Tom Cleverley interview: Midfielder gets back to basics at Aston Villa

After a torturous time with Manchester United last season, and abuse so bad he quit Twitter, Cleverley is delighted to be rebuilding his career at Villa, he tells Sam Wallace

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The Independent Online

For a footballer who has to put up with more stick than any 25-year-old England international should have to endure, the first thing you notice about Tom Cleverley is that he is a cheerful soul. He arrives for our meeting at Aston Villa’s training ground, offers a smile and a handshake and weighs every question with thought and good humour.

It was the same two years ago when his career was on a different track. A regular for Manchester United and England, he was often at the top table for press conferences at St George’s Park. Things have changed a bit since then but Cleverley remains the same. He is the boy who fought his way to the Manchester United first team, starting at Bradford City, through three loan spells in three different divisions and a few injuries too.

When it fell apart for David Moyes’ United team last season there were few who copped it as much as Cleverley. By then he had moved to the fringes of Roy Hodgson’s England squad and was only a standby player, unused as it turned out, for the World Cup this summer. By the time it reached the end of the transfer window last month, and Cleverley was still at United, the mood against him in some quarters became feverish.

On loan at Villa he has found himself appreciated again and Saturday’s match against Manchester City caps a formidable start to his new career, with successive games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. He is delighted to be playing again and just as pleased for his good friend and former team-mate Danny Welbeck, whose three goals for Arsenal against Galatasaray came the evening before our interview.

It would seem that leaving United does not have to be the beginning of the end. “No, definitely not,” Cleverley says. “We have both come up through the academy and lived the dream at the team we grew up at – United is not the be-all and end-all. Football is football. I am sure we are both happy to be on the pitch and playing 90 minutes every week.”

As for Welbeck’s impact, he is not surprised. “I always knew he would do [well],” Cleverley says. “He’s a great player and a great lad. [Arsène] Wenger’s comments that he didn’t realise how technically good he is and how quick he is – I don’t think people do until you actually work with him. He’s technically very good. Great players in teams that create that many chances will always score goals. I think he will score loads.”

 

For Cleverley, the last three games have been a period of adjustment. He played for United in their 1-1 draw with Sunderland on 24 August and only now feels he has hit his stride. In the defeat to Chelsea last week he operated in a three-man all-English midfield alongside Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph, his friend from their days as kids playing for Bradford’s junior teams.

“It’s what it’s all about, just to get back to basics and playing again on a Saturday,” he says. “Every footballer wants the best opportunity to play and I felt like it was here. My first four games have been tough but I’m playing at the top level week in, week out, and I’m enjoying myself.

“I wouldn’t say I know I’m going to be picked every week but I’d get more opportunities here than elsewhere. I’ve still got to work hard, be on top of my game, because we’ve got good midfielders here like Fab, Ashley Westwood and Carlos Sanchez. So I’ve still got to work hard to play but, yeah, I’ve got more chances of playing here than elsewhere. It’s a sensible move for me.”

There is an option for Villa to buy Cleverley at the end of the season and he hopes that the club will exercise it. He says more than once that he does not regard joining Villa as “a backward step”. There have been previous loans at Leicester City, where he got a League One winners’ medal; at Watford, where he was player of the season; and then at Wigan Athletic, where he was a key figure in helping them see off relegation in 2010-11.

Each time, he says, it has been a happy experience and he sees no reason why a move away from United should not be the same. It is that positive attitude that has seen him overcome challenges throughout his career.

“That’s exactly what football is, a ladder, stepping stones,” he says. “I was always the smallest in my age group. August-born. I had to fight against that as well. Injuries, things like that. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have played Champions League, I have played for my country, I have won the league. Now I am playing in the Premier League every week. What more can you ask for?

“Last year at times it wasn’t enjoyable and you play your best football when you are enjoying yourself. I certainly am enjoying myself now so, hopefully, that will show for Villa on the pitch.”

A regular for Hodgson at the start of the previous World Cup qualifying campaign, he says he is very proud of his 13 caps and hopes to get back into the England squad one day. As one of the few young Englishman who has made it, he appreciates how difficult it is to get from the academy into the first team.

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Cleverley at Aston Villa's training ground

“It is very rare that an 18- or 19-year-old walks into the side at a top four club now. There were obstacles but it was massively enjoyable for a young lad going out there, playing men’s football. They are the stepping stones up to Champions League and international football and all part of what makes you a complete footballer. Like I said, I don’t see this as a backward step at all. I see this as getting back to basics, playing every week and pushing on from here.”

One thing he will not be returning to is Twitter. He closed his account down earlier in the year and feels the better for it. Would he ever return? “I don’t think so. It is a negative you don’t really need. Just concentrate on your football. You just have to get that right balance. You can’t be thinking about football 24 hours a day, you’d be too tense. It’s getting that right balance between working and resting. I feel like I have got that.”

It is interesting to hear Cleverley say that he needs to take “more risks” and is being encouraged to do so by the Villa manager, Paul Lambert, and his assistant, Roy Keane. Cleverley has always looked like a player coached to take care of the ball and keep possession, but he admits that there are times when he can afford to do more.

“At United you’re told to play the right way and sometimes last year maybe I was being a bit too much of a perfectionist. Sometimes you can take a few more risks, which are needed to win games. That’s a side of my game which Roy and the manager are getting back into me and that comes with playing football every week. I really feel that’s happening, I feel like I’m playing at 100 per cent again and I’ve got that tempo back.”

It is hard to think of two more different characters than the softly spoken, glass-half-full Cleverley and the Villa assistant manager, but it is not a distinction that seems to trouble the player. “Obviously, he’s a United legend. The only time our paths crossed [at United] was when he was coming back from an injury, he trained with the reserves for a week or so. It’s nice to be working back with him and the manager, who have both been great midfielders in their time. Hopefully, I can learn a lot from them.

“He [Keane] is demanding. He’s trying to add things to my game that I know I can do. That’s good. He’s pushing me to my limits and the other midfielders and, hopefully, we can get that extra couple of per cent. When things need saying he says them. He wants me to add the obvious things. He wants all the midfielders to chip in with assists and goals and be forward thinking.”

I venture that Cleverley was made a scapegoat last year for wider failings at United. But he is not interested in sympathy. “Nah, I don’t think that. Last year wasn’t good enough, As a team, individually, we weren’t good enough. I am not going to say I was a scapegoat because we all got criticism. That’s not something I look back on. It has made me a stronger person. And I am just looking forward now.”

My other life

I just like playing golf. I play off 14. I am not a big cinema person but I went [on Wednesday night] to see ‘The Equalizer’, the new Denzel Washington film. I missed Welbz’s hat-trick! Don’t tell him that. I go back up to where my missus lives in Manchester once a week so I thought I best take her out.

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