Fergie’s genius: When Smalling, Jones & Cleverley signalled a bright Man Utd era
In August 2011, four promising Manchester United prospects enhanced their burgeoning reputations by helping Sir Alex Ferguson’s youthful outfit come back from 2-0 down to beat Manchester City in the Community Shield at Wembley.
The 2011-12 campaign signalled the start of yet another era under Ferguson as Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar called it a day and allowed a new group of potential stars to take centre stage.
And it is one of many examples of Fergie’s genius that those potential stars were Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Ahead of a debuting David de Gea, all four played a pivotal part in a classic United comeback in that Community Shield win – and all four were tipped for a bright future.
And while the common consensus now is that the squad Ferguson handed over to David Moyes was not strong enough to go on competing, the four young Englishmen were all heavily involved in United winning yet another title in 2013, after only missing out on goal difference a year earlier.
In the seven years since, opinion of those four players has changed almost as dramatically as United’s standing in the Premier League.
Goals from Joleon Lescott and Edin Dzeko had given City a two-goal advantage at half-time, but Smalling, playing at right-back, started United’s revival when he found space in the box to sidefoot a superb Ashley Young delivery into the back of Joe Hart’s net.
The then-21-year-old was starting his second season in Manchester following a £7.2million move from Fulham and had been drawing some favourable comparisons. A WhoScored report, for example, noted Smalling possessed “the ball-playing capabilities that a young Rio Ferdinand became renowned for.”
Ferdinand was 32 when he started the 160th Manchester Derby that afternoon, and his younger compatriot was being touted by many as his natural successor for both club and country.
The man expected to fill the role of Ferdinand’s tougher, more robust partner came in the form of Phil Jones. Nemanja Vidic and John Terry were expected to vacate those roles with Manchester United and England respectively in the coming years.
Fergie gave a glimpse into his future plans at United in the Community Shield by replacing Ferdinand and Vidic with Jonny Evans and the newly-purchased Jones at half-time, while Patrice Evra made way for Rafael midway through the second half.
Jones had made his £17million move from Blackburn Rovers that summer to a fair amount of fanfare as United reportedly fought off the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool to secure the signing. Of United’s young English quintet, Jones was the most highly-rated of them all.
England boss Fabio Capello compared him to Fernando Hierro and Franco Baresi later in 2011, Sir Bobby Charlton said that Jones reminded him of Duncan Edwards, while Gary Neville wrote in his column for the Daily Mail that Jones “has a touch of Bryan Robson or Roy Keane”.
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And the compliments just kept coming for Jones during his debut campaign at Old Trafford. After a convincing victory away at Loftus Road, chief BBC Sport reporter Phil McNulty wrote that the pace and power shown by the then-19-year-old was confirmation that “this is one of the game’s gems just waiting to be fully polished”.
And in 2013, after a 3-0 win over Aston Villa which clinched United’s 20th league title, Sir Alex Ferguson uttered those immortal words: “Jones, arguably the way he is looking, could be our best ever player.
“I think Jones may be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him. At 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player. I think he can play anywhere on the pitch.”
A fellow half-time substitute, tasked with turning the 2-0 deficit around alongside Jones, was a 21-year-old Cleverley.
The academy graduate had just returned from a successful loan spell at Wigan and was tasked with filling the rather sizeable gap left by Scholes in the middle of the park.
And Cleverley made an impact on the day, playing a crucial role in United’s equaliser. The young midfielder linked the play twice in a slick passing move that also involved Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Nani.
Chris Bevan wrote for the BBC that Cleverley and Welbeck “showed against City they have what it takes to be part of Ferguson’s plans for the future”.
Indeed, Cleverley’s impressive early-season displays led to a new deal and further claims that United had found Scholes’ heir. He appeared to be the roaming playmaker who would bridge the gap between defence and attack for years to come.
“Cleverley is the best home-grown young player Manchester United have had since Paul Scholes. No question,” former United youth coach Eric Harrison, who oversaw the rise of the Class of 92, said that year.
Injuries, however, contributed to a downturn in form, as Cleverley made 10 Premier League appearances in his breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford, but 2012-13 saw him turn out 32 times for United, make his England senior debut and, of course, win the Premier League.
Leading the line against City and keeping Dimitar Berbatov on the bench until the 89th minute was a 20-year-old Welbeck.
The boyhood Manchester United fan enjoyed a breakout season on loan at Sunderland in the previous campaign, scoring six goals from 26 Premier League appearances, and he produced a typically unselfish display at Wembley in 2011, something United and England fans would become accustomed to.
Nine goals and five assists in his first full season in the United first team pointed to a promising career.
The Manchester Evening News claimed in 2013 that Welbeck’s new deal, which followed on from fresh contracts for Jones, Smalling and Cleverley, was “a clear message of intent from the Reds that Fergie’s latest generation of youth are going to be the foundation for the club going forward”.
It’s fair to say things didn’t quite go to plan following his retirement at the end of that season, and some might find it hard to understand with hindsight how so many people – including Harrison, who had witnessed and nurtured some of the country’s finest young talents – could get a group of players so wrong.
But perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps the key difference between them and the Class of 92 was simply the man at the helm who guided their careers and developed their talent. Greatness, after all, breeds greatness.
By George Cannon