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.
“That season was an unbelievable experience for him,” says Andy. “The first half of the season was sensational. He scored on his debut against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. I’m a Forest fan and I was in the visitors’ section jumping up and down like a lunatic celebrating a goal against my team. My old man would have turned in his grave!
“But he kept scoring and had eight goals in his first sixteen games. The thinness of the squad began to show, though, and they slipped down the table, but even that was a good education for him – I remember Tom saying at the time that nobody wanted relegation on their CV.”