It was one year ago next week that Ravel Morrison’s young career started to turn around. Last October the 19-year-old midfielder looked like a boy drifting through the football wilderness. On loan at Birmingham City from West Ham United, he could not get in Lee Clark’s struggling Championship team, dropped after playing three games in August.
Morrison was sent to St Andrew’s to play games and grow up but he was doing neither, and out of the side his performances in training were starting to drop. Had he failed to impress there, who knows what West Ham would have done with him, or where he would be now?
But Clark sat him down for a conversation he later described as a “watershed”, about what was expected of him and how he could get into the team. Morrison “knuckled down” in training and on 16 October was picked for Richard Beale’s Birmingham Under-21s against Derby in the Professional Development League Two North. In almost unplayable winds, at Birmingham’s Wast Hills training ground, Morrison – knowing what was at stake – gave a display Clark described as “outstanding”.
Four days later, Morrison was back in the first team, completing his first ever full 90 minutes of senior football in a 1-1 draw with Leicester City. He went on to make another 26 appearances for Birmingham last season, scoring three goals and showing the once-in-a-generation ability that made everyone care so much about how he was doing.
It was a learning process, certainly, as it always is for teenagers making their first steps in senior football. Morrison produced a brilliant performance at Selhurst Park, scoring one and making another in a 4-0 win over Crystal Palace in March, but did need some direction. “My voice is done in because I had to talk him through the 88 minutes,” Clark said afterwards. “He’s like a kid in the park playing with his mates.”
When Morrison returned to West Ham this summer, everyone noticed how much he had grown up. “He went to Birmingham and matured a lot as a player and as a person and we can all see that,” said James Tomkins after Morrison’s first West Ham goal, in a Capital One Cup win over Cheltenham Town in August. “He seems to have grown up at Birmingham, it’s done a lot of good for him.”
Sam Allardyce knows better than anyone else how much maturing Morrison did. “That spell at Birmingham gives time to reflect on what it takes to be a player on a week-in, week-out basis,” the West Ham manager said. “The rough and tumble of the Championship taught him a lot.”
It was very clear beforehand how much learning Morrison had to do. The details of his years at Manchester United (below) are well known, a time of thrilling promise and serious trouble. There was a caution for common assault in 2008, a 12-month referral order in 2011 for two counts of intimidating a witness and then five months later a £600 fine for criminal damage for destroying his girlfriend’s phone in an argument. Beyond that there was exasperation at the club over his attitude and application, particularly to training.
Sir Alex Ferguson – who rated him among the most talented teenagers he had ever seen at United – knew that Morrison needed to leave Manchester and so sold him to West Ham to “start a new life” away from the damaging influences. He arrived at Upton Park in January 2012 but his attitude was not much better than it was at United and he only made one nine-minute substitute appearance in a Championship game at Elland Road.
“Last year we had a lot of problems with him his lifestyle off the pitch,” Kevin Nolan revealed on Sunday after Morrison’s stunning goal against Tottenham. “Mentally – and he will probably vouch for this – he wasn’t quite ready,” added Tomkins. “As a young lad moving from up north to down south it can be hard.” But that season at Birmingham had precisely the desired effect and Morrison came back to Upton Park a changed man.
So Allardyce trusted him in pre-season, and he paid him back with six goals. At the start of this season, Morrison scored a delightful goal against Cheltenham, and was rewarded with his first Premier League start at Southampton on 15 September. Allardyce thought about playing him wide but decided to put him in central midfield, with Mohamed Diamé on the wing instead. Morrison scored against Everton, and against Cardiff, before Sunday’s wonder goal, when he ran more than half the pitch, beating two Spurs defenders and chipping Hugo Lloris.
This Thursday Morrison should play for England Under-21s against San Marino, his first international appearance after three troubled years. Fulfilment of his undoubted talent is still a long way off but Morrison seems to be back on the right path.
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