A smile comes across James Morrison's face, almost as if he knew it was a matter of time before Garth Crooks was mentioned. Back in October, Crooks included the West Brom midfielder in his team of the week on the BBC website and, in what was intended to be a compliment, remarked: "This is a player Roy Hodgson should now be taking a keen interest in." It was a nice idea but for the fact Morrison has been playing for Scotland since 2008.
Morrison has a good sense of humour and, to his credit, saw the funny side when he heard about the former Tottenham striker's blunder. "There was laughter," he says. "But some bad publicity is good publicity really. A lot of people said to me: 'You must be doing something right if he's picking you to play for England'. But I was laughing, saying: 'I've got 23 caps for Scotland'."
The BBC pundit was at least on the right track with his assessment of Morrison's form. Following on from his impressive displays last season, Morrison was an instrumental figure in Albion's fine start to the current campaign, excelling in an attacking midfield role that seems tailor-made for a footballer with his touch and awareness. "I feel that I've just kept the form going from last season, really," Morrison says. "And that's one of the things I wanted to do. There's no point just having one good season that everyone talks about."
It is tempting to wonder what would have happened had Morrison, who was born in Darlington and played for England at youth level, decided against committing to Scotland, especially as the manager who enjoyed working with him so much at Albion is now in charge of England. Does he think he would have been called into the England squad by now? "I believe I would," Morrison says, before adding with a chuckle: "People say Roy was my dad – I was known as 'son of' when he was here! To be fair, I've had a lot of 'son ofs'. Tony Mowbray [the former Albion manager] was another. I still think of Mowbray as my dad now!
"Roy, though, was a special guy and he taught me a lot: how to play midfield on the defensive side; backing up play, shuffling across, blocking up lines. He was very interesting, like one of those experienced men you see in a pub sometimes who you can go to for a chat. And he never
missed a thing. When he first came in, he was always shouting: 'I can see you're walking, you're not doing it'. All the lads came off the training pitch sweating, thinking we'd never worked that hard before. Roy probably laid a lot of the foundations at West Brom. He's a real good man and I've got a lot of respect for him.
"But to go back to the England thing, I had the choice. The reason I went with Scotland was because my grandad, George, was Scottish and he always wanted me to do it. He passed away and I did it on his behalf. Also, I didn't get picked for [England] under 21s, so I thought: 'Sod it, my chances don't look that good'. I had the chance to go and play international football for Scotland at a young age and I've never regretted it because it's been great. I've played against Brazil and Spain a couple of times, great occasions at Hampden Park, and I've been one of the top players there."
The 26-year-old is a likeable character, full of contradictions. He is quietly spoken and seems laid-back bordering on horizontal at times but behind that facade is a footballer who has supreme confidence in his ability. He remembers how he "ripped it up" as a 16-year-old when he was thrown into training with Juninho, Gaizka Mendieta, Gareth Southgate and the rest of Middlesbrough's first team and it also transpires that he has never been afraid to offer an opinion. "That's why I won't go on Twitter. I speak my mind a bit too much at times," Morrison says, with a smile.
It is on the field, though, where he really comes alive. "I go out, not to show off, but to show what I can do. And I think that's what you've got to do. Off the pitch, I'm chilled out. It's like Jonas Olsson for us – he's dead calm, but when he gets on the pitch he's a nightmare, the angriest man you could ever meet. It's like that with some players, you can switch it on and off. Plus, I'm a Gemini, which is two personalities. And my mam is a twin as well – there's a bit of an interesting fact for you."
Football was in Morrison's blood – his grandfather played professionally and his father, Charlie, was an apprentice at Chelsea. Honest enough to admit that he "was rubbish at school", Morrison joined Middlesbrough at 16 and flourished, stealing the show when he scored twice against Aston Villa in the 2004 FA Youth Cup final. A couple of years later, he was playing regularly in the Premier League and started in a Uefa Cup final, against Sevilla. "I wish I played in that final being a few years older," Morrison says, recalling the 4-0 defeat. "I just feel like I'm a more mature player now. I could try and get a foothold, even though in the first half we all got tortured."
Another ordeal was around the corner. Gareth Southgate took over from Steve McClaren as Middlesbrough manager later that summer and 12 months later Morrison was no longer wanted. "I didn't want to leave, what with it being my hometown club. I was devastated hearing the news," he says. "At first I was a bit bitter because Southgate had got rid of me and I felt that I hadn't done too much wrong. But I came here and saw this as an opportunity to get back on the map and I've done that."
His development from the player who arrived as a right-winger back in 2007 is there for all to see and it was no surprise when Albion rewarded Morrison with a four-year contract in September. Albion were going like a train at that point but three successive defeats, against Swansea, Stoke and Arsenal, means that Steve Clarke's team are experiencing what Morrison describes as "our first real blip of the season" ahead of West Ham's visit today.
Not that anyone at the Hawthorns is reaching for the panic button. "We had a tough start and we got off to a flyer – wins at home over Liverpool and Everton and a draw away against Tottenham that put us on to our run.
"We've hit a bit of a dodgy patch at the moment but we're working hard to put that right," Morrison says. "Three defeats creates a bit of a negative vibe but we know what we're doing well, and the manager, who has done a fantastic job, is trying to get us back on track."
West Brom v West Ham Utd,
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