“That used to frustrate him because he knew he was playing against lads who were inferior to him football-wise, but they were dominating him physically. He was genuinely tiny, and when the time came to move up to under-18s football, there was no way Tom was physically ready for it.”
That posed a problem to United’s coaching staff: sever ties with a player patently unprepared for the next step, or manufacture a situation to aid his progression. Fortunately, Tom had believers in high places.
“Both [Under-18s manager] Paul McGuinness and [former director of youth football] Jimmy Ryan never had any doubt of Tom as a footballer,” says Cleverley Senior. “They were absolutely convinced about his technical capability and Paul persevered with him. I think Paul stuck his neck out for Tom because he believed in him so much as a footballer. I’ve no doubt that if he was at any other club in the country, he’d have been released at 14 or 15 because he was genuinely tiny.”
"Sometimes you just get a feeling about people,” recalls McGuinness. “Tom was very dedicated. Even when he was very young, you could see he had good eyes. When you were talking, he 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.”