• Bailey Williams

The Book of Ravel-ation: Ravel Morrison at Middlesbrough

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

When reading about midfielder Ravel Morrison, you can see damning indictments of him as a “maverick”, a “schemer”, a “waster”. And yet much of the vocabulary that surrounds the Manchester United graduate is frankly biblical – the hope of “redemption”, the “resurrection” of his career, and the “faith” required by his managers. It’s this purgatory between the promise of brilliance and the reality of underperformance that has made Morrison one of the most intriguing characters in modern English football. And in January 2020, he found himself on Teesside, his tenth club in six years.

Morrison’s beginnings in football are practically folklore. Since breaking through at the Red Devils, Sir Alex Ferguson’s emphatic praise of Morrison has been a millstone around his neck. Morrison joined West Ham, but boss Sam Allardyce was unable to integrate the talented-but-distracted youngster into his side long-term. A flurry of loan moves across Britain followed, never settling in one place for long. Then came an Italian jaunt with Lazio, where again Morrison earned the ire of his manager. He eventually found himself at Danish club Östersund in 2019, where he enjoyed a productive stay but was denied an extension by niggling injuries and cost-cutting. Morrison’s redemption seemed in full swing when he was picked up by Premier League outfit Sheffield United that July. Sadly it was a false dawn, as Morrison was soon completely adrift from the starting places.

Enter Woodgate. Middlesbrough’s mostly bleak 2019/20 season had sparked into life in December and early January, but in order to sustain this good form natural attackers were needed. Cutting past the typhoon of media sniping, Woodgate identified in Morrison a potentially explosive attacking player who loved to run at defenders, with, hopefully, a desire to prove doubters wrong. Fan response was lukewarm; some were instantly sceptical, while others pointed to Boro’s record of turning around the careers of wayward players. Whatever you thought, it was clear that this would be Morrison’s final chance at cracking England’s top tiers.

His first appearance in a Boro shirt came on 11th February, starting against Wigan Athletic in a relegation six-pointer. Morrison demonstrated those fleeting flashes of excellence, playing behind the two strikers, carving out chances and firing off a few hopeful shots. Boro fans were cautiously encouraged by this display.

His next Boro bow came eleven days later as Boro faced Barnsley, another vital game at the lower reaches of the table. This was the third of three successive games against probable relegation rivals – Boro needed to collect at least two wins to survive with some comfort. Drawing 2-2 with Wigan was followed by a demoralising loss to Luton, so the situation was already grim before a ball was kicked. Morrison started in his attacking midfield role, but for the 79 minutes he played, the game passed him by. Thrown in at the deep end, with a host of coaches, fans, and pundits watching his every move, Morrison needed to take hold of the game. He did exactly the opposite. Neat touches of the ball and the occasional pass could no longer disguise what kind of player Boro had on their hands. Old habits die hard, and it was both alarming and saddening to see Morrison revert to type.

Morrison’s minimal momentum was killed by the coronavirus break. Though he should have used this time to develop his fitness and win the favour of the coaches, it seemed by June that neither had happened. When Woodgate was sacked, Morrison’s tenuous Boro career was irretrievably jeopardised. The inexperienced boss who gave him his chance was gone, and in his place was the hard-nosed veteran Neil Warnock. Though Warnock is known for his ability to improve underperformers, he is equally renowned for a disciplinarian approach and an inability to suffer fools. Warnock prizes consistency, a trait which Morrison infamously lacks. The firm but fair Warnock gave Morrison a start in the 1-0 defeat to QPR, substituting him after another anonymous display. He would not feature for Boro again.

It speaks volumes that Warnock, a manager who loves turning around players’ careers, gave Morrison permission to leave shortly after the QPR game. Despite facing the prospect of a gruelling relegation run-in with a small squad, Morrison was surplus to requirements. He missed Boro’s victorious trip to the Madejski Stadium – bizarrely due to dental surgery – and was not included in Warnock’s squad to face Cardiff a week later. “I didn’t think I would use Ravel,” he said plainly to the press, preferring to leave empty spots on the bench. It was an understated, disappointing end to Morrison’s Middlesbrough journey. With his Sheffield United contract expiring at the end of the season, the nomadic Morrison soon resurfaced in the Netherlands, making ADO Den Haag his eleventh club. Unfortunately, it was a similar story of unfulfilled expectations in the Eredivisie, lasting only three months.

Middlesbrough and Morrison’s paths intersected at troubling times for both parties, and the possibility was there for a mutually beneficial experience. We might have seen a similar situation to that of Duncan Watmore, who has certainly revitalised his game since his signing in November 2020. Instead, Boro became merely the latest stop in Morrison’s tumultuous career. Looking back, it seems an ill-advised move from an untried manager to roll the dice on Morrison when dependable reinforcements were required. But on the other hand, Boro can at least say they gave Morrison a fair chance, learning the hard way that there are some things you can’t teach.

  • Bailey Williams

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