Stuck in the wilderness
Clinton Morrison teams up again with Richard Sadlier to insist his Ireland career is still alive
In October 2006, Clinton Morrison left Nicosia as embarrassed and dejected as anyone. Having played his part in the 5-2 defeat to Cyprus, little did he know that he would spend the following 18 months on the outside looking in. His face would no longer fit.
We first met in February 2002. As we arrived in Dublin for a friendly against Russia, we bumped into each other at the airport. He was lively, brash, confident and loud. We didn't talk about it at the time, but we knew we were both competing for the same spot in Mick McCarthy's squad for the upcoming World Cup finals. While our style of play and our personalities couldn't have been more different, there would only be room for one of us.
Adding extra spice to the rivalry, we were opposing number 10s in the Millwall-Crystal Palace derby games, with both clubs pushing for promotion that year. We were also both vying to finish as the division's top scorer. Though we finished the Russia game together as strike partners -- his fourth cap, my first -- our meeting last week at Crystal Palace's training ground was the first time we had met since that night in Dublin, over six years earlier.
Clinton was named last week in the 40-man panel from which a squad of 28 will be selected for the friendlies with Serbia and Colombia. He has not played for his country since that night in Cyprus, something which hurts him deeply. Originally told by Steve Staunton that his omission was merely temporary due to his form at the time for his club, he was assured he would be back in the manager's plans as soon as the goals returned.
Taking these words at face value, he reacted in the way all players should. He kept quiet and began scoring goals. Still, the call never came. There appeared to be little substance to Staunton's words. "He rang me and said he was gonna try the younger lads -- Shane Long, Anthony Stokes and Keogh. I expected to be back in when I started scoring but obviously I didn't get a call or anything after that. It was just you've been frozen out, that's it."
There have been times in the past when, by his own admission, he has been guilty of "mouthing off at the wrong time". Insisting he was misquoted years ago when he allegedly criticised Michael Owen, giving Staunton the same treatment never entered his mind. Given what he has gone through, even I would have been tempted to say something. It would have been so easy to have had a go and add to the mounting pressure Staunton was under at the time, but the older, wiser Clinton held back. "Years before, I would've had a big sulk, and probably said a lot of things and mouthed off. But I just carried on, took it in my stride. He's the manager, he makes his decisions."
The inevitable feeling of isolation was softened by encouraging phone calls from the players, and particularly former kit-man Johnny Fallon. Throwing in the towel as others may have done was never a thought. "They said just keep going, do nothing stupid. You know you should be here. I still speak to a lot of the players. They said the same 'all you can do is keep going.'"
Fulfilling his end of the deal, he scored his 15th league goal of the season yesterday. Robbie Keane is the only Irish striker who has outscored him. The longer he was overlooked, the realisation set in that until a change of manager came about, he wouldn't add to his 36 caps.
Throughout our conversation he shows restraint when discussing his experience. Respectful of Staunton's decision, he is clearly unhappy with it. Even our chat after the tape is switched off reveals in him a level of decency and maturity that I suspect is very different from how he is perceived by supporters everywhere. His reputation as a cocky, flash London lad is something he's well aware of, and prior to our original meeting all those years ago, it was just how I had imagined he would be.
It's all change these days though. He's one of the few senior players at Palace who stay back to watch youth and reserve games, taking a keen interest in the progress of some of the younger lads. He was helped at that age, particularly by Ian Wright, and now feels obliged to do the same. Realising he may have deserved stick in the past, he decided a change in behaviour was required. Now, with a family, his outlook has changed significantly. "I don't want people to think I'm this, I'm that, or I'm mouthy, just because they see what I'm like on the pitch. Cos when I'm off the pitch I'm bubbly, and try to talk to everybody. So I think when I go on the pitch I'm a different person. I'm mouthy and a bit cocky and I can understand where people are coming from, but that's something I've tried to cut out recently."
He even believes it may have been a factor in Stan leaving him out. "I dunno, maybe he thought I was a bad influence, maybe I talk too much or I was this and that. But every time I went to Ireland I was just the same normal person I always try to be, and be myself. But obviously it wasn't for him."
Surprised by the nature of the stick aimed at Staunton, he'd be forgiven for jumping with delight following his departure. If he did, he didn't admit to it. Considering his form in front of goal, he set his sights firmly on the recent friendly with Brazil. It wasn't to be. The call never came from Don Givens, bringing yet more disappointment.
"Even just to be in the squad. I mean, I don't expect to play 'cos obviously Kevin Doyle and Robbie [Keane] have been playing brilliantly. To just be there and be around the squad. I'm playing well for Palace and scoring goals, so not getting picked was disappointing."
Becoming only the fifth player in Palace's history to reach 100 league goals, he has more than played his part in this season's push for promotion. With a difficult run-in facing them, he has put added emphasis on going up -- playing in the Championship is something he believes makes it easier for international managers to overlook him. Though he talks in a very business-like manner about the task ahead at Palace and his ongoing contract negotiations with the club (his current deal expires in July), he dreams of a return to the Ireland set-up. "I'd love to be involved and show the new manager what I can do, but it's in his hands, and Liam Brady working beside him. I'd love to get to 50 caps. That would be a dream. I'm only 28. I'll be 29 in May. Hopefully, if I carry on doing the business, I'll be selected."
His most successful stint with the squad was under Brian Kerr. "I actually spoke to him the other day. He rang me to see how I was doing. That's what I like about him, he always stays in contact. He's a good guy, I like him a lot. I played a lot under Brian, with Robbie. It was good then, I really enjoyed it."
Aware that his target of 50 caps could well have been reached already had Kerr remained in charge, he's experienced enough to know nothing is forever in football. "Yeah, things might have been different if he had stayed. But that's what happens, one manager likes you, one doesn't. You've got to accept that."
With Palace nicely positioned to push for the final play-off spot, his theory could yet be put to the test. Presuming the contract talks go as planned, he could once again be performing in the Premiership, impressing Giovanni Trapattoni in a way he never managed with Staunton. Even if he misses out on the final squad of 28 for the upcoming friendlies, I doubt his determination to return will be affected.
We have been on opposing sides in fierce local derbies and briefly were international team-mates. He was an annoying, cocky opponent before I met him. When I did, he seemed a bubbly, enthusiastic fella to have in the dressing room. Now though, a month short of his 29th birthday, he seems the opposite of what I imagine many people assume him to be.
In times where the commitment of some players is questionable, it's refreshing to hear his enthusiasm for international football is the same as it was when we first met. Where so many others in his position would spout the usual nonsense about concentrating on club football, he openly admits he is desperate to return. His short-term aims are both ambitious and realistic -- continue his form in front of goal, sign a new deal at Palace, win promotion this summer and earn a recall to the national squad.
Clinton has been in the game long enough to appreciate the futility of looking too far ahead, but he is sure of one thing: "I'm definitely not going to retire from international football. I'm just going to keep on going."