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During an interview on BT Sport, Rio Ferdinand recalled an occasion from his time at Manchester United, when Sir Alex Ferguson was enraptured by the talent of one of his young players. “Sir Alex Ferguson, I remember he called me and Wazza (Rooney) over one day and said ‘look at this kid, he’s better than you Rooney when you were a kid, he’s better than you Rio, better than Ryan Giggs when you were kids. This is the best kid you will ever see’.” It was high praise indeed from a manager not prone to hyperbole. The player he was referring to was Ravel Morrison.
Despite an overabundance of God-given talent however, the ‘baggage’ that came with it eventually even proved too heavy a burden for the great Scot. The player who Ferguson later lamented over as the “saddest case” never played a league game for Manchester United and just three days short of his nineteenth birthday, he left the Theatre of Dreams and embarked on a nomadic journey down a slippery slope.
The young talent of whom his manager had said he “would even pay to watch him train, let alone play in a game” was offloaded to West Ham United for a reported fee of £650,000. At the time Ferguson told his opposite number, Sam Allardyce that, “[He is] a brilliant footballer. Brilliant ability. Top-class ability. Needs to get away from Manchester and start a new life. I hope you can sort him out, because if you can he’ll be a genius.” The problem was that, as with Ferguson, Allardyce couldn’t “sort him out” and neither has any other manager to date. At 25 years old, it seems that Ravel Morrison may have plummeted from prodigious promise to mere journeyman reality.
Ravel Morrison officially joined Manchester United as a ‘scholar’ in 2009, and signed his first professional contract with the club a year later on his 17th birthday. Despite the undoubted talent and appearances for the U16, U17 and U18 England teams that underscored his talent and potential however, a few appearances in the League Cup and games with the youth team at the club – including winning the FA Youth Cup – were the extent of his time with the club. For a number of reasons, some not connected to the game saw his progress stymied, as court appearances suggested a troubled personal life. Ferguson eventually, and somewhat reluctantly – “It was very painful to sell him to West Ham in 2012 because he could have been a fantastic player. But, over a period of years, the problems off the pitch continued to escalate and we had little option but to cut the cord” – cut his losses, as well as the cord and Morrison drifted away to West Ham United.
Sam Allardyce had a record of turning players’ careers around, and clearly considered the investment in time – let alone money – was worth it to polish the rough diamond he had a quired. A three-and-a-half-year contract was agreed. The fact that, in that period, Morrison would only play 18 league games for the Hammers however, suggested that the investment reaped poor rewards.
Before there was time for any substantive impact in East Lindon, adverse publicity reared its unpleasant head again. A homophobic remark on Twitter brought an FA censure and a fine of some £7,000.00. Here was a young man with a lot of ground to make up. It was hardly the ideal start on the road to redemption.
After a single appearance for West Ham, Allardyce decided that a consistent period of first-team football may be beneficial, something that was hardly guaranteed with West Ham, and Morrison was loaned out to Championship club, Birmingham City. Whether the player saw it as a step down is unclear, but reports began to emerge from St Andrews’ manager Lee Clark that things were not going well for the young midfielder in the Midlands. An apparent lack of application in training and a difficult attitude were far outweighing the possible benefit Morrison could offer to Clark’s team. Rumours grew that the manager wanted to cut the loan short and send Morrison back to East London.
As time went on though, things improved and around October, Morrison was back in the Blues’ first team with Clark denying any rift between him and the player, commenting that, “I know there’s been headlines about him and things that have happened off the field. But I haven’t had a problem with him off the field. He loves his football, you see a big smile on his face when he’s playing and training.” Even in that praise however, potential nefarious “off the field” activities still seen to be a concerning factor.
Was this a new mature Ravel Morrison though? Improvement continued and following an outstanding City comeback to draw 3-3 at Millwall after being three goals down, the Birmingham Mail lauded his contribution. “It wasn’t just his elegant, effortless ability on the ball and passing, but work rate, too.” Whilst many had sung his praises with regard to talent previously, praise for the basics of the game had been a rare commodity in Morrison’s past. The talent was still there though and in November, a spectacular volley against Hull City demonstrated that the ability was unquestioned and with the correct application, a true gem of a player could be revealed.
Back at his parent club, early promise suggested that perhaps Allardyce could succeed where Ferguson had failed. A goal on his first start for the club in a League Cup game against Cheltenham capped an encouraging display. The following month, he notched his first Premier League strike with a sumptuous goal at White Hart Lane in a 0-3 West Ham victory. Gliding first past Dawson and then Vertonghen, personifying coolness and confidence, Morrison then elegantly chipped the ball over Lloris. Here was the talent that Ferguson had drooled over. His manager would remark. “That’s a genius goal for me. You’ll struggle to see a better goal than that all season”. It was a pretty fair assessment. His success with the Hammers brought a recall to the England U21 colours.
In February, Allardyce again chose to use the loan system to flesh out Morrison’s experience. In a fairly successful period, at least on the pitch, with QPR, he helped the club to the promotion play-off final, although he sat on the bench for the showpiece occasion. It was perhaps the player’s most consistent period of his career to date. In 15 league starts, he scored six times, including two against former club Birmingham City. The 2012-13 season ended on a reasonable high, but the following term would decide the way forward for the player with so much promise and a career in the balance.
The summer hardly helped matters as legal trouble suggested all was still not well for the troubled midfielder. Allegations of assault brought further adverse publicity, and although Morrison was found not guilty, the affair hardly endeared him to his manager. In what seemed like a ‘last chance saloon’ move, Allardyce placed Morrison out on loan for a third period, this time with Cardiff City. It would not be a happy time for club or player. He made just one start for the Bluebirds and after a mere seven appearances in the first team, manager Russel Slade took the Alex Ferguson approach and decided that there was no benefit to the club in keeping the player in South Wales any longer. Ravel Morrison was sent back to West Ham.
By now, the club had decided not to retain his services when his contract expired in the summer of 2015. In the early days of 2015, news broke that Morrison had signed a pre-contract with Serie A club, Lazio. Troublesome talent was nothing new to the Rome club. Previous experience in dealing with the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Paolo di Canio had given them a good grounding in such things. The move was scheduled for the end of the season, but by February, West Ham were happy to cancel the remainder of his contract with the club and Morrison was free to begin training with Lazio.
It was undoubtedly a gamble for all concerned, but the history of clubs’ experience with Ravel Morrison suggested that things may not turn out well. By June, reports were circulating that the player was having trouble settling in the Italian capital and would welcome a move back to the UK, with QPR apparently interested. The player would later deny the accuracy of the story, but things were clearly not going well.
Sporadic appearances as the new season got under way only intensified the speculation, and the club’s coach, Stefano Pioli, used Twitter to bemoan a perceived lack of effort, typified by the player’s inability to speak Italian. Morrison would only feature in four Serie A games for the club, and in January 2017, the speculated loan move to QPR duly happened, with an offer to complete a permanent transfer for a £2million fee at the end of the loan. One start, among a total of five appearances was hardly a compelling case and QPR declined to take up the option.
The new season saw another unexpected journey when Lazio agreed a loan move to Mexican club Atlas. Early season form was encouraging, but the standards weren’t maintained and, after the turn of the year, playing time in the first team diminished. Atlas showed little enthusiasm to extend the arrangement and after 18 league games, scoring three goals, Ravel Morrison returned to Lazio with all the appearance of being unwanted by the club. Some have speculated that the most likely outcome is that his contract will be terminated.
At 25 years of age, opportunities may still await Ravel Morrison to reveal his true potential and justify the acclaim of his first club manager. For a player though, who was the brightest star in a Manchester United youth team containing the likes of Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba when lifting the 2011 FA Youth Cup, there’s an increasingly sad possibility that this may never happen, and that the bright future, promised by his early talent, may already be behind him.