The first name on Alex Ferguson's team sheet is normally a matter of conjecture, a stab in the dark as to whether the Manchester United manager puts more store in the granite-like presence of, say, Nemanja Vidic or the unfettered brilliance of someone like Cristiano Ronaldo. But this afternoon such guess work is redundant. Ferguson confirmed two weeks back that Darron Gibson was the first United player to guarantee himself a starting place in today's Carling Cup final after a bright and busy FA Cup effort against Derby County two weeks back. "We've been trying to test him in a few different situations," said Ferguson of Gibson recently and it would seem that the 21-year-old has begun to come up with the right answers.
Gibson's United education this season has been mild; in the great ocean of opportunity he has merely been dipping his toe in the water. The midfielder has yet to start a league game for his club, although he has been trusted enough to come off the bench in that particular competition. Instead – a start in a Champions League dead rubber against Aalborg aside – the Carling and FA Cups has been where Gibson has taken his baby steps but you get the sense he would still be crawling were it not for Giovanni Trapattoni. The Irish manager's surprise decision to start him in central midfielder in Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Cyprus at Croke Park in October started off a chain of events that sees Gibson start at Wembley today.
Had Trapattoni not been so seduced by the well-built, uncomplicated and disciplined midfield protector in a friendly against Nottingham Forest at Dalymount Park, Gibson might now be doing the rounds of the English lower leagues as a serial loanee. But as well as shining a light on the player, Trapattoni also deserves praise for forcing Ferguson's hand a little. On a November visit to Old Trafford for United's Premier League game against Stoke, the Italian bumped into Ferguson before kick-off and the host asked what on earth he was doing there. Trapattoni said that he was present to see Gibson and, lo and behold, the youngster was thrown on for his Premier League debut in the second-half. The 69-year-old has since joked dismissively that the player's introduction was down to him but it's entirely possible that his presence held more sway with Ferguson than he himself believes.
It's not, of course, all down to Trapattoni's influence. Gibson can play a bit too.
"The thing that stood out for me from the start is that he's a wonderful striker of the ball," says Sean McCaffrey, the Ireland underage manager who had the player in his under-17 and under-19 sides a few years back. "He makes a great connection with it. He also has a great range of passing. He can play a 40-yard pass or a five-yard one. He gets up and down and he's good in the air. He has a little bit of everything."
Those abilities, however, were not what first brought Gibson to public attention. Instead, the Derry native was best known for initiating an eligibility row between the FAI and IFA as a result of his decision to play for the Republic of Ireland rather than the North. The issue seemed to bamboozle Fifa to the extent that world football's governing body eventually decreed in December 2007 that Gibson broke no rules in making his choice and that they didn't want to hear any more about it. But it was a switch of allegiance that need not have happened. As a 14-year-old, Gibson was a happy member of Northern Ireland's under-15 squad until he was forced to choose between his place in the party or a trial with United. "I remember Darron in tears and he told me he was going to be left out if he went to Manchester United," explained Paul McLaughlin, Gibson's uncle and a former Derry City player and coach. "How could he not go? They [the IFA] should have had more foresight. He was devastated. They didn't treat him right."
His upbringing made his next choice easy. Raised in Derry on the west of the River Foyle, Gibson attended St Columb's College, a school that has its fingerprints all over Catholic Derry's high achievers. It is the only school in the world to boast two Nobel Laurates, Seamus Heaney and John Hume. Phil Coulter passed through its doors. Brian Friel and Martin O'Neill, too. As well as his current game, Gibson played a bit of Gaelic football there too before packing in the books, and giving up his fondness for picking up the ball, to join United as a 15-year-old.
A "typical Derry lad", according to McCaffrey, who's capable of getting on with everybody, Gibson was first selected for the Republic of Ireland at under-17 level, and captained the under-19 and under-21 sides before making his senior international debut in his prefered shade of green in a August 2007 friendly against Denmark. A subsitute appearance against Slovakia in a European Championship qualifier followed a few weeks later, but he disappeared from international view until his selection against Cyprus. If that decision was a shock to many, it was completely understandable to those aware of what he was capable of. "I wasn't one bit surprised that he was picked," says McCaffrey.
"People were only surprised because they hadn't seen him. Anybody who had seen him play for the under-19s wouldn't have been surprised. I'm not trying to tell Mr Trapattoni how to do his job or anything but I'd have him in my Irish team."
That is the irony in Gibson's current situation. As a Manchester United reserve team player, he was deemed good enough for international football but now, as an active member of the European Champion's first-team squad, he has been replaced by Keith Andrews in Ireland's starting 11. Regular first-team football, it would seem, is what Gibson needs but McCaffrey sees both sides of this coin. "Players can get lost at a big club amongst all those big names," he says. "There's huge pressure, too. If you play one bad game it's worse than five bad games for a smaller club because of all the attention you'll get. You're also judged very quickly at a big club. But on the flip side, you receive a fantastic footballing education. In terms of Darron going out on loan to get some experience in the near future, it depends on what club he goes to. If it was a Premier League club that played football, maybe, but the Championship might not suit him."
He already has form on that front. Gibson spent the bulk of last season on loan at Wolves and the result was wholly underwhelming. In 24 appearances for Mick McCarthy's side, fans of the club were a little puzzled as to his worth. "Worst ever loanee from Man Utd," was the comic-book-guy verdict from one supporter, while the sentiment "he's not particularly good" pretty much summed up the feeling.
His spell on-loan at Royal Antwerp in 2006/7 was a similarly unfulfilling experience for both parties yet despite those unsatisfactory exercises, the club have been reluctant to cast Gibson adrift, as they have so many others. "People at Manchester United have a lot of faith in Darron," said John O'Shea recently. "They have always believed in his ability and now people can see that."
Ferguson certainly seems to have been swayed of Gibson's worth over the past six months and McCaffrey is firmly of the view that he is going to develop into a special player. "The thing with Darron is I don't think he realises how good he is," he suggests. "He doesn't lack in confidence, not one bit.
"But, you know, there's quite a difference in surviving in a top team and actually making an impact and I don't think Darron has done that yet. But when he realises that he's capable of making an impact, we're going to have some player on our hands, mark my words."
A successful Wembley appearance today and the penny just might drop.