I'm on a tightrope, baby, nine miles highA solicitous Ravel Morrison stood in the dock at Salford magistrates' court nervously eying the tangible prospect of being sent to Strangeways prison. After falling out with his then 16 year old girlfriend, he had thrown her phone out of an open window during a heated argument at her parents' house. He was already on a 12-month referral order having been convicted (along with two other teenagers) on two counts of witness intimidation a few months earlier. Then there was an incident described as a "domestic assault" and a year before that the police caution for assaulting his own mother. "I'm sure you appreciate that behaviour like this is not acceptable," the judge gravely intoned. "You're obviously someone with a considerable future and you must at all times understand that a loss of temper, no matter what the provocation, is not acceptable." The Manchester United starlet — seen as the most exciting product of the club's famed academy in many years — risked substituting fame and fortune for an altogether bleaker future.
Striding through the clouds, on my ribbon in the sky
I'm on a tightrope, one thing I've found
I don't know how to stop, and it's a
Long, long, long, long way down...
Morrison eventually walked free, wearing a £600 fine for criminal damage but escaping a charge of assault. For the second time in two years, his girlfriend refused to make a statement. In a snapshot of a schizophrenic life, just two days previously he had been starring in the final of the 2011 FA Youth Cup. Described as "a rough, glittering diamond" in the Independent's match report, Morrison's first goal of the game had been impressive; a couple of touches and a rasping shot. The second was even better – running at the defence, before picking his spot and scoring. One way or other, it seems, Ravel Morrison was born to make headlines.
Long tipped to be one of the pre-eminent English footballers of his generation, there is little doubt, in terms of ability, that he is the real deal: balance, speed, control, vision, flair, strong on either foot, an eye for a pass and a prolific scorer. One clip on YouTube encapsulates what he does best: a preposterous trick to bamboozle an opponent from the Blackburn youth team, incorporating a triple drag-back and a backheeled nutmeg. Let's not judge a player on internet footage, but this was a moment that would have brought Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to their feet. "Silks", as Rio Ferdinand calls it. He has played for England's Young Lions at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level and made his United debut, at the tender age of 17, as a substitute in a Carling Cup tie against Wolves. One FA Youth Cup tie in 2008 prompted the Times to wonder "when [we] last saw such balance and daring from an English 15-year-old". The Daily Telegraph tipped him as "a potential gem for 2014 [World Cup]."
Brought up in Wythenshawe, a sprawling, uncompromising council estate on the southern tip of Manchester, Morrison was arrested for the first time within a week of signing academy forms on his 17th birthday. A child of the streets, glowering out at the world beneath a hoodie, he had admitted two charges of intimidating a witness. He had, reported Daniel Taylor, subjected the victim of a knifepoint robbery to a two-day ordeal in an attempt to stop him giving evidence at the trial of his muggers. The court was told Morrison made threatening phone calls ("you don't know what I'm capable of") and was among three teenagers who threatened the boy on the street. The three later appeared in the victim's front garden in the early hours. They were chased away but then came back in a mob of 15 to 20 people. A brick was thrown through the window. The victim was so traumatised his family put the house up for sale and wanted to leave Manchester. There was no emotion when the judge told him he was being spared detention, recalls Taylor. However, he notes, Morrison seemed appalled when he was informed he had to pay costs, including compensation to the victim. The court was told United's No 49, described on the club's website as a "supremely gifted talent", had nothing in the bank despite receiving £3,400, after tax, on the 25th of every month, as part of the professional contract he had signed.
Goodness knows, football has had its bad boys, its rebels and its malcontents over the years, observed Sam Wallace. Some have had to fall a long way before the penny dropped and some ran out of chances. Elite sport discriminates only on grounds of talent and in football, the nation's wealthiest, most intensely competitive sport, that means people will put up with a lot. While careful not to make light of the actions of the player Old Trafford insiders had lined up as Paul Scholes’ long-term replacement, the club issued a public show of support: "We do not in any way condone Ravel's actions, but he is a very talented player with a bright future ahead of him," a spokesman said. "The right thing to do now is to support him and help him in the process of his rehabilitation." Privately, notes Taylor, Sir Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff spent many hours debating how to handle the teenager. There were numerous stories of Morrison missing training, or turning up late for matches. "There's always something going on with him," became a popular refrain. More seriously, his temperamental nature and apparent dislike of authority manifested themselves on the training ground. It is said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then the reserve-team manager, had to intervene in one incident. The teenager described as someone who acts impulsively and does not think of the consequences, a fragile personality in need of a role model.
This is not a story of a talented player with trouble attached, concluded Wallace. This had become a narrative of trouble with talent tagging along for the ride. Writing in the National, Andy Mitten states that the majority of the coaching staff at Manchester United lost patience with Morrison long before his eventual exit, persevering only on the behest of their manager. It is easy to be cynical to suggest the quality of mercy is linked to the rarity of the talent, but one of the traits of Sir Alex's management was his devotion to the club’s duty of care. United’s tradition of youth development, established by Sir Matt Busby, occasionally involves the application of peer pressure. Yet even the senior players were exasperated with their 18 year old. How could someone so talented, they wondered, be at fault so often? They had all made the necessary sacrifices to become a footballer and they had reached the top. The rewards were there for Morrison to see every single day, the status, respect and accoutrements of wealth. It frustrated the players even more that someone with more natural talent than most of them appeared to be throwing it away in a series of mishaps, misdemeanours and more - far more - serious issues.
There is a strong grapevine in Manchester, notes Mitten. It helps people in the city cut through the media image of footballers. Most players score quite well, ratings based on chance meetings in shops and clubs, on the words of friends and work colleagues, of little anecdotes which help piece together a profile. Not so Morrison. Almost every story - and there were many - concerned him being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. His influences appeared to be gangster chic rather than Gary Neville. The principal lesson of Neville’s career – that in football as in life, you get out what you put in – has never been more relevant or assiduously ignored. Morrison came across like he didn't care, not about now nor the future. Some sympathy must be extended because he's endured a difficult upbringing, reasons Mitten, but then so have many other footballers. What sets them apart is that they are prepared to learn and listen to people like Ferguson, one of the best protectors and developers of youthful talent in football. Morrison was not and Ferguson, his greatest ally, finally lost patience.
Maybe it was when he asked Rio Ferdinand on Twitter to confirm he hadn't pick-pocketed from the dressing room. Perhaps it was after he described the end-of-season awards ceremony, attended by assorted club luminaries, in excremental terms. On the back of just three first-team appearances he is said to have left Ferguson outraged by wildly 'unrealistic' wage demands when negotiating a contract renewal. In truth, the argument goes, playing at Old Trafford, with the celebrity it entails, may have simply come too soon for Morrison. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly arrived at the conclusion that the impressionable youngster would be "better out of Manchester" with all its attendant distractions. His friends, like many lads of 17 and 18, tended to "hang around on bikes, wearing hooded tops and dark clothing", reported Taylor. Morrison himself wore similar garb to one court appearance. For his sentencing, he looked what he was: a teenager in Nike trainers and a tie knotted Grange Hill-style.
For all this time Morrison lived with his grandparents, Chris and Maureen Carlway, in Denton, five miles to the east of Manchester, while his mother, Sharon Ryan, still taking an active part in his life, lived in another part of the city with her two younger boys, Rio and Zeon. Morrison would frequently contemplate moving out, complaining that he did not like being under the watch of his grandmother, although the club insisted he stayed in the company of adults. It is said that Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville both offered to take him in at different points. All of which made West Ham's subsequent decision to put the then teenager in a four-star east London hotel instead of a host family to keep him out of trouble all the more baffling, wrote the Mail's Laura Williamson at the time.
The move that eventually took Morrison to West Ham in January last year was for an initial £650,000, with the fee rising to a reputed £2.5million depending on performances. A solitary 10 minute substitute appearance in the ensuing six months, as well as hushed intimations of fractious relationships with both squad members and coaching staff, seemed to suggest they would not be seeing any extra cash in Manchester. Within a month, as predictable as the rain that falls on the streets of Whalley Range, he was back under the spotlight after being charged for using 'homophobic' language on Twitter. The England prodigy claimed he was reacting to vile racist abuse which had been directed at him. Even now it seems affording Morrison the medium of social networking is akin to prodding an angry bear with a stick and expecting it to behave, noted Bleacher Report's Alex Shaw. "With all due respect, when he first came from Manchester United he thought he was the top kid and he was going to walk straight into our team and it certainly doesn't work like that," observed West Ham assistant manager Neil McDonald when discussing those early months.. "We sent him away with the hope he would come back and use that experience."
Morrison started slowly upon joining Birmingham on loan at the start of last season, but his performance in their draw against Leicester that October, wrote Shaw, hinted at what we could expect: intelligent passing— often too clever for his own team-mates—and a willingness to stay true to aesthetics in the hurly-burly combat of the Championship. He went on to make 30 appearances in all competitions at St Andrew's, scoring three goals. "It was really good," Morrison states of the chance to grow up out of the Premier League spotlight. "I think I needed the year out and I think it went well, because I enjoyed my year at Birmingham a lot." Not that it was all plain sailing; the signs that things were initially going worryingly to form apparent in the fact manager Lee Clark considered ending his loan after three months because of an attitude problem. After the Birmingham manager held showdown talks with the midfielder, Allardyce believes the player's positive response was indicative of real personal growth. "It’s nice to see he overcame those early problems he suffered by not playing," said Big Sam. "We bought him for development. So first-team football hopefully will have given him enough experience so he can learn to put that ability into the game on a regular basis. A player is always much better when he is in the team as well."
Rather than write him off, Clark had decided to be honest with him about what was happening and his words had the desired effect, with Morrison shining for the rest of his loan spell. "Since we had that conversation, he’s been a super kid," states Clark. "I know there’s been headlines about him and things that have happened off the field. But I haven’t had a problem with him off the field. He loves his football, you see a big smile on his face when he’s playing and training. Early on in the season, when things weren’t going his way, in terms of getting in the team, his level of performance in training was affected. And he was on a little bit of a downward spiral in terms of that. So we had the watershed moment when we had the conversation and I said to him I didn’t bring him to the football club just to be a sub, or not even a sub at times. I brought him to be one of the main players. And he has knuckled down, his training has been excellent."
Morrison admits to having "missed West Ham a lot" but insists it was still good in the Championship. "It was different to the Premier League, obviously, but it was a good challenge," he said recently. "Lee Clark is a great manager and he helped me through a lot. He talked me through my rights and wrongs and he helped me through the season. I probably enjoyed the game against Millwall the most, when we came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3. That was probably the best game because the whole team worked hard. I also scored a couple of good goals." It says much about the relation that developed between the two that Clark went on record last month to say he would love to work with Morrison again. All summer he has maintained dialogue with Allardyce and the Hammers to ensure if West Ham decide not to include Morrison in their fold, then his Blues will be at the head of the queue for his services.
Those hopes appear to be receding with the midfielder determined to force his way into the reckoning at Upton Park. "Pre-season has been good and I've enjoyed the whole trip so far," Morrison told the club's official website. "I've just enjoyed the work and the whole group has done well. Hopefully I can get an opportunity. I've just got to carry on working hard and show the manager what I can do." An impressive run of form has followed, which includes two goals against Sporting Lisbon and a string of excellent displays as he continues preparation for the coming campaign. McDonald, now working closely with the 'problem prodigy', detects a significant change in the player's attitude that could finally see him flourish at Upton Park. "He’s settled in and he’s come back a different player," he told Talksport. "I think it’s done him the world of good going to Birmingham to play some games. He can certainly do a really good job in midfield. He’s got the ability. You don’t play for Manchester United if you’re not a good player. As each game goes along he’s looking good. He has had some experience around him as well [in midfield] with Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble pulling and pushing him, as you'd expect. If we can get him on the ball in the final third then he can produce."
Now Hammers skipper Nolan is ready to continue playing father figure to keep the starlet on the straight and narrow. "He has grown up and I think he has come back with a renewed approach," he told assembled journalists a few days ago. "I am going to help him as much as I can by talking to him on and off the pitch. Hopefully he's seen the benefit of being around us all the time and going on loan and seeing what it's about. Last year he started like that, but it was all the off-field stuff and his mental attitude to the game. He let himself down with not turning up and things like that. But speaking to Lee Clark at Birmingham, he said he really worked hard on him and towards the end had him on board. That's what you've got to have with Rav. If he can get it all right, he will be a top player for years to come."
There's the rub. On the pitch, wrote Michael Calvin, great players are defined by the quality of the decisions they take, under pressure. Off it, the same principle applies. There are small signs of hope, but the choice is Morrison’s alone. For his sake, pray he makes the right one. He will either be one of English football’s greatest treasures, concludes Calvin, or its latest tragedy. In many ways it is strange to think he is still only 20. As Shaw points out, those GIFs of him displaying his precocious talent in Manchester United's reserve matches have circulated on the Internet for years now, and everyone has an opinion on him, even Barcelona. Camp Nou officials were well aware of Morrison's quality when his time at United was hurtling towards a premature conclusion back in 2011. Nothing materialised from their interest — but he has the ability, if given the chance, to be noticed again. The choice between fame and oblivion is his. He can repay the faith, defy the demons and become rich beyond reason. Or he can revert to type, succumb to self-destructive anger and become just another doomed youth. There are many who hope Ravel Morrison proves the doubters wrong, but they won't be surprised if he doesn't.