Paul Scholes’s “retirement” in the summer was always going to create a furore that an immediate replacement is the need of the hour at Old Trafford. 'After all, he is Paul Scholes', wrote one United devotee on twitter. Media too did not disappoint as papers went gaga over his replacement. News surrounding alleged imminent arrival of a Wesley Sneijder or a Samir Nasri became a daily companion for the morning beverage.
But Alex Ferguson refused to press the panic button. After securing the services of Ashley Young, David De Gea and Phil Jones, United began their pre-season tour in USA, with fans and media still expecting David Gill to announce a fourth name sooner rather than later. It did not materialise.
It was difficult for the fans to draw any incisive conclusion from United's successive wins in the first four friendlies since the gap in quality was far too much. Then came the much anticipated friendly against reigning European champions Barcelona. Though neither team would have opted for a full strength line up, at least the level of quality on the pitch would have considerably improved in comparison to United’s previous games.
“Revenge” was the word on the lips of the Mancunians as the wounds inflicted by the divine trinity of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi at Wembley in May were still fresh. Those vindictive United fans finally had some respite as their team managed to defeat the Blaugrana 2-1. But the Reds' real trophy was a prodigy from Basingstoke who stole the show with a mature performance in the centre of FedEx Field while his competitors in the opponent team were La Masia nurtured technicians.
It was a classy display from the Tom Cleverley, which earned him immediate praise from the boss.
“Tom Cleverley, physically, isn't the strongest lad but he's wily and he has a great idea of the game. He's a good footballer and I thought he was our best player tonight,” United manager Alex Ferguson said on the club's official website.
Barcelona were always expected to monopolise the midfield but Cleverley still managed to impose himself in that game. He made more tackles than any other player on the pitch while his intelligent passing throughout the game was equally impressive. His interception from a Sergio Busquets pass followed by his measured pass that led to a Michael Owen goal summed up his performance.
“His discipline was terrific, he's a good passer, he has good eyes. He's a big possibility to start for us at the start of the season,” Ferguson added.
The gaffer kept his word. Cleverley made his competitive debut for United as a second half substitute in the season opening Community Shield tie against Manchester City. His contribution in a pass and move build up that led to Nani’s equaliser in a 3-2 comeback win over the bitter rivals must be still resonating within every United fan. Tom Cleverley had become the heartthrob of the Old Trafford faithful by then.
The defending champions made a flying start to the Premier League season, winning all of the first four games and finding the net 18 times in the process. Those four games included the 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal at Old Trafford. Media’s demands for a replacement for Scholes had almost dried up now. United fans had also become numb in that context. Cleverley kept winning hearts.
England manager Fabio Capello also responded by naming the starlet in the Three Lions' squad for the August friendly against Holland (which was later postponed) and the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales. Everything was happening very fast for the lad. Too fast, perhaps. It was finally halted.
Injury cut short the 22-year-old’s progress as he suffered a foot problem during the Red Devils' September win at the Reebok Stadium. He was sidelined for more than a month. Not surprisingly, the spark in United’s football also vanished during this period. They did not look the same outfit in Cleverley’s absence. After the 1-6 humiliation at the hands of cross-town rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford, the critics finally broke their silence. There was a sense of crisis of at the Theatre of Dreams as everything looked falling apart.
Coaching guru Eric Harrison felt that it was Cleverley’s absence that was hurting United badly.
“[But] Tom for me is without question so good that he is the best young player at United since Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham came on to the scene," said the former United youth coach told Goal.com.
“He is so special because he is supremely fit, 100 percent committed and he is supremely talented. At the start of the season when he played our passing tempo was so quick it was unbelievable. It was just like it has been in the past. Last season the tempo slowed but with him in the team he speeds it up and so I can’t wait to see him back in the team because of those quick, short passes and little one-twos, plus his positional play is great."
The smile was back on the fans’ faces when it was announced that Cleverley was fit to face Everton at Goodison Park in the very next Premier League game. But the delight turned out to be short-lived as the 22-year-old sustained a blow to his ankle during that match and has been sidelined ever since. United won a few games after that but the pressure was mounting on Ferguson as his team was knocked out of the Carling Cup and the European Cup. The 19-time league champions also suffered back-to-back defeats against Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United. The Modric and Sneijder demanders had a word or two to say but Ferguson stunned them like anything when the sensational return of Paul Scholes was announced.
It exploded like a bombshell across social media sites. Many welcomed the decision. Others dubbed it as an 'act of desperation' from Ferguson. They argued that Scholes’s return gave a wrong message in terms of finance and progress of United's academy talents. While all such talks were doing rounds, Scholes remained unperturbed as he gave two impressive performances in the first two games after his return, showing that he was wrong to retire eight months ago and much football is still left in him. It was clearly visible that the return of the old guard has given a huge boost to the team morale. But this was just a trailer in terms of “boost”.
Alex Ferguson confirmed yesterday that Tom Cleverley is back on the comeback trail and is in line to feature in the FA Cup encounter at Anfield on 11th February.
"I am hopeful in 10 days' time he will be playing football on the training side of it anyway. That is the plan unless there is any recurrence of the injury. Then we can kick on,” the Scotsman said while speaking to Sky Sports..
"When he plays properly depends how he does in the training. His fitness levels should be fine, so he could cope right away. If he can, you are talking about a week."
The return of Cleverley will not only add the much needed options to the United midfield, but his energy, drive, technical quality and keen footballing brain will also hold the Premier League challengers in good stead. Could he be Ferguson’s answer to the critics yet again? Well, if he remains fit, he should be.
Eric Harrison recently said that he is enjoying the prospect of seeing Cleverley and Scholes together in midifled.
“I can’t wait to see Tom playing alongside Paul in the first team because he is another player who very rarely gives the ball away and it will really speed up his education having Scholesy around,” the legendary coach told Goal.com.
“Tom’s pass completion rate is magnificent so if you get the two of them in midfield then Manchester United will take some beating."
Follow Pulaha Chaudhuri on Twitter @pulaha_S_P
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