"What he doesn't need is comparisons with Roy Keane. Let him be his own man." Such was the counsel Sammy McIlroy imparted to The Independent about Darron Gibson a little over two years ago, and though the future looked a bright place then – the Irishman had just excelled in the Carling Cup against Wolves – his arrival yesterday at Everton, for £500,000 on a four-and-a-half-year deal, suggested McIlroy had been right to urge restraint.
There was no disguising how miserable the dog days of a United career had become for Gibson, the man who so impressed McIlroy that he tried to persuade him to play for his native Northern Ireland, only to see the player slip through his grasp by moving directly from Northern Ireland under-16s to a place in the Republic of Ireland senior squad – a shift made possible by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. "I was not getting a chance at United. I was playing games here and there, which I wasn't really enjoying," Gibson said. "It was time for me to move on."
Pressed to elaborate, he retracted these words. "I didn't say I wasn't enjoying it," he said. "The thing that was not enjoyable was playing one week then being left out for five or six games."
But the burden of filling the Paul Scholes-sized hole is one many have felt. Tom Cleverley has that role now and has been cast by some as United's saviour after a mere six starts. But Gibson knows that a chill wind blows for those not up to it. He is the man who lasted 97 minutes on Twitter last year, before the abuse prompted him to close his account, and whose final ignominy came last Sunday, when Sir Alex Ferguson deemed a 37-year-old Scholes, seven months into retirement, a better bet than Gibson against Manchester City in the FA Cup third round.
"Yeah, [that] was a bit disappointing but I knew before that it was time for me to move on," reflected Gibson, who knew his fate was sealed when Ferguson called him in this summer.
The United manager was determined that he should head to Sunderland with Wes Brown and John O'Shea, though a failure to agree terms, followed by a pre-season ankle injury, delayed his exit. There was a recompense about Gibson's United bow, after only 37 starts in six years since emerging from the youth ranks, coming in the 5-0 Boxing Day annihilation of Wigan Athletic. Then came the controversial night out with Wayne Rooney and Jonny Evans.
The Everton manager, David Moyes, whose eye for a good United player is self-evident in the cases of Phil Neville and Tim Howard, said he had "always had our eye on [Gibson] because he can pass it well, he's got a goal in him and now that he's here I'll be expecting those things from him and more".
Gibson certainly has unleashed a thunderbolt right-foot shot and a strong tackle down the years and his passing range and quality is accompanied by that ability to move the ball with his head up, while sizing up the game.
That's a rarer commodity than perhaps it should be. Where he has sometimes lacked the United marque is in his mobility across the turf, and it should be said that Ferguson has given him a few years to prove an ability to stamp his mark on a game.
"I'm 24 and I think I need to be playing as many games as I can – nearly every week, really," he said.
Giovanni Trapattoni, his manager at the Republic of Ireland, has told anyone who cares to listen that Gibson should accept it was not going to happen for him at United.
Gibson bridled at the suggestion, but Moyes suggested that the midfielder's target must now be to establish himself in Trapattoni's squad for this summer's European Championship.
"I have to say Phil Neville's done remarkably well to detach himself from [Old Trafford] in the way he has," Moyes concluded. "Tim Howard has, as well, so it'll be for Darron to do that."
With Phil Jagielka and Silvain Distin injured, Moyes may today look to another son of Derry, 20-year-old Shane Duffy, to slot in at centre-back for today's trip to Aston Villa.Reuse content