OSTERSUND, Sweden (AP) — From the Italian capital to western Mexico to a club located 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, a player who Alex Ferguson said “possessed as much natural talent as any youngster” at Manchester United is going to great lengths to revive his career.
And be sure, Ravel Morrison really will be out of his comfort zone at Swedish team Ostersund.
Forget the climate, which sees temperatures typically dip below minus-20 degrees C (minus-4 degrees F) in winter. Forget the sleepy nature of this small city in the middle of Sweden, which is known more for its winter sports than its soccer.
Morrison, once regarded as the top English soccer talent of his generation, has taken on perhaps his biggest challenge yet because Ostersund might just be the most quirky and unconventional team around.
The club prides itself on developing its players as people before sportsmen. Through what it calls its “Culture Academy,” players are faced with challenges to their mental process, their decision-making under pressure.
“We have to do a stand-up comedy show at the end of this season,” Ostersund coach Ian Burchnall said. “We’ll have to do comedy sketches and stuff. Every player and member of staff. It will be like a two-hour performance (in the city theater).”
One year, they performed Swan Lake in front of the city’s inhabitants. Last year, Burchnall was dressed up as one of the Sex Pistols, singing songs as part of an end-of-season musical production.
“It’s in all of our contracts, we are all in on it,” Burchnall said. “Ravel will do it, everyone will.”
Quite simply, Ostersund has to do things differently, and that encompasses its transfer policy, too. To keep pace with the richer clubs from southern Sweden, Ostersund — which was in the country’s fourth division as recently as 2011 — has become renowned for targeting players who have been rejected, made mistakes in their younger years, and who have failed to reach their potential for whatever reason.
Morrison fits that bill.
As a youngster a decade ago at United, Morrison was so good that Rio Ferdinand, a senior player at the time, described him as a “superhero” in a youth team that contained Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard. Ferdinand recalls him and Wayne Rooney being called over by Ferguson, who said of Morrison: “This is the best kid you will ever see.”
He only made three appearances — at the age of 17 — for United’s senior team, however, as concerns grew about his attitude and the company he was keeping off the field.
He “kept getting into trouble,” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography, and Morrison was sold to West Ham in 2012. There, and in later loan spells at Birmingham, Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff, he only showed flashes of his talent. In 2015, he moved to Italian club Lazio but was barely used, and he had a brief but enjoyable loan stint at Mexican side Atlas, in Guadalajara, in the 2017-18 season.
Now, he is in Ostersund, the most northerly and remote team in Sweden’s top division, and will make his league debut on Sunday against AIK on the first weekend of the season.
“I’ve come here to rebuild myself,” said the 26-year-old Morrison, who described himself as “just a young, humble person from Manchester.”
“I want to enjoy it and enjoy football again,” he said.
Martin Johansson, Ostersund’s chief executive, said the club had no concerns about signing Morrison.
“We’ve previously had players who have been convicted, had a history and been, you know, labeled as a trouble-maker in the media,” Johansson said. “I think the climate and the culture we have at the club probably appeals to him, in a sense where he can perhaps enjoy his football again.”
In one of the team’s last practice sessions before the AIK game, Morrison showed the touch and vision that got pundits and coaches so excited when he was young. Dropping deep, spraying the ball to either flank, flicking neat layoffs, Morrison was a cut above his teammates.
“He had a great training session then, didn’t he?” said Burchnall, a twinkle in his eye.
Burchnall knows all about Morrison from his time as a youth coach in northern England when his teams played against United.
“He was a fantastic talent, and still is,” Burchnall said. “I think it’s so easy for people to say he hasn’t fulfilled his potential. But he is still young really, he still has years ahead of him.”
Morrison signed a 4½-month contract with Ostersund, taking him to the Swedish summer and the midway point of the season. He will then have to decide whether he wants to extend his deal, or perhaps return fitter and fresher to England.
Whatever happens, it will be an interesting ride.
“It’s a big move for him,” Johansson said. “As you know, it’s a very cold place, it’s a different climate to almost everywhere in Europe. We are just enjoying having him now. Let’s see what the future holds.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80