Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison once played together but their careers have followed different trajectories
Taking the ball in his stride, he glides through the Sheffield United defence, hips twitching with feints that send defenders sprawling. Moving from left to right, he reaches the edge of the penalty area before cutting a shot across the goalkeeper and firmly into the bottom corner. It is Ravel Morrison’s second goal of the 2011 FA Youth Cup final second leg. Manchester United will go on to win 4-1, 6-3 on aggregate, with the 18-year-old midfielder, who has shone brightest in a talent-rich side that includes Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, named man of the match.
The majority of the fans in attendance have been funnelled into Old Trafford’s north stand to give the appearance of a full stadium to the cameras situated opposite. In truth, the Theatre of Dreams is around a third full. Many of the United fans present will have already been aware of Morrison, who was given a senior debut in a League Cup tie against Wolves earlier in the season; his performance here does not herald the emergence of a generational talent, rather it marks the confirmation of one.
As Morrison celebrates, understatedly, his second goal of the game and his sixth of the tournament, Lingard is the first to join him. Morrison had earlier opened the scoring with a crisp finish from inside the 18-yard box before then breaking through midfield and into the penalty area to draw a handball for the second, a penalty converted by Will Keane. As Lingard – who darted across Sheffield United’s Harry Maguire and prodded in a Pogba cross to score in the first leg, but whose involvement in the cup run has been intermittent – reaches Morrison, he puts his hands on the gifted No 10’s face, disbelievingly cradling his colleague’s head. Lingard, just as everyone else inside Old Trafford, is in awe.
It is a moment that stands out with hindsight, the two players making for fascinating juxtaposition. Lingard, from Warrington, is just six weeks older than Morrison, who was born only 14 miles away in Wythenshawe and grew up in Stretford, in the shadow of Old Trafford (although he is a boyhood Arsenal fan). They both played for Fletcher Moss Rangers, the grassroots Manchester club that has given Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck and Marcus Rashford their starts in the game, before signing for United around the age of eight. Both players also spent time on loan at Birmingham City within months of each other in their nascent development.
Equals in terms of opportunity, Morrison and Lingard are less comparable when it comes to natural talent. Although Lingard was a promising young player in his own right, long earmarked for a bright future, Morrison, as a central midfielder who could score and create, dribble and pass incisively, was likened to Paul Gascoigne and described by Sir Alex Ferguson as “the best young player you’ll ever see”.
During the Youth Cup campaign, Lingard was an energetic and effervescent attacking midfielder, a buzzing presence down the right wing with speed and an eye for goal. But at this stage he was scrawny and possessed more obvious technical and physical limitations than Morrison, who, despite growing off-field disruptions, seemed the safer bet for first- team stardom and international caps.
Their paths soon began to diverge, only not as most had predicted.
You have to go all the way back to October of 1938 to find the last game Manchester United played without a graduate of their youth academy in the match day squad; their run of consecutive fixtures in which they’ve showcased a home-grown starlet is set to break the 4,000 mark in the 2019-20 season. From the Busby Babes to the Class of 92, few clubs have as deep and proud a connection with their duty to develop young footballers as United.
In his 26 years as United manager, Ferguson oversaw the development and promotion to the first team of dozens of academy-reared youngsters at United, building double- and treble-winning sides around such players. There was no greater endorsement of Morrison’s talent, then, than the fact Ferguson considered him a superior prospect to the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, the most venerated youth products of his tenure.
So prodigious was Morrison that he’d penned professional terms more than a year before the 2011 Youth Cup final, United tying him down at the earliest allowable opportunity, on his 17th birthday. Lingard, on the other hand, despite being slightly older than Morrison, was made to wait, with doubts over his physical maturation seeing his first professional contract withheld until the summer of 2011, months before he turned 19.
Morrison’s position as the most promising young player to emerge from United’s academy since the Class of 92, if it hadn’t already been some years earlier, was crystallised at the quarter-final stage of the 2010-11 Youth Cup, when the Red Devils were drawn against Liverpool.
Even at youth level, there is a degree of anticipation about such games. In this instance, additional focus was trained on the game as, to many, it represented a showdown between the two strongest sides in that year’s Youth Cup; a de facto final. And in Morrison and Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, who had scored five in a 9-0 drubbing of Southend in the previous round, the match at Anfield would showcase two of the most talked- about talents in England.
Just a week after the United first team had lost 3-1 in the same fixture in the Premier League, Morrison led the under-18s to a 3-2 victory, scoring twice. He had scored spectacularly the round before, rifling in off the crossbar to give United a 1-0 win over Newcastle, and his growing highlight reel was further bolstered at Anfield. His first strike was a composed back-post finish, his second a superbly improvised volley from the edge of the box, taking the ball at waist height with his weaker left foot.
With 12,000 in attendance that day tensions ran high: each side had two players sent off – including Paul Pogba, who was dismissed for a second booking when, after his now-customary jinking penalty run-up, he illegally paused and feinted to shoot before slotting the ball to the other side of the already committed goalkeeper. Meanwhile, six United fans were ejected and three arrested.
As all around were losing their heads, Morrison kept his. But this even- temperedness was in contrast to the public image the youngster was already beginning to cultivate. In February 2011, the month before his Anfield brace, he pleaded guilty to two counts of witness intimidation and was sentenced to a 12-month referral order and made to pay costs and compensation of £1,445. Later in the year, he was advised to undergo domestic violence counselling after a conviction for criminal damage for throwing his girlfriend’s phone out of the window during an argument. On the training pitch, his timekeeping and attention span were the cause of constant complaints.
Dave Horrocks coached Morrison as a young boy at Fletcher Moss Rangers, for whom the midfielder was playing when he was spotted by United. Horrocks maintains that Morrison’s reputation as a toxic influence is unfair and that perhaps more could have been done at an early age to help his social and educational development.
“If he was coming through as an eight- year-old now,” Horrocks suggests, “given the 20 years’ difference in social education, regarding recognising different traits in different people, we could have put things in place where we could have guided him better; we could have given him more tools and identified that he had learning difficulties.”
Lingard also played for Fletcher Moss, albeit for a shorter period than Morrison, before joining the Red Devils. And Horrocks recalls the developmental differences between the two boys. “As far as Jesse was concerned,” Horrocks said, “he was one that needed the extra bits and pieces, and he picked it all up in the future. The difference with Ravel is polar.”
Horrocks glows when discussing Morrison, his “favourite player”, whom he believes belongs in the same category of maverick entertainer, flawed genius, as Gascoigne, Frank McAvennie and his own idol, George Best. “With Jesse, he was a very friendly kid. He knew lots of people because he was always all over the shop [at various clubs]; Ravel seemed a lonely kid [even though] he had loads of friends. When he was on the pitch you needed two footballs. He was phenomenal. If he couldn’t express himself, he would get bored and he would possibly lose his discipline.”
Horrocks suggests Morrison suffers from existing in a time when his deficiencies, both tactically on the field and personally of it, are viewed as a risk his talent isn’t allowed to outweigh. “Ravel, in a different era, we’d be talking about him like we talk about Lionel Messi,” he said.
Between 1997 and 2009, United had an arrangement with Royal Antwerp whereby their best young players could be loaned out to the Belgian club to gain first-team and life experience in a foreign country. The agreement ended before either Morrison or Lingard were able to benefit from it. Horrocks believes a period overseas – following a path now well-trodden, with Jadon Sancho, Reiss Nelson and Marcus McGuane among a host of English youngsters thriving on the Continent – would have been greatly beneficial to the teenage Morrison, broadening his horizons and allowing him to flourish away from the scrutiny of the British press and the distractions of creeping negative influences at home.
Morrison would go on to play abroad later in his career, but any notion that he was equipped to try his luck overseas sooner appears misguided, judging by stories of his difficulties during travels with the England youth teams. One such instance occurred on a trip to Baku for a European Championship qualifier in October 2009. The England Under-17s coach John Peacock had to instruct Morrison’s agent, who was due to fly out for the game, to bring a box of Mars bars and a crate of Lucozade with him, as the United player was refusing to eat the local food for fear it would poison him.
Colin Gordon, chairman of Kidderminster Harriers and founder of Key Sports, the agency that looked after Morrison at the time, told Henry Winter for his book Fifty Years of Hurt that the teenager “was such a lovely kid”, but was “educationally challenged”. “He should have loads of caps for England,” Gordon explained, “but he never had a prayer, because of his background ... He just couldn’t tell right from wrong. He broke everyone’s hearts.”
Like Morrison, Lingard spent much of his youth in the care of his grandparents. But discipline was instilled in the young Lingard from the off by his grandfather, a former international weightlifter. Lingard was friendly and fun-loving as a boy, mixing well with others, perhaps owing to having spent short spells with several football clubs in the area before signing on with United. And his grandfather’s influence ensured he possessed a worth ethic that would serve him well in later life.
In a piece for The Players’ Tribune, Lingard recalls an early away trip with United, a defeat to Stoke City after which the travelling youngsters found themselves on the end of a dressing- down from his grandad. “He’s jabbing his finger, and he’s shouting,” Lingard said. “‘Disgrace! Proper disgrace out here today. Unbelievable. Go and look yourselves in the mirror, lads. You let your families down. You let yourselves down. You let the badge down. You’re not fit to wear the shirt!’”
Equipped with the necessary attitude and application, Lingard was imbued early on with an understanding that, while he may not possess natural technical ability on a par with Morrison or Pogba, it was his commitment to learning and improving that would play the biggest part in determining any future success. His size, though, raised doubts.
The same picture is often used to illustrate just how behind the curve Lingard was physically in his teens. He is 15, playing for United against Roma. He looks no older than ten. With his head barely reaching the shoulders of the two Italian boys of the same age either side of him, Lingard is drowned beneath his red shirt, which
is tucked into his shorts yet still spills low beyond his waistband. For longer than any of his teammates, Lingard was a boy in a young man’s world.
Ferguson, though, was unconcerned. The veteran manager had seen the late physical development of Paul Scholes and knew that there was every chance Lingard’s body would eventually catch up to his skill level. In a meeting with the young player and his family, Ferguson reassured Lingard that the club had faith in him and his abilities, and that it was just a matter of all involved being prepared to wait a little longer for him to mature. Prophetically, Ferguson predicted Lingard might have to wait until he was 22 or 23 to make inroads into the first team, even if that meant he would not be the manager to oversee it.
United were prepared to be patient with Lingard, but any remaining patience in Morrison had worn away by January 2012. Just half a season after his star turn in the Youth Cup final, he was sold to West Ham United for just £650,000. “It was very painful to sell him to West Ham in 2012 because he could have been a fantastic player,” Ferguson wrote of Morrison’s departure in his 2015 book Leading. “But, over a period of years, the problems off the pitch continued to escalate and we had little option but to cut the cord.”
It was Wayne Rooney’s determination, Michael Owen’s pace and directness, Gascoigne’s daring: Morrison’s sublime solo goal against Tottenham in October 2013 borrowed from every prodigal English attacker that had come before him. He was 10 yards inside his own half when he collected the ball, but he seemed to drag the goal toward him, every stride eating up the White Hart Lane turf until, after squeezing between Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen, he nonchalantly lifted the ball over Hugo Lloris and into the net. He’d cut a straight and narrow path through the Spurs defence; hope that he was now figuratively on the straight and narrow had never been higher.
That goal, one of the best scored in the Premier League that season, sealed a 3-0 win for West Ham. It was Morrison’s third in the space of four games, a run of form that had seen him earn a first call-up to the England Under-21s. He was playing regular top-flight football for the first time and finally the wider world was beginning to understand what all the fuss was about.
The switch to West Ham saw Morrison fall under the auspices of Sam Allardyce. Believing that Morrison needed to get away from distracting influences dragging him awry in Manchester, Ferguson thought the move to London would do the teenager good. “I hope you can sort him out,” he told Allardyce, “because if you can he’ll be a genius.”
Morrison found West Ham in the Championship following his move from Old Trafford and it was some time before he established himself at first-team level at Upton Park. A £7,000 FA-levied fine for homophobic remarks online, before he’d even kicked a ball for his new club, ensured controversy trailed closely in his wake. He played just once for West Ham before the end of the 2011-12 season – a campaign which saw the Hammers promoted – before joining Birmingham City on loan for the following term.
A perceived lack of application in training almost led the Birmingham manager Lee Clark to terminate Morrison’s loan early, but he persisted and the midfielder began to flourish in the second tier.
Derek Fazackerley was Clark’s assistant during Morrison’s St Andrews stay and he recalls the young player’s struggles with grasping tactical instructions, although he suggests this was not due to laziness or the kind of bad attitude he is often accused of having, rather a result of underlying learning difficulties. “Ravel, although he’s had his problems at times, is certainly not a bad person in any way, shape or form,” Fazackerley said. “The way he’s been brought up has had an influence on him, like it does on anybody else. From an education point of view, it did appear that his attention span was very small and, at times, impaired his ability to take things on board.
“The things that he did on a football field were his natural ability. I don’t think it was anything that anybody ever taught him; it was things that he picked up on the playing fields when he was growing up. When you take it up to 11 v 11, some of the responsibilities you like to see from people, at times, he couldn’t grasp. But I never felt it was a deliberate attempt to let you down; it was just something that he didn’t understand, and that made it difficult for him to progress.”
Morrison’s purple patch back at West Ham proved short-lived. He fell out of favour in the second half of 2013-14, amid rumblings that he had refused to be represented by the agent Mark Curtis who had close connections with Allardyce. And Morrison’s indiscipline reared its head on the international stage, too. He scored twice for the Under-21s in a 5-0 win over Lithuania, but got into an on-field bust-up with Wilfried Zaha after the winger confronted Morrison for continually refusing to pass the ball. “Rav’s a class player,” his teammate Nathan Redmond said. “Sometimes you do get a little bit frustrated with him but you just have to let Rav be Rav because of the things he is capable of.”
Allardyce, like Ferguson before him, gave up on Morrison, labelling him “the biggest waste of talent I ever worked with”. The former Manchester United player drifted through the remainder of his West Ham contract, loaned first to Queens Park Rangers in the second half of the 2013-14 season, then to Cardiff City for part of the following campaign.
He started brightly at QPR, his spell at Loftus Road highlighted by a brace against his former club Birmingham and being named Championship player of the month for March. But, as his form once again dipped, he was omitted from the starting line-up as QPR earned promotion to the Premier League by beating Derby County in the play-off final at Wembley.
Lingard also found himself embarking upon several loan moves at this time, only his were strategically plotted to aid his development; while Morrison was drifting. Yet to make his United debut, Lingard’s first loan stint away from Old Trafford saw him briefly join Leicester City, alongside his international teammate Michael Keane, in November 2012. An unremarkable five appearances yielded no goals for Lingard, who returned to his parent club at the end of the one-month deal; Keane was retained by Leicester for the rest of the season, with Tottenham’s Harry Kane brought in shortly after.
Lingard had twice been called up to the first team without getting off the bench prior his Leicester loan and he was part of United’s touring party for pre-season ahead of the 2013-14 campaign, scoring the first goal of David Moyes’s reign as half of a brace against an A-League select XI in Sydney. But he was still deemed unready for competitive action at Old Trafford.
The season after Morrison’s temporary St Andrews stay, Lingard also joined Birmingham on loan. In three months with the Midlands club, the young attacker played 13 times in the Championship and scored six goals, four of them coming in a remarkable debut against Sheffield Wednesday.
“He came with less publicity, less fanfare [than Morrison],” Fazackerley remembers of Lingard’s time with Birmingham. “On the training field, he had good pace, two good feet, in terms of his technical ability and his ability to turn quickly and get shots away. His anticipation around the penalty area enabled him to get a few goals for us, which helped lift us away from the relegation zone at Birmingham. He was keen to absorb what people were telling him and make the most of the skills that he had, you can certainly say that.”
Lingard returned to United in January 2014 and was then loaned out again, joining Brighton in the second tier for the remainder of the season. This period of successive loans fortified Lingard who was still wiry but robust enough for men’s football. He had ridden the high of a scoring streak and dealt with the low of missing games through injury; he experienced his first red card and tasted the tension of play-off football, all the while learning, absorbing.
“Of the two players, who would you have backed to get international caps at the same age?” Fazackerley asked. “At that particular time, in terms of ability alone, you’d probably have said it’d be Morrison. But it’s not just ability that decides your fate as a footballer. Jesse finds it easier to take things in, to adapt, and still to make sure that he produces in areas that he’s expected to produce.”
Sliding to his backside, swinging windmills with the shirt he has torn off in wild ecstasy, Lingard basks in his ultimate fulfilment. The lifelong United fan has just cracked a bouncing ball into the top corner to give the Red Devils an extra-time lead over Crystal Palace in the 2016 FA Cup final at Wembley. Five years after he celebrated Morrison’s Youth Cup heroics, now he is the hero. It is a perfect moment’s manifestation of Ferguson’s patience, United’s faith in their young players, and his own self- belief and dedication.
True to Ferguson’s prediction, 22 proved to be the golden age for Lingard: he had made just one senior appearance for United before his 22nd birthday – a Premier League outing against Swansea truncated by a knee injury after 20 minutes – and has accumulated more than 100 since. There was one more loan, to Derby as he recovered fitness from the injury sustained in his United debut, but by the 2015-16 campaign, under Louis van Gaal, Lingard was a first- team regular at Old Trafford.
Aged 23, Lingard made his senior England debut and he would form part of the Three Lions’ midfield during their run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, scoring with a spectacular 25-yard strike against Panama in the group stage.
Morrison hasn’t fulfilled the early prophecies of England stardom; now 26 and playing for Sheffield United, he is unlikely ever to do so. Lingard’s FA Cup winner came three months after Morrison had joined Lazio on a free transfer; his West Ham contract was terminated in February 2016, after he had previously been transfer listed by the club.
He predictably failed to settle in Italy. The Lazio manager Stefano Pioli was critical of Morrison’s lack of effort in training and apparent lack of interest in trying to learn Italian. He was loaned back to QPR in January 2017 but made just five appearances and the London side declined to exercise their option to sign him permanently for £2 million.
As Lingard starred at the World Cup in Russia, Morrison had just completed a season on loan with the struggling Liga Mx side Atlas – “That was one of the best seasons I’ve had in football,” he said of his time in Mexico, “I enjoyed every moment of it” – before returning to Lazio, where he was an outcast. “It’s easy to fall into dark moments,” he told the Times. “At that point at Lazio I felt I couldn’t function properly. I just became... slumped.”
Nearly eight years and eight clubs on from the Youth Cup final of 2011, Morrison signed for Östersunds – the Swedish club with an English manager, Ian Burchnall, and sporting director, David Webb – on a four-and-a-half- month contract in February 2019, let go by Lazio having played only eight times for the club. He moved to Yorkshire in summer 2019.
“There’s always going to be pressure no matter what, whether you are home-grown or a bought player,” Lingard told the Telegraph in a 2019 interview. “But as long as you do the business on the pitch, you work hard and give 110 per cent then people will be on your side.” Ultimately, Morrison couldn’t keep people on his side for long enough.