Time for Man U trio to shine

Evans and Rafael look on as two Thai youngsters tussle for the ball.

BANGKOK - Jonny Evans, Tom Cleverley and Rafael da Silva would not be what Americans would call franchise players.

Wayne Rooney is.

But Evans, Cleverley and Rafael are the ones who have appeared at promotional events here in Bangkok in Manchester United's first stop of their pre-season tour.

They have been busy signing autographs for hundreds of fans and intermittently been asked to kick balls into screaming hordes.

All this while Rooney's future at Old Trafford continues to be discussed endlessly.

His tour ended as soon as it started here when he returned to Manchester on Thursday to nurse a hamstring injury.

Injuries, illness or extended rest have kept Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, David de Gea, Nemanja Vidic, Javier Hernandez, Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, Darren Fletcher and Luis Nani from Bangkok.

Which maybe explains why Evans, Cleverley and Rafael are busier than usual. Rafael doesn't seem to mind, though.

Apparently, the 23-year-old is having fun.

I asked him if such tours were a chore and the Brazilian right back said: "No, it is enjoyable. It is different cultures, different food and I've never been to Thailand.

"And this is also pre-season and is very important for our preparations. We work on our fitness and we also get to know one another.

"This is very important."

I was reminded Rooney was not to be discussed before I sat down for a chat with Rafael, Evans and Cleverley on Friday.

Even though United's No. 10 was everywhere.

As I travelled around Bangkok chasing the English champions, I couldn't help but picture a design whiz somewhere in the city cursing every time he or she chanced on Rooney's determined stare hanging on the numerous giant billboards.

The England and United star striker is here, only not in body.

With arms folded across the chest he stands proud on posters peppered along so many streets, occasionally accompanied by Rafael or Cleverley.

Rooney occupies prime real estate on the delightfully painted team bus.

When United trained 24 hours before their friendly with the Singha All-Stars last night, he was on guard, looking down from the huge electronic scoreboard at the Rajamangala Stadium during the team's one-hour training session.

Whether Rooney stays or goes, new United boss David Moyes will want Rafael, Evans and Cleverley to move to the next level in his debut season with the club.

They are good footballers, but not yet stars.

At 25, Evans has developed into a solid central defender.

But many remain curious whether he can become a first-team footballer week-in, week-out for the Red Devils.

With club captain Vidic increasingly susceptible to injury and Rio Ferdinand at the twilight of his career, Evans could well be crucial in United's upcoming campaign.

He knows the new season is going to be hugely significant.

He knows the target.

"We have a new manager and we want to win him his first Premier League title," said Evans.

"That's our bread and butter.

"Like the manager, we are desperate to win the Premier League."

With transfer fees reaching the stratosphere and the fight for the big names on the market so intense, homegrown stars are priceless these days.

Alex Ferguson had high hopes for Cleverley.

He gave him his first-team debut at the start of the 2011/12 campaign and United went on an exciting run.

Cleverley has all the attributes to be a midfield general.

He is neat with the football, has high energy, always looks to pass the ball forward and works box to box.

He has his critics, though.

His goals production is poor and he struggles to assert himself in games.

Injuries have blighted his progress.

But Cleverley is fit now and will be desperate for a breakout season to cement his place in Roy Hodgson's England squad as they battle to book their spot at next year's World Cup Finals in Brazil. He insists he is ready to step up.

"At 16 and 17, I wasn't the best player but I worked hard. That's key," he said.

"The atmosphere when it was the previous manager and the atmosphere with the new one is the same. Everyone at United works hard.

"The message is keep our feet on the ground, concentrate, be confident and don't get nervous. "I believe in myself. I believe I can get better."

The 24-year-old agrees with Evans that the English title is top priority for United. "The Champions League and the Premier League are both important.

"Of course, some of us have never won in Europe.

"But we have a new manager. You look at the strength of the teams in the Premiership and the new managers and players and you realise how difficult it is to win the title, especially when you play week in, week out."

Hard work is what all three footballers preach.

They told me that is the United way.

"Of course, you must have ability and control to play for Manchester United," said Rafael, who hopes to be in the Brazilian squad when the country hosts the World Cup next year.

"But you must always work hard."

Said Evans: "Hard work. That is our foundation.

"Our work-rate, being able to go that extra few minutes, being able to grind out results, that is vital.

"It is what drives us on."

It'll be music to Moyes' ears, as he tries to deliver silverware in his first season with United. It will require a tremendous performance by the manager and his players.

If United are to continue to prosper, Moyes will need this trio to make that giant leap from capable footballers to star men.

Worthy of their own space on billboards and posters.