It's not Tom Cleverley's fault that he's a goat

Laurence Griffiths

It's open season on Manchester United players, and Tom Cleverley is of the view that he gets more than his fair share of criticism. Is he right? And if so, why?

As you may heard, Manchester United were disappointing again at the weekend. Quite whose fault it was this time is up for debate -- everybody's, probably -- but for once this season, Tom Cleverley hasn't come in for any abuse. Though that's mostly because he didn't play.

Cleverley has, though, been talking to the Mirror's Oliver Holt, and there's an interview in the paper today. It's here, if you want to have a read. If not -- and it is worth it, despite that weird no-sentence-too-short-not-to-be-its-own-paragraph house style -- then here are the Manchester United midfielder's important quotes:

I watch Spanish football a lot. If they pass the ball sideways but keep possession, the fans clap them.Their attitude is that as long as you have got the ball, the other team can't hurt you.

My job goes under the radar at times. I am not a player who's going to beat three or four people and stick it in the top corner or go round tackling people like Roy Keane ... People are making a big thing about how I don't score enough goals when that is not necessarily my first job in the team.

I feel I've been made a scapegoat a little bit.

Let's leave aside the suggestion -- from both player and journalist -- that his critics might just be too stupid to understand the value of his game; perhaps some are, perhaps others have arrived at a considered position that one man's effective sideways possession retention is another's safety-first buck-passing. The views of Roy Hodgson are noted in Cleverley's defence, and the England manager is of course noted for his interest in and espousal of progressive football.

Let's leave aside, too, the claim that his role -- his "job" -- is limited not by his own talent but by David Moyes' tactical instructions; that's similar to recent comments by Darren Fletcher, and is a topic for a whole 'nother piece. Though again, to counter the overwhelmingly positive interpretation offered by Holt, we should perhaps acknowledge that sometimes the instructions that players are given reflect nobody's limitations but their own.

Let's look at the idea of Cleverley-as-scapegoat. Holt perhaps overstates this claim in his copy -- he writes: "Cleverley was made the scapegoat," which is both stronger and more exclusive than the quote above -- but it's true that Cleverley does get a lot of stick from United (and occasionally England) fans for all manner of reasons, and certainly more than most of his clubmates. However, by limiting his discussion of the reasons for this to his performances and his role in the team, Holt misses the wider picture, and what Tom Cleverley stands for in this stuttering United side.

The stick Cleverley gets tends to focus on two things: his ability, and his ego. Whatever the truth and fairness of the latter -- and giving an interview that essentially reads "it's not my fault; I'm doing as I'm told; you plebs wouldn't understand" is unlikely to help -- is somewhat irrelevant, since there isn't an ego in the world that couldn't be coped with if the ability is there. The former, then, is the key. And considering that nobody seriously accuses Cleverley of not trying to play as well as he can, we're left in the odd situation where to criticise him for not being good enough isn't, at heart, to criticise him at all. It's to criticise the circumstances that mean he has to play. And if a player that isn't good enough is playing, then that's very rarely his fault.

It's might be the fault of a manager who has completely misplaced his judgement. More likely, it's the fault of whoever in the club's hierarchy is responsible for building and maintaining the squad, who have failed to adequately maintain the quality. If Tom Cleverley being a Manchester United player is vexing, then that's the responsibility of whoever made him one, and whoever keeps him as one. Those people being, in no particular order: Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, and a coagulation of Glazers. It's not that people don't like him; it's that people don't like what he represents. Again, in no particular order ...

The curious neglect of Manchester United's midfield that's been obvious to even the most casual observer and dates back to the moment that Roy Keane's knees started to go. The resultant squad, wherein the talent is distributed in markedly uneven measure and so certain injuries can have a disproportionate effect on the team. The markedly Paul Pogba-less state of things. The management-by-genius-and-sticking-plaster that Ferguson pulled off for the glory and betterment of the Tampa Bay pirates. The super-dignified plastering of the Manchester United (no Football Club) brand on everything from Aperol Spritz to Yanmar, whatever the hell Yanmar is. And so on, and on. That's what lies behind the anger; that's what heats it.

Perhaps Holt and Cleverley are right, and he will prove that he has the talent to fit the fans' ideas of what a Manchester United player should be. Despite all the branding nonsense, he is exactly the kind of player that United fans should hope to see succeed: he's been with the club since he was ten; he's obviously desperate to do well not only for himself but for the team; and if he can get anywhere close to the level of performance that he obviously believes himself to be capable of, then he certainly has a place at Old Trafford.

That many interested observers don't think he ever will is unfortunate; that plenty of them profess to loathe him for it is probably unfair, at least in its intensity. Doubtless this is all hugely personally galling for the player, and when somebody tells you to "f*ck off!" it's hard to take that on any level other than the personal. But then, that's the point of scapegoats: to take the sins of the wicked on their shoulders and be banished into the wilderness (or, since this is United, Sunderland). Nobody blames the goat personally, even if he does have a silly website, but tradition and ritual demand him gone.

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