The Boy Who Would Be Emperor

He may have just turned twenty-two years old, but Ravel Morrison, still has to convince many people that he has left boyhood behind. A move to Lazio of Rome, beckons in June, a fresh start with a new team in a new country. Appraisals of this choice have been mixed, the new setting that he needs to thrive and progress away from the distractions of home; or a monumental culture shift that will ultimately be an overwhelming waste of time.

Any attempt to explain who Ravel Morrison is, can explicitly be split into two dissonant sections. One of off the field red flags and one of on the field genius.

To even attempt to understand Morrison, you have to go back to very start. He grew up in and around, Longsight and Wythenshawe. Both areas of Manchester, that Sir Alex Ferguson worried would lead Wesley Brown astray when he emerged in the late 1990s. Traditionally one of the largest Council Estates in Europe, Wythenshawe has like many similar areas around the country, been a place of great social deprivation and alienation. Ravel is a product of this environment, for better and worse, he should be equally applauded for using his talents to be able to provide for his family as he should be scolded for some of the bad habits he’s picked up along the way.

From a young age, as a Manchester United scholar, anecdotes of off the field incidents and murmurs of behavioural problems have persistently followed him. Some more substantiated than other, but nevertheless, the body of evidence is such to suggest there is no smoke without fire.

–  ‘It’s true there were some problems with him at the time, but I always thought he was a great kid who just needed guidance.’ – A quote from the scout, Phil Brogan, who brought him to Manchester United originally as an eight year old.

2008 – A 15 year old Morrison received a Police caution for assaulting his Mother.

2009 – Charges for assaulting his girlfriend, Reah Dixon, are dropped after she refuses to stand as a witness.

May 2009 – A 16 year old Morrison was allegedly in a car when it was searched by Police who found guns and drugs.

2011 – Received a 12 month referral order after admitting two counts of witness intimidation.

May 2011 – Another assault charge was dropped with Ms Dixon refusing to testify again. He was convicted of Criminal Damage for throwing her phone out the window though and advised to take part in domestic violence counselling.

February 2012 – Charged and fined by the FA for posting a homophobic threat on twitter in a response to a troll. “crack head ? Go suck out u little f*ggot your a guy that talks if u see me you try slap me I’m in manchester every week.”

July 2014 – Charged with assaulting a former girlfriend and her mother. It was also alleged that he had threatened to throw acid on his ex and have her murdered. On January 15th 2015, all charges were dropped. CCTV footage showed that no assault had taken place, instead the female in question had lost balance and fallen over on her own accord.

– Rumours were abound of missed training sessions at Manchester United and a growing loss of patience with his behaviour. Despite Ferguson dangling the carrot for him and showing him what he could have with a senior team debut, in January 2012, Morrison was on his way out of the club for a cut price fee.

– His first pre-season at West Ham featured was plagued by almost comical stories of strange behaviour. He’d become an easy target, his dental issues and alleged penchant for only drinking the clubs official bottled water become back page news. Yet more fuel for the ‘he’s a problem child’ fire.

– Morrison was sent out on loan to Birmingham City for the 2012/13 season for his first taste of regular senior football. Talk of infighting with his coach, Lee Clark, marred the first few months before things clicked with him finishing the season as a high performing, important team member.

– An impressive pre-season on his return to West Ham, earned him a place in the first team squad for the 2013/14 season. Morrison began to show glimpses of his talent and establish himself as an important member of the rotation, whilst also impressing on England U21 duty. 2013, looked like the year that he’d matured and was finally fulfilling some of his potential with an England senior team call-up not even out of the question. But, then everything changed. For reasons that have not been totally explained, Sam Allardyce soured on Morrison and he was cast out from the side. Allardyce himself blamed it on him being unsettled and itching for a move to Fulham but others were not so easily convinced.

– The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor wrote a piece, which made for very uncomfortable reading and suggested that this time; Morrison was being unfairly and lazily made a scapegoat. Testimonies from the West Ham staff suggested he was approaching the game with a professional attitude and that his lifestyle was in accordance with what they expected of one of their players, and yet, West Ham were excommunicating him? Taylor proffered that Allardyce and, the Club Captain, Kevin Nolan were pressuring Morrison to sign up with their agent. This pressure had become a daily topic of discussion and this unsettled Morrison, who had finally managed to become entirely comfortable in his role at the club. His relationships with the club rapidly broke down and in turn he sought a way out. West Ham’s action from here sent out mixed messages, Morrison was allowed to go, but Fulham’s bids were rejected. Through seemingly no fault of his own, this was another red flag placed alongside Morrison’s name by prospective buyers.

– Morrison had very little option but to go out on loan to the Championship’s QPR in mid-February. Conveniently, his 93 day loan would expire the day after the Playoff final. A Harry Redknapp managed side, with a plethora of attacking talent scraping their way to promotion, wasn’t really the settled environment Morrison craved. Redknapp’s short-terminism did not lend itself kindly to developing a young player with any care, Morrison had his moments but it was telling that he was not even called from the bench in the Play-Off Final itself.

– West Ham made noises that Morrison had a future at the club for the 14/15 season, but it seemed clear that all bridges had been burned. In mid-September, Morrison was on his way for another Championship loan with Cardiff City. A step down in quality was not what Morrison needed to progress, but West Ham seemed intent on not selling him to another Premier League club. The writing was on the wall at Cardiff when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a man he had an existing personal relationship with, was sacked and replaced by Russell Slade. As Cardiff City fans will attest, Slade finds little use for creative footballers and it wasn’t long till Morrison was back at West Ham.

– With his contract running out in the Summer ’15, West Ham officially announced that Morrison was available to be signed for a small fee in the January transfer window. Perhaps there were no English sides willing to take the plunge, or maybe Morrison was intent on West Ham not profiting from him; but his next move was a surprise to most. On the final day of the January transfer window, it was announced that Ravel Morrison would be joining Lazio on a free transfer next summer. Upon the confirmation of this transfer, West Ham released Morrison. At the time of writing, this leaves Morrison in a bit of a limbo. Due to having already played for two sides this season (and the West Ham U21s), Morrison is ineligible to join and play for Lazio until next season. Therefore he will either hang around in purgatory for 5 months, or as has been reported this week, he train intermittently with his new side before moving to Italy permanently in June.

In other words, this is DEFCON1; the worst possible scenario.

Morrison has shown during his short career, that when he’s playing regular football and able to settle into a routine, the background white noise ceases. Instead of this regular football, Morrison is facing the prospect of effectively twelve months with nothing to show from it. This inability to progress on the pitch is compounded by the huge cultural adjustment he is facing with his move to Rome. He’s taking Italian lessons but it’ll be a gradual and shocking adjustment process, he is after all, a young British man who has probably never been in a room without another person who boasts English as their first language. Ravel has had a difficult upbringing, and one which has not always encouraged him to build trust with male authority figures. It is not uncommon for young males with similar backgrounds to Morrison, to spurn guidance or to be cautious of those in perceived positions of power. Therefore, it’s not surprising Morrison’s best spells as a footballer have been based on a development of strong personal relationship with his coaches. It may take him a while to form these relationships, but when he did with the United coaching staff, Lee Clark and Sam Allardyce, he flourished on the pitch. Unfortunately these personal relationships and feelings of trust, impact Morrison so much, that when they’re broken; they often lead to confrontation and a drop in performances. Lazio’s coach, Stefano Pioli will have to find the equilibrium between stern leadership and sensitive encouragement and trust building to coax the best out of Morrison.

It’s certainly a brave move with a tremendous upside, the cult status he could achieve in Italy is enormous. The comparisons with Paul Gascoigne are eerie although he has a lot more to prove at this point, but surely the precedent for him failing is so much greater? Would it surprise me if he’s moving back to England next January? No. Would it surprise me if he’s moving back to England before his contract at Lazio even officially starts? Not at all.

I can’t help but think there may have been better moves for Morrison, that would lead to greater probabilities of success. Purely hypothetical moves to Liverpool. Tottenham or Everton, under personable yet strong willed young managers (Rodgers, Pochettino and Martinez respectively) seem like more logical moves to me. I think the pressure of having to fight talented senior players for a place in the side, would have been a challenge that Morrison may have risen to, at this stage of his career. In addition, a respected manager going out on a limb for him and making him feel wanted in a good situation, would have earned his respect and goodwill instantly.

There are many questions that remain unanswered, and it’ll be incredibly interesting to watch his progress in the next twelve months. I certainly hope he succeeds. My support for Morrison may seem odd, why should I empathise and support a guy with such a questionable past? Perhaps it requires me to turn a blind eye morally at times, but it’s simple, he’s one of the most engrossing and spellbinding footballers to watch at full flow.

Ravel Morrison made his debut for the Manchester United U18s when he was just 15 years old. But even before this moment, the whispers of a special talent coming through at Old Trafford, had ensured he was the worst kept secret in the club. Rio Ferdinand admitted as much in last years interview with BT Sport, the senior players at United were watching him train as a 13/14 year old.

The first time I recall watching him was in September 08 for the England U16s in the Victory Shield v Northern Ireland. England ran out comfortable 6-0 winners that day and there were a few notable performances by the likes of Ross Barkley and Benik Afobe. But Ravel, or Ra’vel as he was known back then, was a completely different animal. The way he could carry the ball and the balance with which he ran and changed direction was quite simply unlike anything i’d ever seen from an English footballer. For the next three seasons he only reaffirmed my first thoughts, and I wasn’t alone in being spellbound by him.

Matt Dickinson (The Times) – ‘when did we last see such balance and daring from an English 15 year old?’

James Ducker (The Times) – ‘a hugely gifted individual, with a remarkable turn of pace, close control and a keen eye for goal.’

Mark Ogden (The Telegraph) – ‘his prodigious talent is the worst kept secret in Mancunian football circles.

Henry Winter (The Telegraph) – ‘a potential gem for 2014…better than Wilshere and Gibbs and up their with Rodwell…the potential to emerge as the pre-eminent English footballer of his generation.

Week after week I was tuning in religiously to MUTV just to catch a glimpse of him. The off the field chatter had already began to swirl, but on the pitch, there was nothing not to like. For the full 90 minutes of games he’d prove untouchable and would look like a class apart from anyone lucky enough to grace the same grass as him. Playing alongside him was a certain, Paul Pogba, who also looked like a special talent even back then. However, despite his own brilliance, the young Frenchman was always the Robin to Morrison’s Batman.

As he matured into the U18s, he eventually become a legitimate central midfielder, not just a creative attacking player. Opponents could barely get near him when he had the ball at his feet, carrying it effortlessly and gracefully wherever he wished with a turn of his snakish hips. His supreme balance and drop of a shoulder sent whole opposition midfields the wrong way and his total control allowed him to constantly be in space. Something that you became accustomed to seeing him do, was dropping back into the gap infront of his back four. He’d look up at the opposing players and slow down to a standstill, before plotting his course and suddenly going. From there he’d proceed to just slalom through them with consummate ease. His ability to slow the game right down and then go is matched by only a handful of players. The arrogance, flair and just pure ability was on another level to anything i’d seen at that level before or since.

One of the most striking things about Morrison’s game from the beginning was how clinical he was. Off either foot and from anywhere within twenty five yards of the goal, he would effortlessly stroke the ball in. He was not raw or unrefined, instead he had total control over his ability and he was improving game after game. In addition to his ability to make game changing passes and even working hard to track back and win possession from the opposition ensured that United side was formidable. The Youth Cup victory in his final season of U18s football being testament to that.

When he broke through, with such a huge impact last season, I was not surprised. It had been 18 months or so since i’d had the chance to watch him regularly but the same confidence and smoothness on the ball was still there. His fearlessness to carry the ball when others may shirk the responsibility remained. Morrison’s efforts were rewarded with some memorable performances and goals, none more so than the individual effort v Spurs.

A deserved England U21 call up followed and this is where he really began to capture the imagination of the nation. This obscene volley and this chip in training went viral and were seen around the world. Funnily enough, his impressive performances in the actual qualifying games went under appreciated.  Albeit in comfortable wins v Lithuania and San Marino, Morrison wore the no.10 shirt of England, like no other player has in decades; if ever. He was dynamic, imaginative, technically supreme and confident. It was a display to signal that he does have all the talent in the World.

As we’ve seen, what a difference twelve months make. It is extremely unlikely that Morrison will even make the squad for the Euro U21s this summer. A tournament, he not only should be taking part in, but could be dominating. There are plenty of people out there hoping he succeeds at Lazio, and even more probably hoping he fails. He’s getting to the age and stage of his development where he can’t afford another wasted year. In Lazio, he’s picked a huge challenge for himself and one that he can’t afford to shirk. The next twelve months could be the making of Morrison as an elite footballer, but that consistent effort and drive to succeed has to come from him. At some point he has to ensure he is the architect of his own fortune. As the signed Arsenal shirt he received, from another Longsight native Danny Welbeck, stated recently – ‘Rav, stay focused.’

I fully recommend watching the full nine minutes of this video.

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