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When West Ham kick off the new Premier League season against Cardiff on Saturday, the spotlight will be on Ravel Morrison, a supremely gifted 20-year-old midfielder who has enjoyed an outstanding preseason. Ordinarily, form of the sort Morrison has been showing would lead to all sorts of predictions of greatness for a player who could be the next big thing.
Yet Morrison’s story is not simple. He has been the next big thing in English football on more than one occasion – for the past five years, in fact, ever since he joined Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson described him as the most talented footballer to have come through the club’s ranks since Paul Scholes, a midfielder widely acknowledged as one of the most technically gifted players in the history of English football.
Indeed, Morrison could even – handsome club contract, boot sponsorship from Nike, and interested inquiries from clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona notwithstanding – be considered something of a flop: five years of promise have led to not one game in England’s top division.
Nor is Morrison’s situation unique: the current state of Premier League football means there are many other young British players like him, showered with money, praise and promise but denied the chance to play.
It was not always thus: not that long ago, promising young footballers often had to work their way up from smaller clubs, proving their talent before earning a big money transfer to the biggest clubs. Consider, for example, the careers of previous generations of players at Manchester United.
Bryan Robson spent six years in the first team at West Bromwich Albion before joining United in 1981 for a then British record transfer fee of £1.5m; Roy Keane was in Nottingham Forest’s first team for three years before he went to Manchester in 1993 for £3.75m, another record British transfer fee; and before his £18m transfer from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006, Michael Carrick established himself at West Ham, where he played for two years in the Championship, English football’s second tier, despite having made his England international debut by then.
It’s temptingly easy to characterise Morrison, born in 1993, the year after the creation of the Premier League, as the epitome of modern football, a posterboy for the too-much too-young generation. His three years as a professional at Manchester United can be read almost as a cautionary tale, as the club grew increasingly frustrated with his attitude in training and frequent run-ins with the law. When, finally, last year he was sold to West Ham, in a deal that could rise to £2.5m, things did not appear to improve. He played only nine minutes of first-team football at the London club – on March 17 last year, against Leeds – before being loaned out to the Championship club Birmingham City.
All the time Morrison has gone on earning handsomely, tweeting pictures of himself wearing not one but two watches, a Rolex for each wrist. His three-and-a-half year contract with West Ham starts at £12,000 a week, a figure that could rise to £65,000 a week (or £3.4m a year) depending on how often he starts for the first team. This is an eye-watering figure for a 20-year-old player with scant playing time at the top level. But football has created a market in which young players earn phenomenal sums from the moment they are signed by big clubs and some of them, like Morrison, without even playing in the Premier League, let alone establishing a place as a regular starter.
“The biggest clubs like to stockpile the brightest young talent on the off-chance that one day they might turn into superstars,” says Chris Green, author of Every Boy’s Dream (2009), a fascinating analysis of the failures of youth team development in Britain. “They fear missing out on the next Wayne Rooney. So today’s young players can go almost directly from school to earning millions without so much as putting on their boots. In a strange schizophrenia, top clubs are pouring unprecedented sums into youth development but offering fewer openings to players who emerge.”
Frank Lampard, the 35-year-old Chelsea and England midfielder who started playing professionally in 1995, wonders whether players are being groomed for stardom too soon. “Clubs are desperate to sign the best young talent,” he said in an interview with the Times last year, “so money is thrown at them, they get a bit of fame, and it’s human nature that some take their eye off the ball in terms of training and discipline.
“Money creates an atmosphere where very young kids think they’ve made it,” Lampard continued. “As soon as one [player] comes in a Range Rover, it’s natural for the other kids to think, ‘I need one of those’.”
Take, for example, Wilfried Zaha, a 20-year-old winger who was reported by the Guardian to have bought four cars in five months following the announcement last January of his £15m transfer to Manchester United from Crystal Palace, who were then playing in the Championship.
According to Perry Groves, who played for Arsenal from 1986-92, young players today are rewarded too soon. “At Arsenal, when I played, the youngsters were made very aware that they were on the bottom rung of the ladder,” says Groves, 48, who now works as a football pundit. “Young players had to arrive at the training ground at 8am to clean and polish the senior players’ boots before they arrived.” And though cleaning boots is clearly no substitute for talent or training, says Groves, “It certainly kept them grounded.”
Groves remembers initiation ceremonies in which the new young apprentices would have to get up on stage and tell a joke or sing a song. If they did well, they’d receive £50 and a slap on the back. If they were rubbish, they’d have a “bucket of dirty boot water” thrown over them. “If this kind of thing still happened today,” says Groves, “I imagine the young players would insist on removing their watches and diamond earrings beforehand.”
Other talented young players, contemporaries of Ravel Morrison, have experienced similar problems in getting to play. Described two years ago by the Guardian as a “prodigy” with “skills that can’t be taught”, Josh McEachran joined Chelsea as an academy player when he was eight. Twelve years on, the midfielder still appears far from becoming a first-team regular. Or take midfielder Jack Rodwell, 22, who last year moved from Everton to Manchester City for £12m in search of the big time but who has found himself warming the bench most match days.
Patrick Bamford, an unassuming 19-year-old from Nottingham, might want to take notice. He had played just 12 minutes for Nottingham Forest in the Championship before Chelsea splashed out £1.5m in January last year to sign him on a five-year contract. “It was all quite surreal,” recalls Bamford. “I went to Chelsea to sign the contracts, returned to Nottingham the same day, and had to be back in London the next morning. I didn’t have much time to say bye to anyone. The only thing I remember is my mum on the train platform crying as I left.”
For Frank Clark, chairman of Nottingham Forest during Bamford’s time at the club, the teenager’s transfer to Chelsea signals a worrying new trend in football. “We used to be able to hang on to players for a couple of years into the first team,” he said last year. “But now the real big clubs are paying fortunes for kids of 13, 14, 15, 16. They are not prepared to wait.”
In fact, Chelsea had no intention of playing Bamford straight away when they signed him; instead they loaned him to Milton Keynes Dons, an unglamorous club playing in League One (the division below Forest). “The big clubs sign them up even though they know they aren’t ready to play,” says Chris Green. “They are signing potential.”
Does Bamford’s loan to MK Dons feel like a comedown, after the initial buzz surrounding his transfer to Chelsea? “This is just the reality of modern football. Chelsea told me that they don’t expect me to play in the first team until I’m 21 or 22. I’m itching to play alongside Torres and Lampard and all of Chelsea’s other great players but I have to be patient. I guess I just have to view my career as a series of building blocks,” he says.
Four years ago striker Sanchez Watt, groomed for stardom since he was spotted as a seven-year-old playing Sunday league football in east London by an Arsenal scout, was also trumpeted as the next big thing. In 2008, he signed a professional contract with Arsenal – “One of the best days of my life,” he says. The following year, he scored on his debut against West Brom in the League Cup. “After the game I thought, ‘Yeah! Not bad for an 18-year-old! And not many people can say they scored on their debut for Arsenal!’ ”
In fact, Watt went on to play only twice more for Arsenal before being loaned out to a succession of teams in lower divisions. Now he is settling down at lowly Colchester United, the League One side who signed him on a two-year contract in January following his release from Arsenal.
One sunny day last week I visited Colchester’s training ground, where Watt and his teammates were preparing to host Port Vale. In a small room I find Watt, 22 years old and covered in tattoos, still sweating from the midday training session and wearing football kit and flip-flops. “At Arsenal, I found myself waiting and waiting to play football,” he says. “I was in the shadows. It got to the point where my friends and family were saying, ‘Sanchez, when can we come see you play?’ I didn’t know, so I couldn’t give them an answer.
“There are lots of reasons why some players don’t mind sitting on the bench – maybe they are close to home, or earn good money,” he continues. “Too many young players think they need a big club behind them, pushing their name. I want to play and to make my own name.”
It’s still easy to see what caught the scouts’ eyes about Morrison. Broadly speaking, English football is known for producing midfield bruisers and big, physical defenders. But Morrison grew up playing street football, and his style of play more resembles that of the Brazilians or the French, with their traditionally strong sense of touch and trickery. There’s a clip of him on YouTube that encapsulates what he does best. Playing in 2009 for United against Blackburn in a youth team match in 2009, Morrison bamboozles his opponent with a flamboyant, breathtaking trick, involving a triple drag-back and a back-heeled nutmeg.
Morrison grew up in Wythenshawe, the second-largest council estate in Britain and one of Manchester’s toughest neighbourhoods. For much of his childhood, he lived with his grandparents in Denton, a few miles to the east of Manchester, while his mother lived in another part of Manchester with her two younger sons.
Though footballing success came early – Morrison has represented England at every level from the Under 16s to Under 18s; at 17 he turned professional; he lifted the 2011 FA Youth Cup after scoring two goals in the final, and later in the same year he made his first-team debut as a substitute in Manchester United’s 3-2 victory in the League Cup against Wolverhampton Wanderers – trouble was never far behind. In February 2011 he pleaded guilty to witness intimidation and was given a 12-month referral order. In a separate incident a few months later he was fined £600 by a court for throwing his girlfriend’s phone through a window during an argument.
It’s hard to know how Morrison deals with so much pressure so young, because he rarely speaks in public. West Ham’s management doesn’t wish to burden its prodigy. And so the interview requests pile up, unattended. But, according to one former teammate of Morrison’s at Manchester United, the relationship between the young hopeful and his colleagues was complicated, a mixture of jealousy, impatience and affection.
“He faced criticism from those convinced he should be further along or those who grew fed up by what seemed to be a never-ending pursuit of his potential,” the former teammate, who has also played for England, tells me. “We were all waiting for him to prove himself.
“In training he was told how talented he was by the staff,” the former teammate continues, “yet he was kept in the reserves, away from the first team. Unfortunately, it’s now something that comes with the territory for young players identified as future stars. But Ravel lost patience. He started skipping training sessions, and when he did turn up he stopped giving 100 per cent.”
Today Morrison is back at West Ham and things seem to be on the up. It took him just 16 seconds to open the scoring in the club’s final preseason game, with the Portuguese club Pacos De Ferreira, at Upton Park.
Taking control of a through ball, Morrison accelerated past a defender with ease, and calmly placed his shot. “I was buzzing when I scored,” he told West Ham’s TV channel after the match. But he’s not getting ahead of himself. There are plenty of challenges ahead. “Personally, my targets [for the coming season] are just to try and get into the first team and play a few games,” he said.
It was Morrison’s sixth goal of a brilliant preseason. The week before, playing against the Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon, he had scored two goals; the first a rasping shot from the edge of the box, calling to mind Paul Scholes in his prime. “Hopefully, now this will be the start of what is going to be a fantastic career for him,” said Kevin Nolan, 31, West Ham’s captain. But let’s not get too excited. We have, of course, been here before.