Sunday 25 February 2018

‘This guy is no footballer’ - Clinton Morrison on his first thoughts after meeting Roy Keane

Republic of Ireland team-mates Clinton Morrison, left, and Roy Keane in conversation during squad training in 2005
Republic of Ireland team-mates Clinton Morrison, left, and Roy Keane in conversation during squad training in 2005

Jeremy Wilson

It was November 2014 and Clinton Morrison was already six months into what he thought would be his retirement when he took to the dance-floor at a surprise party for the Derby County goalkeeper Lee Grant. He must have still looked relatively sprightly even at the age of 35 because he was soon noticed by Matt Oakley, the Exeter City captain.

“No alcohol was consumed obviously, Matt might have had a few but not me,” says Morrison, smiling. “He pulled me over and said ‘What are you doing now?’ I said, ‘Nothing much, can’t really be bothered’. He was, ‘Come down to Exeter’. I was like, ‘No can’t see that’.

"I was calling it a day. I had left Colchester and was not enjoying it so much. I was just sometimes having a kick around locally but, within two or three days, the manager [Paul Tisdale] rang me. I came down here and I enjoyed it. If I didn’t like the people, I wouldn’t get out of bed most days. I feel welcomed and loved. The rest is history.”

An arrangement was duly struck whereby Morrison trains during the first part of the week at his home in Nottingham and then drives down to Exeter’s training ground on a Thursday morning ahead of the weekend match. A series of short contracts have followed – the latest of which was agreed on Thursday until the end of this season – and Morrison now suddenly finds himself back in the limelight ahead of Friday’s BBC-televised FA Cup third round match against Liverpool.

It is exactly 15 years since he first played against Liverpool for Crystal Palace and he is acutely aware that fans of the five-times European champions have never forgotten that particular game. The exuberant Morrison was only 21. Michael Owen was in his absolute prime and would join such legends as Johan Cruyff, George Best and Ronaldo in winning the ‘Ballon d’Or’ later that year.

Morrison, though, had scored for Palace in what was a 2-1 win in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final. He was asked for his thoughts on Liverpool. “[Emile] Heskey missed a few and Owen missed a few,” he said. “I was thinking, I wish I had some of the chances they had. I would have put at least two of them away. Owen has not been the same since his injury problems. I think he is just a bit low on confidence at the moment with the new signing coming in and he is worried about his place.”

Gerard Houllier, then Liverpool manager, was outraged and warned ahead of the second leg that “if you spit in the air it sometimes comes back on you”. Morrison maintains to this day that his comments were taken out of context but can laugh out loud at how Houllier’s warning was vindicated. Not only were Palace beaten 5-0 in the second leg but, with the score 4-0, Morrison himself had a chance in front of The Kop only to miss the ball completely with his attempted finish.

As the whole of Anfield stood to chant ‘Clinton what’s the score?’, the camera panned to a smirking Owen in the stands. Gary McAllister also jogged across the pitch to inform Morrison that ‘Michael Owen would have scored that’.

“At the time it all happened, I was ‘oh flip, what’s going on here’,” says Morrison. “I didn’t really know how to address the media back then and you say something in the heat of the moment. I’m older and wiser now. They’ll probably make it known to me again on Friday but it’s always been good, enjoyable, not over the top. Liverpool fans are brilliant.”

Morrison will also be remembered for far more than that Liverpool incident. He remains one of the top five Crystal Palace goalscorers of all-time and, having also been a Premier League regular at Birmingham City, went to the 2002 World Cup with the Republic of Ireland. That tournament became overshadowed Roy Keane’s very public fall-out with Mick McCarthy but the chance to play alongside the former Manchester United captain was to leave a life-long imprint.

“I remember when I first saw him training,” says Morrison. “Tight shorts, socks up to his knees, Diadora boots. I thought to myself, ‘This guy is no footballer’. Then we did a passing session and it was just unbelievable. Then a finishing session and he didn’t miss. Then you see him play in games, what he covered and how good he was on the ball.

“He wanted to train how you played and, if you didn’t, he would lose his rag. He was nerve-racking but he made your game rise to another level. I remember walking along the beach at the World Cup with him. He would always tell us not to settle for second best. He said, ‘don’t think you are here to make up the numbers’.”

It is a mentality that Exeter must also employ on Friday night, with Morrison adamant that they do have a chance, particularly given the conditions at their 8,500-capacity St James’ Park ground. “Stranger things have happened,” he says. “The pitch won’t be the best, we’ve had a lot of rain down here so it will be difficult for Liverpool to get their slick passing going. If we get in their faces, press them, who knows?

“No-one is expecting anything from us. It is on television, playing against Liverpool, a lot of people will be watching, so go and enjoy yourself. It is being shown on TV for a reason; people think there might be an upset.”

Morrison himself now tends to be used as an impact substitute and is naturally also thinking about his life beyond football. He worked in television during his first ‘retirement’ and, as well as the media, is considering the possibilities of coaching or working as a player agent.

“I would also happily go to college or university to learn something new,” he says. “I won’t sit at home and do nothing but you are a long time retired and I want to play as long as possible. I feel fitter than for a long time. I’m obviously not as quick as I used to be but you learn to mix your game up.

“I am proud of my career and I just want to end it well. Who would have thought that a boy from south London, growing up in a council estate, would do what I’ve done and be sat here talking in Exeter about playing Liverpool? It’s been a dream and I’m still living it. Long may it continue.”

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