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From scapegoat to hero: confident Cleverley can now claim cup crown

Tom Cleverley would surely not have been high on many Aston Villa fans’ loan list last summer, as the misunderstood Manchester United academy product became a casualty of new coach Louis van Gaal’s supposed cull.

Life in Birmingham did not start brightly for the Basingstoke-born midfielder, but Tim Sherwood’s eventual arrival changed everything, and now Cleverley will compete in an FA Cup final (which Villa are 9/4 with Coral to win) as one of his side’s most in-form players. What a difference a few months can make.

The 25-year-old has been a surprisingly crucial component in Villa’s recent resurgence, and to his credit Sherwood has kept the faith with Cleverley, who has chipped in with a vital three goals in his last three games.

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Looking devoid of confidence after falling out of favour at Old Trafford, where he was often viewed as lacking leadership and cutting edge, and criticised for his cautious passing, Cleverley is beginning to show signs of his once highly-rated potential.

Red Devils fans will remember the urgency with which Cleverley, who had waited patiently for his chance, burst onto the scene following successful loan spells with both Watford and Wigan Athletic.

Having been converted from winger to an all-round central midfielder under Roberto Martinez, productive Cleverley seemed set for stardom as United lacked a player who could hold onto possession and provide goal threat from the middle of the park.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and an ill-timed injury threw a spanner in the works, however, as Cleverley’s progress suddenly stalled. Gone were the bursts into the box and raking forward passes, as Cleverley appeared to feel the burden of United’s decline more than most.

With chances under Van Gaal looking limited, after Cleverley was unfairly made a scapegoat by some for the Red Devils’ disappointing seventh spot finish, Villa Park seemed a perfect fit.

It had looked unlikely that the England international, whose timid early turn outs for the Villans frustrated, was going to find his midfield mojo again. Yet the club has persevered, perhaps seeing value in the soon-to-be free agent, and their persistence with the England international has finally paid off.

Speaking after his recent heroics against West Ham United, Cleverley told press about the factors behind his recent revival, stating: “I feel that in the last 10-12 games, I’m getting back to what I know I can do. That always helps when you’re playing every week.

“All footballers have doubts when they’re having a not-so-good patch and I’m not different. I’ve got my head down. I’ve worked hard with the help of the lads and the new manager and hopefully I can get back to my best.”

The England international’s safe harbour with Sherwood could now be made permanent, after the midfielder stepped up alongside partner Fabian Delph to shore up relegation-threatened Villa’s spine, but there is still more to prove.

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A confident Cleverley (11/2 to strike anytime in Villa’s next outing against Southampton) can be an asset for any mid-table team, and the adaptable Old Trafford graduate is much more capable and competent than has been portrayed in the past, as long as expectations are not too high.

With the wind in his sails, Villa fans can expect a hard-working and diligent player able to grab a modest number of goals and assists, as well as do a defensive shift. His contributions may never be consistently spectacular but, should the club and fans keep supporting Cleverley, the Villans will have a reliable and tenacious terrier, willing to give his all, on their hands.

Bundesliga big-guns Wolfsburg have also apparently emerged as surprise contenders for Cleverley’s signature, so, with Arsenal and Everton already said to be keen, Villa may have to move quickly to tie down their midfield man.