Chances are you’ve heard Rio Ferdinand talk about the first time he saw Ravel Morrison at Manchester United.
“Ever since the first day I saw him, my old boss [Ferguson] said: ‘Have a look at this boy,’” Ferdinand said. “He was taking the mick out of everyone on the pitch when he was about 14. The manager thought he was the best player he had seen at that age.”
It’s a story Rio tells well. It often surfaces when Morrison’s name enters the news cycle, and it is used as evidence to reinforce the idea that he is a wasted talent.
Morrison is now 26-years-old and recently signed for Sheffield United on a one-year deal. The confirmation of his arrival allowed the dust to be blown off those anecdotes. People often pick and choose which stories to push, like the time Morrison lifted the FA Youth Cup alongside future stars Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba.
Each time the stories are recounted Morrison’s reputation is reinforced, and the anchor that is his past becomes heavier. They’re reminders of that failure, and they stop a fresh identity from emerging.
Occasionally, a new thread is woven into the tapestry. Morrison joined Östersunds FK in February this year after a spell with Italian side Lazio. The story goes that one day Morrison was approached by two young fans in the club shop. The pair asked for his autograph and he duly obliged, offering to sign their shirts. When they said they did not have an Östersund shirt he bought them one each.
It’s a nice story, and it tallies well with the character references afforded by the club’s technical director David Webb and head coach Ian Burchnall. Unfortunately, it also distracts from the fact that for much of Morrison’s career we have rarely discussed him as a footballer. We have instead spent time weighing the scales of what he is and what he deserves.
We have become so distracted by the story surrounding Morrison that we have never allowed him to exist solely as a footballer. That is not to absolve Morrison’s past entirely. Some of his actions were criminal and can never be expunged. It is worth questioning, however, if our judgments have been influenced by the full picture.
Take, for example, Marcus Edwards. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder was likened to Lionel Messi long before he had established himself in the first team.
A loan spell to Norwich City resulted in six minutes of league action. His loan was eventually cut short amid talk of ‘attitude problems.’ More telling were claims he failed to engage with his teammates. Sources at Tottenham pointed to the player’s shy and introverted personality, but if the headline is all you saw it’s easy to paint a false portrait of someone still growing up, and lumber them with the responsibility for not making the situation work.
Last month Edwards conducted an interview with the Independent that shone a light on his personality, his struggles with life outside of football. During the conversation, he admitted that things should have gone better at Norwich.
He was speaking after a loan spell at Excelsior in the Eredivisie that did go better. Teammates spoke about him in glowing terms, both as a player and a person. Throughout both periods, Edwards wanted to play football, just like Morrison. Where the pair unite is their drive. Both love the game, both made mistakes, but when they’re allowed to be footballers, they appear at their happiest.
By Edwards own admission, his poor timekeeping came amid a period of frustration at not being allowed to play. The same feeling occurred with Morrison when he felt first-team opportunities were not forthcoming at Old Trafford. Morrison has also revealed issues with acclimatising to new surroundings.
“I have this thing — I don’t know if it’s a mental thing — where I have difficulty eating,” he told the Times. “It was literally in my head that I couldn’t eat. I was living off Rice Krispies bars and Jaffa Cakes. I just stick to what I know. Caribbean food, mostly.”
After all, this is not a debate about right or wrong or how young men should have acted. It’s about empathy and the idea that we should not roll up the responsibility for a career like a snowball and burden one young person with it. We all need support, we all need guidance.
Now 26, we have spent almost a decade judging Ravel Morrison as both a person and a professional. Perhaps now, under the stewardship of Chris Wilder at Sheffield United, we can finally start to judge him as a footballer, and nothing else.