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Gibson slowly but surely realising the potential that can see him emerge as leader of Irish engine room

IN a rare interview last year, Darron Gibson touched on a scepticism which he is starting to overcome, a scepticism that every emerging talent at Manchester United must encounter.

"I don't want people looking at me and thinking: 'What is he doing playing?'" said the Derry native. His increasing involvement in the first-team picture at Old Trafford has left that question lingering. Alex Ferguson has faith. The paying public are yet to be fully convinced.

Unlike John O'Shea, who made a high profile emergence into the big time that was aided by an affability with the media at that juncture, Gibson's progression has largely gone unheralded.

Last weekend's slip-up from Chelsea has offered the 22-year-old a chance to join the elite club of Irishmen with Premier League medals which counts Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Damien Duff, Jeff Kenna and O'Shea as its only members. Given the dearth of players from these shores on the books of the Big Four, he's the only likely contender to join those ranks for the foreseeable future.

It's been a significant season for the midfielder in the sense that he has moved from the periphery towards the inner circle. Enthusiasm at his progression last term was tempered by the reality that he started just one Premier League game -- the dead rubber at Hull on the final day, which he marked with a late 'goal of the season' contender.

This season, aided by the perpetual injuries suffered by Owen Hargreaves and the indifferent form of Michael Carrick and Anderson, Gibson's stock has risen. He has been involved in 14 Premier League matches thus far, one more than the luckless O'Shea who suffered a freak injury in Paris, and been involved in six from the outset. Significantly, he has been entrusted with responsibility by being given the nod for marquee games with Bayern Munich and Manchester City in the last fortnight. Although the former occasion ended in disappointment, he grabbed the opening goal.

"He is getting recognition now and even the players are commenting on how much he has improved," said Ferguson, last week. "That was his sixth goal of the season and you cannot dismiss that.

"It's the kind of contribution we used to get from Paul Scholes. He used to get me to 12 to 14 goals from midfield all the time and we haven't had a player like that for a while."

They are big words to live up to and, judged against those standards, Gibson will always be exposed to flak. Nevertheless, he endured some ridiculously over the top abuse in these parts when he broke into the Irish set-up.

An unconvincing competitive debut against Cyprus earned the wrath of the RTE panel and he has yet to stand out in an Irish jersey looking unsuited by a deep lying role when Ferguson has used him as an attacking midfielder.

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Indeed, while Giovanni Trapattoni may be reluctant to tinker with his system, the increasing use of a lone front man at the top level is weighted in favour of Gibson, who, at this stage of his development, is considered a luxury in a four-man midfield.

It's his inability to really impose himself on a game that has given ammunition to his critics. He spent a period on loan with Wolves in 2007/08 and struggled with the demands of the Championship. Team-mates spotted an ability on the training ground which he failed to bring into battle. Similarly, he has dominated matches at reserve level, playing with real assertiveness compared to his outings in the spotlight.

With Ireland he has struggled to find his range and, save for an impressive cameo in Bari last April, his performances have underwhelmed. Surprisingly, for a player with a reputation for his prowess on the ball, he has lacked assurance in possession. Trapattoni was instantly bowled over by his willingness to get involved in a 'B' international with Nottingham Forest where he was a lively presence, but, on occasions, the game has passed him by.

Certainly, his well-being will be central to Ireland's hopes of qualifying for major tournaments in the next decade. Big name players are needed to replace Robbie Keane, Duff and Richard Dunne as they approach their swansong; at this stage, Gibson and the immensely promising Wigan star James McCarthy are the front runners to become the key figures of a new generation.

The nickname 'Moody' suggests that he can be a difficult character, very much a confidence player. However, after becoming a father last year when his girlfriend of four years gave birth to a baby girl, there is evidence of a growing maturity. "I don't really go out any more, I can't be bothered," said Gibson. "It's the same faces and posers all the time."

It's an attitude which will endear him to Ferguson. He awarded Gibson a new three-year deal last year and, with a summer of hectic transfer business anticipated at Old Trafford, he's far more secure than some of his colleagues.

If he adds conviction to the raw materials, then he'll be around for the long haul. A world of opportunity awaits.

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