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In his first training session with the England under-21s this week, Ravel Morrison provided the winning goal with a cutting through ball that went against his own team and set-up the opposition. On the sidelines, the FA’s development directors Trevor Brooking and Dan Ashworth reacted with humour and playful laughter. They were notably relaxed and in all likelihood, bursting with excitement of Morrison’s talents so much they were allowing him to revel in the freedom of his youth. After all, under-21 coach Gareth Southgate had given him the seal of approval “We’ve got at least three players” of which Morrison was one,“who have the ability to do things that are out of the ordinary”, he said.
His brilliant goal against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, in which he brushed past two defenders before drawing goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to lift the ball beyond him, gave the context to Southgate’s endorsement of the 20 year old he believes has a touch of Paul Gascoigne about him. Morrison, given the superb form he is in for West Ham, is likely to play a major part in Southgate’s under-21 squads for this week’s European Championship qualifiers with San Marino on Thursday and Lithuania next Tuesday. As they prepare to watch him in action, everybody involved in the development of the former Manchester United winger will draw a sharp breath of relief as his talents are finally beginning to be realised and not put aside to waste.
Born in Wythenshawe and playing for the same Manchester boy’s team that produced Danny Welbeck and Wes Brown, he was signed by United at the age of 8 after being noticed by academy coach and scout Phil Brogan.
“It took me less than an hour to see what a talent Ravel is” said Brogan, reacting on Monday to Morrison’s weekend exploits. “The talent I saw in that eight-year-old will always be there,” he said, “I genuinely believe he could become good enough to play for any team in the world, including Barcelona”.
He is currently playing for West Ham, not quite Barcelona but it will be pleasing all the same for Brogan who saw first-hand the issues Morrison had to deal with externally that eventually led to his departure. Although described as the best talent to emerge at Old Trafford since Paul Scholes by the senior staff at Carrington, there was a general acceptance that the teenager, though his ability was never in doubt, was not aware of the sacrifices he was required to make if he was to do his extraordinary potential justice. He was a key member of the United side that won the FA Youth Cup in 2011 yet constantly angered staff with the infrequency of his attendance to training and, compounded with his private misdemeanors, the relationship between Morrison and United’s staff, including the persistent Sir Alex Ferguson, began to sever.
A caution for common assault in 2008, a narrow escape from a prison sentence for two counts of witness intimidation, plus a £600 criminal damage charge for breaking his girlfriend’s phone in a domestic argument, had embroiled him off the field and with United’s patience wearing thin, he was allowed to leave for West Ham for just £650,000 in the January of 2012.
“I think leaving Manchester was, in retrospect, one of the best things that could have happened to him to enable him to focus on his career. I think there were negative influences he needed to get away from”, mused Brogan.
His time at West Ham started badly, attracting a £7,000 fine for homophobic abuse a month after joining the London club, furthering doubts about his character and attitude as he made just one appearance, a nine-minute cameo against Leeds United, for the Hammers as they achieved promotion from the Championship. The following season, Sam Allardyce sent him on loan to Birmingham to get games, though he struggled with his application, frustrating Lee Clark with his poor time-keeping and lax attitude towards training regimes. He played three games in August and he was dropped last October, dealing yet another blow to his future as Clark contemplated terminating his loan spell. If West Ham didn’t want him and he couldn’t even crack it at Birmingham, where was he going to go?
Though Clark, determined to coax his potential out of him, wasn’t prepared to give up, sitting him down for a lengthy conversation he has since described as a “watershed”, explaining what was expected to him and the importance of working hard in training. In mid-October, he summoned a performance that Clark described as “unplayable” in Birmingham’s under-21 meeting with Derby and four days later he was back in the first-team. This time he stayed there, playing 26 times and scoring three goals, showing on a regular basis the precious ability that caused so many to care enough to repeatedly encourage him despite the exasperation and the frustration he repeatedly caused.
In a 0-4 win at Crystal Palace in March he was excellent, scoring one and providing another, dazzling everybody with his skills as he was a constant menace to the Palace defence. A draw with Millwall also became memorable for Morrison’s majestic quality, the local newspaper noting how “it wasn’t just his elegant, effortless ability on the ball and passing, but work rate, too”. It was becoming palpable that Morrison wasn’t just producing impressive displays, but also showing the desire that had previously threatened to undermine his promise.
Though it wasn’t clear how much his spell at St. Andrews had improved him until he returned to West Ham this summer. “That spell at Birmingham gives time to reflect on what it takes to be a player on a week-in, week-out basis,” Sam Allardyce said. “The rough and tumble of the Championship taught him a lot.” Team-mate Sam Tomkins was also positively reflective over Morrison’s improvement, “He seems to have grown up at Birmingham, it’s done a lot of good for him”, he said.
His improvement was rewarded with Allardyce’s faith over pre-season which was repaid with six goals, including one in the League Cup tie with Cheltenham. He was handed his first Premier League start in the game at Southampton, positioned in central-midfield to highlight his versatility, then more goals followed against Everton and Cardiff, before his jaw-dropping solo contribution to the 0-3 win at White Hart Lane on Sunday. “The penny has finally dropped” according to the West Ham manager and after what was always a low-risk, well-calculated move, he has been proved right for showing trust in the problematic youngster who is now producing displays of wondrous imagination, fine balance and elegant technique, all mixed in with a potent end-product.
Following sporadic appearances for the England under-16, 17 and 18 age-groups, five in total, his stable, consistent form has made Southgate and the under-21s now sit up and take notice to the rehabilitation the 20 year old has undergone. It is indicative of the troubled nature of Morrison’s progression that the game with San Marino this Thursday is likely to be his first appearance in the white of his national side for three long years of transformation. It will be a marker however, that Morrison, formerly so ignorant to his wonderful ability and gifted talent, is finally on the correct path.