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Ravel Morrison's controversial career has not stopped clubs taking a chance on him

Sam Wallace
Ravel Morrison returns to the Premier League with Sheffield United - Sportimage

The legend of Ravel Morrison appears as strong as ever, which is to say that almost nine years since he made his professional debut for Manchester United he remains the great unfulfilled talent whom the English game still hopes will emerge from that troublesome past.

When he signed for Sheffield United on Wednesday, the wave of enthusiasm for his Premier League return from fans as well as the players of his generation, was hard to ignore. Even at 26 he is the last lost prodigy of Sir Alex Ferguson, a player who has come to represent more than his very modest career CV. The perception is of the rebel street footballer, a ludicrously talented misfit from Stretford untamed by the modern game. His highlights reel is the stuff of folklore, as is his tendency to go missing from a training ground for days without explanation. None of it seems to matter while clubs keep taking a chance on him.

His previous manager is Ian Burchnall, a 36-year-old Englishman whose coaching career began with the University of Leeds team and, via English academy football and a stint in Norway is now in charge of the Swedish-top flight club Ostersunds. Morrison signed for them in February before. A heel injury from a bad tackle that is still affecting him, combined with the club’s early cup exit and the Allsvenskan’s summer break, meant his appearances were limited to nine games. Even so, he left on very good terms and it has not always been that way in Morrison’s career.

“There’s no question about what you see on the training pitch – he has incredible natural ability,” Burchnall says. “You see that instantly. The key for him is to find a coach and an environment that understands talent and he can be part of the team structure.”

Burchnall says that Morrison is best as a No 10 and was granted a free role when he did play. As per the philosophy instilled by Burchnall’s predecessor Graham Potter, Osterstunds prefer to control possession so often Morrison was able to drop deeper to dictate the play. Burchnall suspects that in the greater intensity of the Premier League he will play further up the pitch.

Ravel Morrison's time at Man Utd was hindered by his off-field conduct Credit: Getty Images

Burchnall had watched Morrison play for Club Atlas in the Mexican top-flight where he had previously been on loan from Lazio before going to Sweden following seven months out the game. Morrison has said that his time in Liga MX was a career highlight. “He was playing in front of 50,000 crowds with world class players,” Burchnall says. “Some people think you’ve crashed and burned if you go to Mexico but you want to try playing there. It’s a brilliant league.”

The Ostersunds technical director David Webb, who worked in recruitment at Tottenham Hotspur and Bournemouth among others, tells the story of the day Morrison was approached by two young fans in the club shop. They asked for his autograph and he said he would sign their shirt. When the pair said they did not have a home shirt he bought them one each. “We found him a joy to work with,” Webb says. “He was humble and polite and encouraged the younger players.”

Webb says that Morrison never quite reached full match fitness but even at 60-70 per cent was at a different level to his contemporaries. Operating on a limited budget Webb negotiated Morrison’s release from his Lazio contract, the end to a deeply unhappy spell at the Italian club who had not even named him in their 25-man squad last season.  Webb also credits Morrison’s agent Dan Wilson with straightening out his client’s life on and off the pitch.

But it can be hard for Morrison to escape his past. In an interview in February, he was critical of his treatment at United, the club that had nurtured him and where he was registered when he was convicted of two counts of intimidating a witness in Feb 2011. Then, he narrowly escaped a sentence at a young offenders’ institution. It was not his only conviction, and another, for criminal damage, came during the 12-month span of a referral order handed down for his previous offences.

In an interview in February, Ravel Morrison was critical of his treatment at United Credit: Getty Images

Those at United who knew Morrison as a teenager at the club were astonished at his allegations that other players had received better treatment than him. He alleged that the club had told him to move out of his native Stretford and away from bad influences, to live with his grandmother in Gorton, an area of the city also unlikely to feature in any glossy property prospectus. “They were moving other young players to big houses in Sale,” he said of that time.

United have always contended that they went over and above to help a child who to put it bluntly, needed a lot of help. Another Morrison story that has burnished the legend was that when he did go missing from United’s Carrington training ground he could often be found playing five-a-side with his friends at the Trafford soccer dome on the other side of the M60 motorway. It is clear that at times he has suffered some misfortune, like the abrupt end of a successful time at West Ham, you have to wonder just why so much can befall just one player.   

“I am prone to [signing] a left-field player,” the Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder said this week, reflecting on the one-year contract given to Morrison. “It doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t scare me.” The talent, however, has never been in question and even this summer, Bramall Lane was not the only option open to Morrison who was effectively a free agent. Ostersunds would have kept him too but in the end his stay at the club situated just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle was always going to be a temporary fix.

“We knew his talent and his profile would raise the profile of the club,” Webb says. “Money wasn’t the biggest factor for him at that point in February. He wanted to come back and play.” Hope springs eternal that Morrison, a FA Youth Cup winner at United alongside Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard, will come good on his immense talent. In the freezing temperatures and artificial surfaces of Swedish football there were some reasons to be encouraged. As he will know, these comeback chances will not go on indefinitely.