“He had talent and was a lot smaller than everybody else but that desire hit you in the face. He wanted to learn. He's a sensible boy and was willing to listen and do whatever you said. We went away to a tournament in Kenya when he was 16 and the way he went about things - on and off the field - showed that he was worth giving a chance to.”

McGuinness proposed that Tom be held back a year and remain an Academy student, rather than follow the rest of his age band into the 2006 Academy intake. Though akin to repeating a year at school, the youngster shrugged off any embarrassment.

“He was already close mates with Danny Drinkwater and Danny Welbeck, so dropping down a year and playing with his mates didn’t faze him too much,” says Andy. “That season did him the world of good in terms of giving him confidence.”

Belatedly, Tom’s body began to match his mind’s readiness. He became an integral part of McGuinness’ under-18s in 2006/07, and was an ever-present in United’s FA Youth Cup run until he suffered a broken leg before the semi-final, second leg. That, at a time when his body was acclimatising to its own substantial changes, would provide the first instalment of niggling misfortune with impact injuries.

He would play just once more for the under-18s before making the step up to the Reserves. In 2008, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took charge of the second string, began fielding Cleverley in midfield and imbibed him with self-confidence. “Ole gave Tom the belief that he could make it to the top,” says Cleverley Senior. A rip-roaring opening to the season convinced United’s coaches that Tom was ready for competitive league football.

He joined Nigel Pearson’s Leicester City in early 2009 for a successful 10-week spell latterly soured by a dislocated shoulder. It proved almost a dress rehearsal for his full-season loan at Watford in 2009/10, where knee ligament damage – suffered amid a tangle with West Brom behemoth Jonas Olsson – couldn’t stop the midfielder romping to victory in the Hornets’ Player of the Year voting.

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