The £50 Million Prodigy Better Than Pogba: Can Ravel Morrison Save His Career?

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterFebruary 23, 2017

B/R

Former Manchester United scout Phil Brogan would watch around 1,000 players a year as he scoured the country to find the best young talent to bring back to Old Trafford.

Most of the time, between 1998 and 2010, as Brogan travelled to schools, junior clubs and tournaments, the boys would blur into one, but he can still clearly recall the moment he stumbled across the best young player he had ever seen.

On a summer's day in 2001, Brogan was coaching at Fletcher Moss Rangers in Manchester when he walked past a group of boys and an eight-year-old named Ravel Morrison suddenly stopped him in his tracks.

"I had never seen anything like Ravel before," Brogan tells Bleacher Report. "I had this surge of excitement the moment I saw him. I knew I had found a boy—he was incredible—and I knew he could go all the way to the top. You just had to see him. It was the way he moved across the pitch, with or without the ball. He was amazing."

At the end of that day, Brogan asked Morrison's mother if he could join United, and before too long, word had spread about the talent they were carefully developing in their youth system.

Morrison scores for United in their 2011 FA Youth Cup semi-final 2nd leg win against Chelsea
Morrison scores for United in their 2011 FA Youth Cup semi-final 2nd leg win against ChelseaGetty

"I can remember Sir Alex Ferguson saying to me he had the best 12-year-old boy he had ever seen in his life," Harry Redknapp, Morrison's former manager at Queens Park Rangers, tells Bleacher Report. "That was Ravel, and Sir Alex could not have been more excited about him."

 

"Over the years, the coaches at United would rave about him," Brogan says. "They couldn't believe how good he was, and he got better and better. I can recall a fellow coach at United telling me when he was on the brink of the first team, it was the club's firm belief that Morrison was the best 16-year-old in the world."

Morrison would become part of a group of renowned young players, including Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, who emulated the Busby Babes and the fabled Class of 1992 by winning Manchester United's 10th FA Youth Cup in May 2011.

Inside Old Trafford, there was palpable and mounting excitement about these special players. All were guaranteed to make it in the game, but Morrison had always been the chosen one.

"On pure talent, I would say Ravel Morrison was better than Paul Pogba," Brogan says. "Of course, Pogba had his many qualities—he was strong and athletic—but he couldn't do the things Ravel could do; no one could. The other boys were in awe of Ravel. He just looked as though he was destined to be the best."

Former United youth player Gyliano van Velzen, a member of that FA Youth Cup side in 2011, agreed. "It is true we thought Ravel was the best player in that side, even more than Pogba, because we all wanted to play like him," he says.

"Ravel always made football look easy, and we loved watching what he could do with the ball. We would look at each other and say, 'How did he do that?' He scored beautiful goals and could run past players as if they weren't there."

Former Red Devils defender Tom Thorpe, now on loan at Bolton Wanderers from Rotherham United, was the captain of the 2011 FA Youth Cup winners. "Rav could do the most outrageous things in games or training, like beat five or six players and chip the keeper, then go back to the halfway line and do it again," he tells Bleacher Report.

During this time, manager Sir Alex Ferguson and senior United players like Rio Ferdinand would also excitedly gather at the side of the pitch to watch Morrison train with this youth team, talking about him as the finest young player they had seen.

But today, while the likes of Pogba and Lingard are now both established internationals and major players at Manchester United, Morrison has long since departed Old Trafford and slunk from view.

Lingard spent several loan spells away from United before he returned to prove himself and scored United's dramatic winning goal in the FA Cup final last year.

Pogba and Lingard together in United colours back in 2011
Pogba and Lingard together in United colours back in 2011Getty

A restless Pogba would leave United in 2012 for Juventus, where he developed into one of the world's most exciting young players, winning four Serie A titles and playing in the 2015 Champions League final before returning to Old Trafford for a world-record transfer fee of £89.3 million last summer.

By contrast, Morrison, who also left United in 2012, spent January looking for another new club, filling his days by training with Wigan Athletic and then QPR, who decided to take him on loan again from Lazio on deadline day.

Over the last two years, Morrison, who turned 24 at the start of February, has played just 162 minutes of competitive football.

There have been fleeting glimpses of his renowned ability—a few months at West Ham United, his first loan spell at QPR, a memorable England under-21 performance—but his career has largely been in a slow and painful decline since he held aloft the FA Youth Cup with Pogba and Lingard.

Back then, everything seemed possible. So what happened to this prodigious talent that has him now trying to salvage his career in the depths of the Championship?


Two days after winning that FA Youth Cup in 2011, the inherent concerns about Morrison were revealed when he swapped the pitch at Old Trafford for the dock of Salford magistrates' court to face charges of assaulting his girlfriend and causing criminal damage.

The assault charge was dropped when the woman refused to make a statement against him, but Morrison admitted the charge of criminal damage for destroying her mobile phone after throwing it out of a window during an argument at her parents' house.

Just three months earlier, Morrison had stood in the dock at Trafford Youth Court to admit two charges of intimidating a witness.

In an attempt to stop the victim of a knifepoint robbery from giving evidence at the trial of his muggers, Morrison had made a threatening phone call, telling the victim, "You don't know what I am capable of." He confronted the teenager in the street and was part of a mob of up to 20 youths who had gathered outside the victim's house.

Morrison could have been sent to prison, but instead the judge, who called his behaviour "appalling," gave him a 12-month referral order and sternly warned him about his future behaviour. The Manchester United prodigy was ordered to pay £1,445 in "costs and compensation." 

Over the course of those three months, the two sides of Morrison were writ large: a brilliant and exciting presence on the pitch but a potential problem off it.

By 2011, there was increasing despair that Morrison, who had long been United's most cherished project, was on the verge of wasting the talent the club had spent a decade nurturing.

As he moved through the youth ranks at United, insiders worried about his wandering focus, his commitment to the game and the company he kept away from Old Trafford.

"Some other coaches at United said he could be difficult, but we hit it off," Brogan says. "He possibly got involved later with the wrong people. But I think we had a bond. He was a good lad, and if you had his best interests at heart, he would play for you. You had to be on him because he got bored easily. Some wondered whether we would eventually see him on the back pages or the front pages."

These doubts were put to one side in February 2010 when, on his 17th birthday, Morrison signed his first professional contract with the club. That October, he made his first-team debut as a substitute in the Carling Cup against Wolverhampton Wanderers.

He played twice more for the United first team, on each occasion coming on as a substitute in a Carling Cup tie in 2011, but for him, it wasn't enough.

Morrison was frustrated at his lack of opportunities, and he let it show in all the wrong ways.

"Ravel was a great team-mate, but he had a different mentality when it came to the coaches," Van Velzen recalls. "Sometimes he would miss training and not get along so well with the coaches."

Morrison in Carling Cup action for United's first team
Morrison in Carling Cup action for United's first teamGetty

"He needed to show patience," Brogan says. "He got a taste but then got bored. He needed more games. When he was bored, he got into problems. There was a frustration that he wasn't playing more, because he is at his happiest when he is playing."

At the start of 2012, after those two court appearances and in light of his increasingly difficult behaviour, United decided he could leave. Ferguson saw no other way.

"[Morrison] possessed as much natural talent as any youngster we ever signed, but he kept getting into trouble," Ferguson wrote in his book, Leading. "It was very painful to sell him to West Ham 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. There has been little evidence Ravel has matured [since]."

"United tried everything to keep him, but Ravel really didn't help himself," Brogan says. "He missed training sessions, which you simply cannot do. He got disillusioned because he wasn't playing, but then he wasn't doing the thing he needed to do to get a game. Not having a game at the weekend would see him lose interest and create problems. It was a vicious cycle of not playing."

Brogan worked with Lingard from the age of seven, and he says the winger had all the patience Morrison lacked.

"Jesse knew he would have to bide his time," Brogan says. "He knew his moment would come. Over many years as he moved up the age groups, United made it clear they would wait for him, and he got it. But Ravel got frustrated. They were very different characters.

"Overall, I think it was best Ravel got away from the area. There was a bad environment which was threatening to bring him down."


In October 2015, Morrison told The Sun's Justin Allen he was to blame for his failure at Manchester United.

"Alex Ferguson gave me too many chances," he said. "I don't think they would have given any other player the amount of opportunities they gave me. I can only blame myself and not look for excuses."

In that interview, Morrison said he wasted time playing computer games and hanging out with his friends when he should have been training.

"Back then, I had time-keeping issues too. I never thought, 'Oh s--t, I've got to go outside now and get on the training pitch.' Even Rio Ferdinand took me to one side and said, 'You need to get out there 15 minutes before the session starts and stay later as well.' He was right, of course."

Those who know Morrison speak of a faithful character, who is kind and thoughtful, but also a man with an impetuous streak who lives in the moment without thinking of consequences.

Morrison has returned to English football at QPR
Morrison has returned to English football at QPRGetty

Thorpe tells Bleacher Report: "I have known Rav a long time, since I was seven. I know the proper Rav, and I can tell you he's a good and loyal person. Forget what you might have heard; he's not a bad lad at all.

"He had more talent than most of us, but he always worked hard for the team, because there was this bond between us all. If you are willing to help him, he will be incredibly helpful to you and be a great friend. He's just a really good and honest guy."

It's a sentiment Van Velzen echoes when he talks about the Morrison he knew as a team-mate at Old Trafford.

"Ravel was always really nice. We talked a lot, and he was always good to me and made an effort to help me. He welcomed me when I arrived from Holland. I'm glad I knew him," he says.

"Everyone liked Ravel in that team. I can remember in the dressing room you would always know he was there. He was a loud and popular character who made jokes, which everyone laughed at."


Morrison grew up on a large council estate in Wythenshawe, back then a tough and deprived area on the southern outskirts of Manchester.

He endured a fractious relationship with his parents and received a caution for assaulting his mother when he was 15. He would later change the name on the back of his shirt to "Ravel," reportedly due to his poor relationship with his father.

The eldest of three boys, Morrison was living in Denton, Manchester, with his grandparents, Chris and Maureen Carlway, at the time he left United.

"Sadly, there are examples of players...who, despite enormous natural talent, just aren't emotionally or mentally strong enough to overcome the hurts of their childhood and their inner demons. Ravel Morrison might be the saddest case," Ferguson wrote in Leading, per the Mirror.

In January 2012, the United manager reluctantly sold Morrison to West Ham for a mere £650,000. "Fergie told me about his talent and that was it, that's enough for me," then-Hammers manager Sam Allardyce said in 2013, per the Mirror. "He said, 'If you can sort this lad out, Sam, you'll have one of the best players you've ever had.'"

West Ham sent Morrison out on a season-long loan to Birmingham City in the Championship. His manager there, Lee Clark, hailed Morrison as "the best footballer since Paul Gascoigne."

It was on his return to West Ham that Morrison's ability finally shone through to a wider audience.

Morrison scores for West Ham against Spurs in October 2013
Morrison scores for West Ham against Spurs in October 2013Getty

The potential that had so enthralled United's youth coaches was at last evident in the Premier League in the autumn of 2013, as Morrison turned on the style. It was all there: the fluid movement; the graceful manner and ease in which he moved the ball; that immaculate first touch; his pace; that overriding belief that this was now his moment.

It all came together on the afternoon of October 6, 2013, when Morrison scored for West Ham in a 3-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane—a goal that would be hailed as one of the best in the Premier League.

Morrison collected the ball in his own half before effortlessly gliding towards goal, covering 52 yards in nine seconds and beating Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson on the edge of their penalty box before calmly lifting the ball over Hugo Lloris.

After he scored twice and delivered another sublime performance against Lithuania for England's under-21s, there was serious talk Morrison could graduate to the senior squad and go to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.

The Football Association filmed an outrageous backheel volley he scored in training for the under-21s, and it quickly went viral.

But just as it was all getting started, just as Morrison looked comfortable and happy at West Ham as their leading scorer so far that season, everything fell apart again.

In the wake of that goal at Tottenham, Allardyce declared Morrison a "genius". Three months later, he was being shoved out of Upton Park with unseemly haste to start an emergency loan spell with QPR.

It is hard to establish what went so wrong so quickly at West Ham, but according to Allardyce, it was all down to Morrison.

"His game went off the boil, and the end for me came over Christmas [2013] when, after we had played at Manchester United, Rav stayed up north to see his family and didn't come back," Allardyce wrote in his autobiography, Big Sam.

"He wasn't injured, he just didn't fancy getting involved in our festive relegation battle. We couldn't get him on the phone, and then the lads saw a picture of him on Facebook enjoying Christmas lunch with the family while we were preparing for our Boxing Day game against Arsenal. Words can't describe what they thought of him. That was it for them and for me."

Allardyce writes about Morrison as a weak and malleable character, unable or unwilling to change, who was easily influenced by others.

"Rav had these pals from outside football, and they would come down from Manchester to lead him astray," he writes. Allardyce also notes that Morrison had "absolutely rotten teeth" and concluded he couldn't take basic care of himself.

Morrison celebrating with West Ham teammate Ricardo Vaz Te
Morrison celebrating with West Ham teammate Ricardo Vaz TeCARL COURT/Getty Images

"If I'd fined him every time he didn't turn up, he'd have had no wages at all. I do feel sorry for him, because he had a tough upbringing and didn't learn any life skills."

A wayward player with no focus or commitment. Case closed?

Or maybe there's another side to the story? Jermaine Pennant claims Allardyce tried to force Morrison to sign with his agent, Mark Curtis, per The Sun on Sunday's Nick Pisa. The former England boss denies this claim, but the suggestion here is that Morrison's relationship with the manager fell apart after the incident.

"It was very hard how it went. It really messed with my head," Morrison told Allen. "At times, I wanted to stop playing because I felt I had done everything right to be playing in the team week in, week out."


In January 2014, Morrison was allowed to move across London to Loftus Road, where he quickly continued his good form from that season under a grateful Redknapp.

Morrison's six goals in 17 appearances were crucial in helping QPR win promotion to the Premier League at the end of the season.

"I am a big fan of him; he was mostly great for me, and I loved watching him play. He has incredible ability. God has given him all the ability he could possibly need," Redknapp tells Bleacher Report.

"When he is on his game, he is fantastic. I really liked him as a boy. He is not a nasty boy. He has a bit of reputation, but he was fine, though he could be a bit silly now and again...and at times he has also been surrounded by silly people who haven't helped."

But Redknapp did grow frustrated with Morrison's often casual attitude on the pitch and notably refused to start him in the 2014 play-off final against Derby County at Wembley Stadium. That same summer, Morrison was arrested for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend and her mother after a night out in Manchester, but six months later he was cleared by contradictory evidence. The charges were dropped.

Morrison with then QPR manager Harry Redknapp in 2014
Morrison with then QPR manager Harry Redknapp in 2014Getty

Despite Morrison's overall positive impact at QPR, Allardyce was not for turning when he returned to West Ham. He played him only twice more before banishing him to a loan spell at Cardiff City.

Morrison's stay in the Welsh capital was not a happy one. He played only seven times before Bluebirds manager Russell Slade ended his loan early and sent him back to West Ham.

In more optimistic times, West Ham had inserted an £18 million release clause in Morrison's contract, but after only 24 games and three loan spells, they were now happy to let him leave for nothing.

At the start of 2015, Morrison was on the move again when he signed a pre-contract with Lazio that would see him move to Italy later that summer on a free transfer. A generation earlier, signing for the Rome club had proved to be a huge success for Gascoigne, another temperamental and talented Englishman, so could history repeat itself with Morrison?

Morrison enjoyed an impressive pre-season and once again fleetingly shared the pitch with his former United team-mate, Pogba, when Lazio met Juventus in the Italian Super Cup final.

But soon enough, the same old problems came back to haunt him.

In October 2015, his Lazio manager Stefano Pioli began reading from the script of frustration familiar to Morrison's managers in England. "He has struggled," the coach said, per Football Italia. "He has to work harder for the team."

Pioli noted that Morrison hadn't learned to speak Italian, which was hindering his development and keeping him from fitting in.

At the end of his first season, Morrison presided over a miserable return of starting just one game and featuring in a total of eight encompassing a mere 162 minutes. Morrison hasn't appeared for Lazio since he came on as a substitute for the final seven minutes against Sampdoria in April 2016.

And so, after yet another failed experimentanother false dawnMorrison shuffled home to England to find another club.

In January, he pitched up at Wigan to train under Warren Joyce, his former United youth coach, who observed he was a long way from the player he had last coached. Then he returned to QPR, who have agreed to take him on loan until the end of the season.

Morrison made his first appearance in English football in over two years when he came off the bench for QPR at Blackburn Rovers on February 4. 

"There must be some regret inside him," Brogan says. "But deep down he will believe he can still do it. If he gets the right coach who looks after him and pushes him, and gives him a run of games, then he will believe again. He just needs that spark.

"Ravel is at a tipping point. He needs to realise what he has and be careful not to lose it for good now."

"I really hope he can still find his feet and get rid of the stigma I really don't think he deserves," Thorpe says. "I think he can prove a lot of people wrong."

At the end of January, possibly acknowledging his increasingly precarious position, Morrison tweeted the message "Fully focused, no more messing around," alongside the praying emoji.

Allardyce has branded Morrison "unsaveable" and as someone who "was potentially a £50 million player but has blown his career." Another of his former managers, Redknapp, retains some guarded hope.

"He is a great talent, but sooner or later he has to start putting that to use," Redknapp says. "Ravel Morrison has the talent to be as good as or even better than Dele Alli. Let's be honest: Ravel could have been as good as anyone. But at the moment, the difference is Dele Alli is actually producing week in and week out."

Redknapp says it's time for Morrison to work hard and dedicate himself to football to save what was once such a promising career.

"It isn't too late, but it has to happen soon, though," he says, "because at the moment he's in danger of getting to 30 and looking back and realising he has wasted all of his incredible talent."

        

Sam Pilger is a contributing football writer for Bleacher Report, based in London.