“He possessed as much natural talent as any youngster we ever signed.”
Sir Alex Ferguson has seen plenty of starlets come across his path, but there was one that stood out above any other. And considering that he counts fellow Manchester United academy products Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes among only four world-class players he managed – Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo being the others – it says a lot about Ravel Morrison that the legendary Scot rated him so highly.
In 2011, he looked set for the very top of the game. Alongside the likes of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane, Morrison led United to an FA Youth Cup title that they have since failed to recapture. Netting twice in the second leg of the final against Sheffield United, the attacking midfielder appeared to be serving notice that he was about to take the senior game by storm.
Fast-forward eight years, and Pogba is a World Cup winner and four-time Serie A champion playing at the very height of his game for a United side enjoying a renaissance under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Keane is an England international with a regular spot in Everton’s defence, while Lingard has 22 caps for his country and has developed into a key member of United’s attack.
But Morrison, the most talented of the whole bunch, is preparing for the start of the Allsvenskan season in Sweden having signed a short-term contract with Ostersund in February. This was not what was expected of him.
Or was it? You see, from a very early point in his career there was a concern that his was a talent which could so easily be wasted.
Three months before that Youth Cup final Morrison had been at Trafford youth court admitting two counts of intimidating a witness ahead of a trial relating to a knifepoint mugging. He recently told The Times that: “I didn’t even know what I did was so wrong. I didn’t know witness intimidation was a thing.”
There were other scrapes with the law including domestic disturbances involving his girlfriend, and the threat of him serving time seemed to forever hang over his burgeoning career.
Former United skipper Rio Ferdinand told BT Sport in 2018 how Morrison promised so much but always threatened to lose his way.
“He was probably the most naturally gifted young kid I’ve ever seen,” explained Ferdinand. “I remember Sir Alex Ferguson pulling me and Wayne Rooney over one day and saying ‘Look at this kid. He’s the best kid, better than you Wayne when you were a kid, better than Rio, better than Ryan Giggs when he was a kid. This is the best kid you’ll ever see.’ He used to take liberties with players in training, even as a 16-year-old.
“But the concentration levels that you need to be on it every day, he could never get that all married together. The team he played in with Pogba, Lingard, Adnan Januzaj, who was a bit younger, they looked at this guy like he was a superhero because of what he could do with a football.
“I tried to reach out to him but sometimes some people are in a position where they distance themselves from people once they leave the football club, and what they do outside the football club can, in the end, affect what they do out there on the pitch. If you’ve got bad habits as a young kid, as an adult, then it will affect your performances on the pitch.”
Ferdinand would later have to publicly exonerate Morrison from claims that the youngster had stolen items from his team-mate in the United dressing room, but Ferguson was nonetheless becoming tired of his star product hanging around with the wrong type of people away from the field and, in January 2012, the manager sanctioned his sale to West Ham after only three League Cup substitute appearances at first-team level.
“I didn’t need to get away from Manchester,” Morrison told The Times. “There were times when I did something wrong, but often it was just wrong time, wrong place, wrong crowd and it wasn’t even me doing something, but because I was there, it was easy to point a finger at me.”
Away from United, Morrison threatened to kick on as he enjoyed a great start to life at Upton Park. But out of nowhere came a loan move to QPR amid a contract wrangle and he would also be borrowed by Birmingham and Cardiff. Before too long he found himself falling out with Sam Allardyce – who later called him a wasted talent – and leaving the Hammers.
His next port of call was Lazio, where he struggled after another initial run in the first team. He calls it his worst ever decision in retrospect, finding opportunities scarce and roadblocks put in his way both on and off the field by the Roman club’s decision-makers.
Needing to reboot his career he headed for another loan spell with QPR before spending a season in Mexico with Atlas. It was in the Liga MX that he enjoyed something of a rejuvenation, and his move to Ostersund at the age of 26 arrives with Morrison looking forward rather than backwards.
“I’ve come here to rebuild myself,” he told the Ostersund club website upon his arrival in February. “I want to enjoy it and enjoy football again and win everything we can. It’s exciting and I’m really looking forward to everything that’s in front of me.”
Morrison is contracted to the Swedish side only until the end of June, by which time he is clearly hoping to have caught the attention of a club of greater stature. When speaking to Sveriges Radio recently, he made the whole experience in Scandinavia sound very much like a shop-window exercise: “I think the whole squad has got great ability; it’s not going to be just me that people are looking at.”
There remains the hope that better things lie ahead for Morrison. He has thus far been known as the example one would warn their children about, but he is not bitter about the football life he has ended up living compared to some of his contemporaries.
“I’ve learned that football can take you places you never thought possible,” he told Sportbladet recently. “You have to enjoy the ride – sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but I’ve decided to enjoy my time with Ostersund.”
With a talent that deserves a more prominent platform, this could be a summer which makes or breaks Ravel Morrison’s career. One can only hope that his story has a redemptive ending.