UTTER the name Chris Morgan and a stereotypical image immediately springs to mind. One of football’s hard men. A dour, uncompromising Yorkshireman who could have been extracted from the coal face of his native Barnsley. Someone belonging to a football era now past.
That, however, is so far from the truth even if for many it will take some convincing, especially the world at large. Morgan, Sheffield United’s Under-21 coach and preparing for a well-earned testimonial match against Newcastle at Bramall Lane, is very much a man for the future. It is his past coupled with a thirst for learning that make Morgan such a promising managerial prospect.
His character, humour and honesty hewn from the school of hard knocks, is an embodiment of what the club which has employed him for the last 12 years is all about. That future will almost certainly involve managing United but to do it Morgan will have to leave the Lane, where he made 274 appearances in all competitions and scored 16 goals, to prove himself elsewhere.
Anyone watching a recent interview with Morgan on Sheffield Live! TV, hosted by Alan Biggs, will have realised that far from being a relic of the way football used to be played, as if often perceived, United’s former captain and centre-half is a progressive, thoughtful and intelligent coach with much to offer.
He speaks with authority, not only of someone with vast experience as a player, but of man management skills and combining tried and tested coaching methods with those of a modern approach. The confidence of man who is not afraid to admit his shortcomings and learn from others.
Plunged twice into short caretaker roles following the sackings of Danny Wilson and David Weir, those opportunities came far too early but likewise won’t have done his education or standing any harm. The only hurdle in front of Morgan is the one he has put their himself and, when the time comes, if he is prepared to jump it for pastures new.
Am I speaking of the same man who holds the red card record – six dismissals – in United’s 126-year history? The same man who was threatened with legal action which never materialised after Barnsley’s Iain Hulme suffered a life-threatening fractured skull in a collision with Morgan at Oakwell in 2008? Yes, I am.
Morgan was vilified after the incident, particularly by Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel. The player was booked for the use of a flying elbow by referee Andy D’Urso who said he did not think their was any malicious intent. Hulme was substituted and later went home before the extent of the damage became clear the following day.
An FA inquiry reached the same conclusion as referee D’Urso. A spokesman said: “When judging whether to take disciplinary action in this case, the FA has had to consider the challenge itself and not the outcome of it.”
Morgan never set out out with the intention of modelling himself on the supreme artistry of Franz Beckenbaur. A player whose influence at Bayern Munich and West Germany, as it was in the 1970s, redefined the possibilites at centre-half.
A 21-month battle to overcome cruciate ligament damage forced Morgan to accept retirement in 2012. Those who colour him as a brutish defender with little going on between the ears whilst cynically enforcing a mantra that says the ends justifies the means, could not be further from the truth.
Tough and intimidating, yes. A man who used his reputation to full advantage and strike fear into the opposition. Morgan wasn’t a man to be messed with.
An example of this was in a Carling Cup tie at the Lane in 2007 when Arsenal were the visitors. Eduardo, acting the big time Charlie, did not appreciate the close, but fair, attention of United’s captain.
Both players were becoming increasingly agitated. Eduardo was clearly not accustomed to an uncompromising physical challenge; Morgan was not impressed by the Brazilian-born Croat’s histrionics which were more animated as the tie progressed.
Inside United’s penalty area in front of the Kop Eduardo, who felt the need to wear black gloves even though it was still October, had the ball at his feet closely surrounded by defenders. Unable to find a way though, a gloved hand emerged from the crowd of bodies waving furiously at referee Mike Dean in a vain attempt to claim a penalty. Morgan, took exception to Eduardo’s dishonesty and the Arsenal striker’s mitten disappeared from the throng as he hit the ground like a sack of spuds.
United cleared the danger and Morgan escaped censure. Eduardo had the last laugh. Arsenal won 3-0 and he scored twice. Some will claim Morgan’s actions were thugish. Many more, like me growing wearisome of cheats, viewed it as an acceptable consequence for someone who was trying to blatantly pervert the rules for personal advantage.
Eduardo was cheating in order to win a penalty Arsenal weren’t entitled to. Morgan, left him with only injury to his inflated pride and in no doubt about what almost everyone in the ground was thinking.
Explaining his coaching philosophy on Sheffield Live! TV, Morgan said: “There has to be a certain discipline in any sport. When I look back over my career the best teams I was involved with had disciplined squads and were always well run.
“I like to be organised as well and hopefully that comes across in the sessions I put on. I always like to start an hour before everyone else and get everything set up. I don’t like chasing my tail and setting drills up as the players are waiting.
“As a player myself I always appreciated it when things were set up in the morning and you literally moved from one thing to another and you could see the flow of the session. I try and give the players as much information as I can but I also want to encourage the players to give me information.
“Instead of just barking orders I try and ask questions. What you find, particularly with young players, if they can give you the answers rather than me just sitting on my perch and demanding, its very productive. Players can get fed up of listening to the coach’s voice. I’m very conscious of that so at times I just stay quiet and listen to the players.”
Morgan accepts that times have changed in the relatively short time since he last played and it’s vital to accept that and adapt accordingly. “The game has got a lot more technical,” he said. “The competitive side’s still there but I think that the type of player has changed.”
He added: “Society has changed. It’s easy to sit there and say we haven’t got characters, we haven’t got leaders anymore. There has to be a reason why and that is something we are trying to identify at the Academy.
“People have a lot more than they used to have. When I was an apprentice we had jobs to do. Many weeks you’d find yourself sweeping stands, cleaning boots, cleaning toilets and showers. The big red wall that used to go round Oakwell, every pre-season we had to undercoat it and paint it red again. Things have altered now sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Are leaders made, are characters produced in the times when you’re painting walls?
“The players we have coming through scholarships spend more time on the training ground It’s better for them. They spend a lot more time in education, too. We all know from the fall out from scholarships and young pros that not everybody makes it. What we are trying to do is give them more time on the training ground so they get better. But we’re try and educate them as well on a carry-on from when they leave school so if they do fall out of football, then hopefully they can get other opportunities in life.”
Morgan still believes there were benefits to the more rugged apprenticeship of his day. “I look back fondly to the times when I was an apprentice and had jobs to do,” he said. “It’s a fine balance. Sometimes things can come a bit too quickly.”
Morgan was generous when talking of sacked manager Nigel Clough. In fact the first member of staff to publicly acknowledge Clough’s contribution. Those who played under him, some of whom owe a debt of gratitude, have been conspicuous by their absence in saying so or wishing him well.
“We have to pay respect to the outgoing manager Nigel Clough,” said Morgan. “He inherited a squad that was third or fourth bottom of League One, took us to seventh, took us to an FA Cup semi-final which is not easy for a League One Club.
“Then last season their was the obvious disappointment of losing a play-off semi-final. He also got us to a League Cup semi-final so the squad of players is there. New managers always want to tweak the squad and bring two or three of their own type of players.
“No doubt [new manager] Nigel Adkins now knows what we need to be challenging. Let’s face it, the script from when I started coaching with Danny [Wilson] was that we had to get back to the Championship. Danny had that, David Weir had that. Nigel Clough certainly had that and I’m sure Nigel Adkins knew that just walking into the building.”
Morgan is philosophical about his new role which excludes him from involvement with the senior squad. A demotion in some people’s eyes. The 37-year-old was a familiar figure in the dugout next to Clough.
“As much as players need to be adaptable to new managers, coaches do, too,” he explained. “Nigel has brought an all new management team with him and they’ve all worked together before. For people like myself left from previous regimes we have to quickly learn what the new manager wants.”
He added: “This season I will be concentrating solely on the Under-21s whereas in previous seasons I’ve dovetailed into the first team and the Under-21s. From finishing playing I’ve just started my fifth year as a coach. I have to pinch myself sometimes when I think is it really five years since I retired. It only seems two minutes. My career now is coaching and hopefully going on one day to being a manager in my own right."
Looking ahead to his testimonial against Newcastle, Morgan said: “It’s going to be a proper pre-season friendly. Both club’s have two new managers and potential new players. It’s important to try and attract a big crowd with me getting three charities involved, Western Park [Children’s Hospital Charity], Bluebell Wood [Children’s Hospice] and the Gary Speed Trust, to benefit.
As for his club record haul of dismissals, Morgan said sheepishly: Yes, six times. I think I overtook Simon Tracy, a goalkeeper! You don’t want to be remembered for six sendings off. Hopefully that’s not the first thing that comes into people’s minds when they look at my career."