Michael Morrison reflects on how Cambridge United days led to a stellar EFL career
Defining a homegrown hero always comes down to the eye of the supporter.
A one-club man, an iconic goal, a place in a fabled team or a memorable moment are all good gauges that place a degree of immortality in the minds of a fan or historian.
But what of those who do not fit into any of the above categories and perhaps fall through the cracks as a consequence.
Michael Morrison is the perfect case in point.
It is now 12 years since the Haverhill boy left the Abbey Stadium to join then League One Leicester City, and his record speaks for itself – more than 435 appearances at Championship or League One level.
Yet, he does not get talked about or recognised in the way he deserves, unlike some of those that have followed in his footsteps at Cambridge United.
Perhaps it is in part due to the fact that there were none of those ‘iconic’ moments.
It was also a difficult time for the U’s after their relegation to the Conference, a period for the club that most want to cast to the recesses of their mind.
But it provided the “unglamourous centre-half” – in Morrison’s own words – the opportunity to make his way in the game.
Having dropped out of the Football League, manager Rob Newman was left with just four senior professionals as he looked to rebuild the squad.
Morrison had come up through the youth ranks – at the time the youngest player to feature for the reserves, aged 15 – and was one of only a handful of YTS players kept on after the U’s had shut the scheme.
The then 17-year-old, who was a second-year YTS, soon found himself called into action as Adam Davies, a year older, was being called away on Wales under-21 duty.
“I was knocking on the door at the time,” says Morrison. “I don’t know whether I would have expected to have played so many games for so long.
“They kept a handful of the YTS so there were a few of us that had trained with the first team so it was a question of when rather than if I was going to get an opportunity. Then it’s just a case of how it’s going to go after that.
“In that position, normally people are looking for experience where you’re a bit more physically developed, a bit more aggressive and you’re playing against big strikers.
“We were probably a bit light in positions because of the relegation and the budget, and that’s what really gave me the opportunity a bit earlier than it would have been if we’d stayed in the Football League.”
Morrison grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
He made his debut against Halifax and stayed in the team to face Chester in the LDV Vans Trophy and then in the FA Cup against Weymouth, and there was no looking back.
Morrison was nurtured during his three seasons in the first team by those around him.
“Mark Albrighton, Wayne Hatswell, Mark Peters and Andy Duncan, really experienced centre-halves next to me who really did help me and you learn that physical side, that aggressive side you need,” he says.
“Mark Peters can head the ball, that’s for sure – I don't think anyone could head it further than he could!”
Now 32, it is a reason that Morrison extolls the virtues of playing time to young professionals.
It was a big leap to go from the Conference to League One when he made the switch for an undisclosed fee to Leicester.
But he did so having already made 108 appearances in the physically demanding non-League, where there is no hiding place and no prisoners are taken – a path that he recommends to this day.
“I would always say going out and playing – whether it’s Conference or League Two – is better. People need to see your ability,” he says.
“The under-23s is really hard to translate into first-team football, especially as a defender.
“They want to see the skillset. People want to see that you can defend and that’s gone out of the game a little bit more – ‘Can he head it and kick it?’. It’s now ‘Can he pass it out?’.
“You speak to some of the young lads and say how was the game? They’ve lost 3-2, they’re a centre-half and they will say ‘I played well’. But you think, ‘well you’ve conceded three goals’.
“I think first-team football gives you a real grounding, especially at Cambridge at the time. We were doing all the jobs – I was laying the kit out on the Friday for the lads – so you can’t get carried away with yourself.”
Morrison had dipped his toe in the water of the Football League before he finally landed the move to the Foxes. Along with Davies, he went on trial at Preston, and then had a similar spell at Everton.
A longer chance to impress was provided at Newcastle, and though he may not have made the switch to the Magpies, he did enough to catch the eye of the coaching staff.
“If I hadn’t gone to Newcastle, it was Nigel Pearson who was actually part of the Newcastle set-up at the time and Steve Walsh who was his assistant, and they ended up getting the Leicester job,” he explains.
“From going to Newcastle that directly got me the Leicester move so they got to see me up close and personal. You get to see the standards that are set and the level is higher, and you get to see where you have to go and how you have to keep moving with the better players.”
It was Gary Brabin who was officially manager of the U’s when Morrison was sold, but the two had not met until this campaign when Reading faced Luton – “we had a little smile at each other and a little laugh about it” – as the deal had been arranged by then U’s directors George Rolls and Phil Law.
Morrison stays in contact with Danny Potter from his United days, and while playing for Birmingham caught up Courtney Pitt and has also met David Bridges, now a coach at Lincoln, and Mark Peters, in charge of the under-18s at Mansfield, in recent times.
And he still keeps up with all of their results.
“When you’ve come through the club and it’s your schoolboy and local club, you always look out for them, especially now Mark (Bonner) has got the job as well,” says Morrison.
“I went to Wembley both times, the time we lost and the time we went up as well.”
But life in the Championship and League One has kept him more than busy.
In that pantheon of homegrown heroes, it is also important to remember that not only has Morrison – a three-time U’s young player of the year – gone on to play for Leicester, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton, Birmingham and now Reading, but his move in 2008 to Filbert Street also earned the club a valuable transfer fee at the time.
It is why it feels that his career – which includes appearing for England C – does not get the recognition it deserves, but the defender is sanguine about it all.
“It’s not a glamorous career, I’ve sort of plateaued at the Championship,” says Morrison,
“I’m gutted at the moment that I’ve not played in the Premier League, but at Reading we’ve got a good squad and that is what we’re fighting for.
“I’ve played for some really big clubs, really enjoyed it and been captain at Birmingham and Charlton.”
That does not take into account the successes and personal milestones.
And the two stand-out moments are winning League One with both Leicester, in 2009, and Charlton, in 2012.
“Charlton got promoted, I got into the PFA team of the year and Harry Maguire played centre-half next me – his trajectory lifted a little bit more than mine,” he laughs.
As much as anything else though, life as a centre-back in the Championship is far from about the glory.
“I think it’s probably one of the most unglamorous positions,” he says. “Nobody praises you, everyone thinks it’s easy and then they’re there to bear on you when you make a mistake.
“It’s not like being a striker where if you score, you’re the hero.
“At that level, it’s about consistency and trying to perform to your highest level and not make many mistakes. I love it.
“When I finish my career, I want to look back at my career and say I played here, and I played this many games, I left that legacy here and I did this and that there.”
But Morrison adds one thing.
“Probably one of my biggest regrets is I’ve never played for Cambridge in the League, they’ve all been in the Conference.”
Life at Reading
Michael Morrison is predicting good times ahead for Reading.
The 32-year-old centre-back signed a two-year contract with the Royals last summer, after four-and-a-half years with Birmingham City.
It took them a little while to get going, but after Mark Bowen was appointed as head coach in October, they found their feet.
“It took us a little while to gel,” says Morrison. “Mark Bowen took over and he has got us a lot more organised. We’re efficient I think, especially away from home as we’ve got some real threats on the counter-attack.
“We’ve been good since he’s come in and I don’t think enough’s been made of it, how well we’ve done since he has come in.
“We had a bit of a bad spell after Christmas, but if he’d been manager for the whole season I do believe we would have been challenging for the play-offs.”
He added: “I think the play-offs are a little bit too far for us this year but if we can keep our team together for another year playing with each other then we’ve got a good opportunity to go out and surprise people next season.”