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Old 14th October 2017, 11:40   #1
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Default Test 2 - Lost boys, Morrison & Balotelli

Football’s lost boys Morrison and Balotelli seek redemption and stir nostalgia

Ravel Morrison’s fine strike for the Mexican side Atlas and the news that Mario Balotelli has rediscovered his goalscoring touch at Nice will have us wondering, yet again, if these great talents can come into sharp and sustained focus

Richard Williams
The Guardian
Saturday 14 October 2017 09.23 BST

Thirty yards from goal, the player controls the short square pass on the half-turn before moving smoothly forward. Two light touches, a stepover, two more touches to veer away from a second defender, then a left-footed shot from a yard outside the edge of the penalty area, carefully measured inside the left‑hand post.

“MORRI-SON! MORRI-SON! MORRI‑SON! MORRI‑SON!” The Mexican TV commentator is going crazy. It is only a friendly during the international break but he thinks he has seen the future.

If only. This is a future that many people have glimpsed before, and then waited in vain for the promise to become reality. Some saw it in the FA Youth Cup final at Old Trafford in 2011, when two calmly taken goals suggested that Ravel Morrison was going to be the future of Manchester United and perhaps even of England.
West Ham fans saw it at White Hart Lane in October 2013 when Morrison picked up the ball inside his own half, held off Jan Vertonghen, cut inside Michael Dawson and dinked the ball over Hugo Lloris. A month after that, Gareth Southgate saw it when, as a member of his England Under-21 squad, Morrison scored on the training pitch with an outrageous backheeled volley. Almost 3.5 million people have watched that one on the FA’s YouTube channel.

A few weeks earlier, Morrison had scored twice in a 5-0 win in an Under-21 European Championship qualifying match. Their opponents, rather poignantly, were Lithuania, against whom Southgate’s seniors struggled to a wan 1-0 victory last Sunday in Vilnius. Perhaps England’s head coach, watching his players fail to penetrate a packed defence, thought back to what Morrison could do.

Seemingly ineradicable flaws in his character and behaviour – including incidents that led to court appearances – have so far prevented Morrison from displaying these gifts more than sporadically, and perhaps they always will. After loan periods at Birmingham City, Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City, a permanent transfer to Lazio last summer failed to change his fortunes.

Poor timekeeping and an apparent unwillingness to learn Italian failed to endear him to the head coach, Stefano Pioli, and then to Pioli’s replacement, Simone Inzaghi. At the end of August the Serie A club, to whom he is under contract until 2019, sent him to Mexico, where he is now with Atlas, the Guadalajara club, who are currently mid-table in Liga MX, the country’s top division.

Since Atlas have won the title only once, all the way back in 1950-51, the expectations and the pressures might not be intolerably high, although they play in a stadium with a capacity of almost 55,000. The Estadio Jalisco is where Jairzinho’s goal enabled Brazil to beat England in a World Cup group match in 1970 and where, 16 years later, Michel Platini’s France lost against West Germany in the semi-final.

Mexico, beset by the violence associated with its thriving drug trade, might not be the most obvious place in which to rehabilitate a 24-year-old who grew up amid Manchester’s gang culture and has shown few signs of shaking off the resulting attitudes for more than short periods.

So far Morrison has come on as a substitute in two league matches and scored a characteristically breathtaking goal in a friendly against Club América of Mexico City. But anyone who has seen his quality at first hand will be wondering, yet again, if this latest adventure will give him a firmer grip on a place within the game, if not a route back to an England shirt.

The story is a little different for another of football’s seemingly lost boys. Mario Balotelli was representing Manchester City – and providing the pass to Sergio Agüero for an historic title-winning goal – at around the time when Alex Ferguson was giving up on Morrison. Balotelli had already played for Internazionale as a teenage prodigy, and left east Manchester for Milan before a fine headed winner for Italy against England in the 2014 World Cup finals prefaced his return to the Premier League with Liverpool. After scoring 26 times in 43 matches for the Rossoneri, one goal in 16 appearances for Brendan Rodgers’ side represented a serious disappointment.

His time at Anfield also derailed his career. When Milan took him back on loan, a further 20 appearances yielded only one more goal. It looked very much as though the various episodes of eccentric behaviour that studded his time in England would turn out to be better remembered than his efforts on the football pitch.

After Antonio Conte left him out of Italy’s squad for last year’s European Championship finals, and Jürgen Klopp indicated there was no place for him back at Liverpool, Balotelli made a move that seemed to indicate his once‑credible ambition to win the Ballon d’Or was all over.

By contrast with his previous four clubs, the talk at OGC Nice is not of contending for the Champions League. But Balotelli scored four goals in his first two games in Ligue 1, and went on to finish last season with 17 in 28 – as well as three red cards and 10 yellows. Nice took third place, behind Monaco and PSG, in the final table.

As usual, almost everyone at his new club loves Balotelli’s extrovert character. In August harsh words were exchanged with Lucien Favre, the head coach, following defeat by Napoli in the Champions League play-off round but the air was cleared and since then the Italian has scored five goals in his five league appearances. “This year, for the first time in a long, long time, he’s had the benefit of proper preparation,” Frédéric Gloria, an assistant coach tasked with looking after Balotelli, told the magazine France Football. “He’s rediscovered the life of a footballer.”

The experience of being a teenage star in the obscenely rewarded and hyper-scrutinised world of 21st-century football is guaranteed to expose defects and vulnerabilities. Some players, such as Aston Villa’s Lee Hendrie, who made a striking England debut under Glenn Hoddle in 1998, crash and burn and then stumble along until it all fizzles out. For Manchester City’s Michael Johnson, who showed such promise 10 years ago that he was being talked of as the new Colin Bell, it was simply too much.

If you love the game, those stories make you sad. And then a breathtaking goal from Morrison or the news that Balotelli is scoring regularly again can make you set cynicism aside and clutch at the hope that, finally, these great talents will come into sharp and sustained focus. But football makes fools of us all.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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