Tom Cleverley was part of the last Manchester United side to win the Premier League title. The former Watford captain announced his retirement from playing in July and has taken a coaching role in their academy.
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports senior reporter Tim Thornton, the former England international talks about his career, his ambition to become a Premier League manager and how Sir Alex Ferguson called to offer advice.
Cleverley also believes Manchester United have never been further away from winning the Premier League title again and reveals how Jude Bellingham can be a role model to his young Watford players.
Tom, a couple of months on from announcing your retirement, how has that transition been from playing to going into coaching?
It’s been exactly what I needed at this time in my life. You’re sort of banging your head against a brick wall, injury after injury. You lose your sense of purpose when you’ve known nothing but being a footballer for 15 years but your body just won’t let you do that anymore.
So to walk straight into something I’m passionate about, I feel lucky to have fallen on my feet in such a good role that gives me a real sense of purpose in my life.
Was it difficult towards the end of your playing career? Did you have a few dark moments?
I think the most difficult thing to take was I felt that my technique and my lungs were fully there, but my body wouldn’t let me perform sustainably and I just couldn’t play every week in the Championship.
It was frustrating because I knew I was fit enough but my body let me down too many times and I had to give in.
So you’ve moved into coaching – was that always the ambition?
Yes. I started doing my badges when I came back to Watford. I felt I saw an opportunity where I could help younger players.
As captain, or as vice-captain under Troy (Deeney), I felt it was my responsibility to help the younger players and it was always my motivation to become a coach.
I’m lucky this role was available for me at a club that are passionate about developing players. I’m very lucky it all fell into place.
You came up as a professional through one of the best academies in world football at Manchester United. How helpful is it for these young boys that you have been brought up in that environment?
I’d like to think they see it as a good opportunity to tap into my experiences.
I know society has changed in the 15 to 20 years since I was an apprentice. Things are not always going to be the same but I’d like to instil the same values and principles, and it’s key that I nip things in the bud that I see straight away.
I will always take the values that I learned from Manchester United.
What’s the long-term ambition? Could we see Tom Cleverley, Premier League manager?
Yes, that’s my long-term goal. You set your standards high and that will be no different as a coach.
Right now, I’m learning every day and I’ve made a decent start to life as an U18s coach.
I feel like I’ve got the experience from playing but you must put in the hours as a coach, and I feel like I’ve got the work ethic for that. How far I’ll go, who knows yet? But I’m enjoying myself and I’m working hard.
We have Cesc Fabregas, one of the best midfield players of his generation, coaching an academy side in Italy. Do you feel as though it is important to learn your trade in an academy set-up?
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. Some people go further down the football pyramid, some people go abroad, some people go into the academy system.
But what I do think is that I’ve got great people to learn off and to support me, so I feel as though I’m in exactly the right place and I feel as though I’m in a good trajectory of learning
You played under one of the very best in Sir Alex Ferguson – what was that experience like?
He was fantastic. The way he managed a dressing room full of superstars, of young players, players that have won it all and kept them motivated and recycling teams year after year.
He was a genius. I don’t think we’ll see a manager of a football club like that again. He ran the football club top to bottom and you see the void that he’s left since he’s gone.
Has he been in touch with any words of advice?
About three weeks ago when I was confirmed as an academy coach, he reached out and we had 15 minutes on the phone. We talked about life and of course some words of advice.
I’m proud that someone like that would reach out and I’m thankful for that.
Is it any coincidence that so many of those players from the Manchester United days have gone into coaching and management and been so successful?
You’ve got to be a certain character to play for Manchester United. You’ve got to have hard work and discipline, and obviously be very talented at what you do.
I think hard work and discipline are the two main things you need if you want a career in coaching, and that just comes with the territory of being a Manchester United player.
You had a successful career as a player – what were the highlights for you?
It’s a long time since I reached the highlights of playing for England and winning the league with Manchester United.
I’m very proud of captaining Watford. My most enjoyable season was probably the season at Watford on loan. I thoroughly enjoyed my football then. It was also a big achievement winning the league in 2012/13.
My biggest personal achievement would have been playing for England and going on to captain Watford.
You were part of the last Manchester United team to win the title. Are they any closer to winning it again? Are they on the right track under Erik ten Hag?
I like to be optimistic but I don’t think they’ve ever been further away. The strength of the other teams, with the usual competitors and the introduction of (Aston) Villa, Brighton and Newcastle, it’s going to be very difficult.
I hope they can have a good run in the Champions League but as far as domestically in the league is concerned, it is a massive task, and you must be realistic about that.
How difficult is it with the expectation at Manchester United? Towards the end of your United career you had a pretty tough time under David Moyes and you found that difficult to deal with. There a lot of high-profile players at Manchester United and some of them have found it difficult – what are those experiences like?
Yeah, I struggled with it. At times like that you look in the mirror. Am I doing everything right to prepare?
I think the support networks for players were a little bit less back then. You fend for yourself, which I tried to, but I struggled a little bit.
But you take your hat off to the players that can come through these slumps in form at the biggest of clubs. For example, (Bukayo) Saka after the Euros, (Raheem) Sterling has had periods and has ended up back at the top, John Stones had a season where people doubted him and he is one of the best defenders in the world.
You take your hat off to these players who are resilient to be at the top for 10 to 15 years. There is always going to be dips in form but you must mentally deal with it.
Do you sympathise with Harry Maguire because he has probably taken more criticism than any other player in the modern game?
Of course I do. It is the modern world we live in now with the internet and social media. Goals that aren’t his fault, are his fault, and it all becomes a little bit silly.
He is a Sheffield lad who has gone on to play for his country and captain Manchester United. He is massively successful, even though right now he might not feel that way.
He should be proud of everything he has done and not let anyone affect that.
Do you have fond memories of playing for England and what do you make of the progress of this current team under Gareth Southgate?
It’s fantastic to see, the job the manager has done to get a country to play like a club side. How well knitted together they are, the bond between the players, he needs to take all the credit for that.
We’ve got some of the most exciting young players in the world and our last two tournaments have given us massive hope. It’s an exciting time to be an England fan.
I played for my country 13 times. I never scored, even though I had a chance against Ukraine at home. I didn’t show my best stuff in an England shirt but it is something I’ll always be proud of doing.
In this current side we’ve got pace, technique and great defenders – and we’ve got Jude Bellingham, who is one of the most exciting young players in the world.
We have big-game players and we have everything to give us a big chance. We’ll be in every conversation when it comes to predicting winners of the Euros.
You played with some great midfield players in your career. How does Bellingham compare?
Right now, he’s still in the potential stage. It sounds mad when he’s playing every week for Real Madrid.
We always say, ‘let’s see two to three years at this level before you put them into the (Paul) Scholes, (Steven) Gerrard, (Frank) Lampard conversation’, but he certainly is on the right track to do so.
Is he someone you pick out to the young players here at Watford, to say, ‘that’s how you conduct yourself, that’s the kind of drive and determination you need to make it to the top’?
I already have done. He wears his shorts where his shorts should be, his socks where his socks should be and he has a normal but iconic celebration. You don’t have to be out there and wild – just do your job.
I prefer players who are very focused and mature and are driven to do well.
As a coach, is that how you see it – just do your job and see where it takes you?
My job is to develop these young players at Watford and do my best for the football club. If that means we can get a couple of them into the first team then I’ll be really happy.
My two objectives now are to learn as a coach and to develop these U18s.