It was on the 16th October 2012, exactly a year ago this week, that Ravel Morrison lined up for Birmingham under-21s in the Professional Development League Two North in a match against Derby.
It was a match who Lee Clark, the manager who had dropped Morrison from his first-team due to a lax attitude and poor professionalism, set Morrison as an ultimatum, a last chance for the youngster to prove that he held a desire to make a success of his loan spell in the Midlands or to be sent back to West Ham with a poor reference and more evidence that his burning potential was on the way to waste.
Fast forward to this week and it is equally surprising and relieving to see the effervescent role he has played in England’s Under-21 European Championship qualifiers with San Marino and Lithuania.
Handed his first call-up to the squad by manager Gareth Southgate, Morrison not only delivered on the pitch, providing an imaginative, energetic performance against San Marino before scoring twice on Tuesday night against Lithuania, but he has also delighted on the training ground, scoring with an audaciously brilliant chip and showing his excellent talent as he gelled with the squad during shooting practice.
As Roy Hodgson and the seniors tried to cultivate an image of confidence and relaxation ahead of their vital World Cup qualifiers, Morrison, on the adjacent training pitch, split a defence with a superb through-ball to provide the winning goal.
The onlooking Dan Ashworth and Trevor Brooking, heads of the FA’s development team, burst into fits of laughter, he had set-up the opposite team in a moment of typical tomfoolery and had done his unique best to lighten the tension growing over both teams.
On the same night that the seniors qualified for the World Cup, Morrison was helping the under-21s, breaching the Lithuanian defence within 2 minutes before adding an exquisite second on 71 minutes. Picking up the ball just inside the visitors’ half, he breezed past two defenders before beating the ‘keeper with a step-over and slotting into the empty net. Gareth Southgate acknowledged Morrison’s excellence but chose to emphasise the contribution of the whole team.
Perhaps Southgate had become accustomed to his quality, he had witnessed first-hand his brilliance on the training pitch and had watched him score a similar goal against West Ham the previous week after all. This was nothing new to the under-21 coach and to probably everybody involved with the 20 year old’s progression, who will be merely relieved to finally see the former Manchester United starlet produce regularly on the pitch.
During his time at Carrington, Morrison was held in such high regard by United staff that they saw him as the best talent to emerge at the club since Paul Scholes. It was his bristling potential that convinced United’s academy coach Phil Brogan to sign him up as an 8 year old and then reflect so effusively over the player last week on the radio. His talent was never in doubt, though unfortunately his attitude and character was.
Despite being an integral part of their 2011 FA Youth Cup win, impressing immensely in the semi-final victory over Liverpool, he compromised his chances of a first-team breakthrough by consistently missing training sessions.
A charge of common assault, a narrow aversion of a prison sentence for witness intimidation and a £600 fine for criminal damage came off the field and with Sir Alex Ferguson and his staff growing increasingly exasperated, they decided to get rid of him, selling him to West Ham for a vastly-reduced £650,000 fee in January 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” said Brogan.
It was what led Morrison to the nadir of the under-21 fixture of a year ago. “We faced problems with his behaviour off the field” said Hammers captain Kevin Nolan of Morrison’s first few months at Upton Park where he was restricted to just 9 minutes against Leeds United before being shipped out to Birmingham in the summer of 2012.
Again, after just 3 matches, he managed to exasperate his manager with poor-timekeeping and application towards his professional life, though Clark was persistent, sitting him down for a “watershed” chat about his future ahead of the reserve game with Derby.
It worked, Morrison produced a display that Clark described as “unplayable” and he was duly restored back into the first-team. He went on to make 26 appearances, producing a majestic display in a 0-4 rout of Crystal Palace as well as a scintillating performance in a draw with Millwall and he returned to West Ham finally grasping the reality of professional football.
“That spell at Birmingham gave him 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.”
The West Ham boss bought into Morrison’s improvement by giving him the majority of the club’s pre-season programme, to which the faith was repaid with 6 goals, including one in a League Cup tie with Cheltenham Town. He was handed his first Premier League start, moved into central-midfield, in the game at Southampton then more goals followed against Everton and Cardiff, before his contribution to the 0-3 win at White Hart Lane.
“The penny has finally dropped” according to Allardyce and the coach has been vindicated for gambling a chance on the troublesome 20 year old who is now producing displays of fearless enthusiasm, wondrous imagination, fine balance and elegant technique, all complimented with a ruthless cutting edge.
Morrison’s current form has indicated he could be ready-made for Roy Hodgson’s new-look senior England team that has tossed away cautious pragmatism in favour of exuberant abandon over the last couple of games.
Montenegro and Poland were both overcome with some fluid, assertive football and the breakthrough of Andros Townsend, earning his first caps after only just breaking into the first-team squad at Spurs, has become the epitome of the youthful boldness and valour that Hodgson now seemingly wants his side to play with.
Morrison fits perfectly into that bill and has shown the intelligence to convert seamlessly into a box-to-box midfielder after learning the game as a free-running winger, it is a versatility that will prove vital to any team, as well as the match-changing ability to “do things out of the ordinary” according to Southgate, a trait that saw the coach compare him to Paul Gascoigne.
“I genuinely believe he could become good enough to play for any team in the world, including Barcelona” said Morrison’s former coach Brogan and it is clear from the testimony of anybody who has worked with the midfielder that the talent, the balance, the effortless way of gliding past opponents with a blend of arrogance and self-belief has always been there.
Now crucially, and much to the relief of Lee Clark, Sir Alex Ferguson and co., the understanding of professionalism and required sacrifice is there too.
A year ago, when a start in the second tier seemed out of touch, it is not unthinkable that should he continue his wonderful form for West Ham and his England age group, Hodgson may pluck Morrison from the under-21s and take him to the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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