THE road travelled by James Morrison from the English international scene to the Scotland squad is amusing to reflect on as the midfielder looks to shakes off illness and line-up against his “home” nation in Tuesday’s friendly at Celtic Park.
You might call it a high road. You might even call it a high spirits road. Even if Morrison only qualifies to wear Scotland colours through his grandfather George, the 28-year-old’s international back-story suggest he really does have a tartan core.
For, having played for England from under-17 to under-20 as a promising Middlesbrough youth before the calls from the English FA stopped coming, he was given the chance to earn Scotland senior caps at the age of 20 by then national manager Alex McLeish because of some good old booze-ups.
McLeish had a holiday home in Mallorca, close to one owned by Morrison’s Auntie Maggie, leading to the pair hosting parties together. “That is where I came up,” says Morrison, who watched Scotland’s win over the Republic on his mobile phone because Scotland’s Mar Hall base doesn’t have the Sky channel showing the game. “My family was a big part of me playing for Scotland because I had to sit down with them when I was 20. My dad wanted me to do it, and Will Parnaby, the Middlesbrough youth coach, both encouraged me. I always wanted to play international football and used to watch Scotland when I was a kid. I thought about wearing a Scotland top because me and my grandad George used to speak about it. He used to tell me I’d play for Scotland one day.”
Yet, it seemed in his younger days the Darlington-born midfielder would be wearing the three lions on his shirt in the international arena. The West Brom midfielder jokes that he was “a good little player back then, better than I am now”. Prowess at a callow age is not necessarily an indication of the trajectory football careers will subsequently take. The best illustration of that point is the paucity of England youth contemporaries who will be in Roy Hodgson’s side this week.
“I played with James Milner, Aaron Lennon and Gary Cahill as youngsters for England and they have made the step up to the full side but they are the only ones from the teams I played in. Between under-16s and under-20s there were a lot of changes. Everyone was playing Premier League football back then and Luke Moore was the next big thing. He was a striker and people were looking out for him. It was a good group we had at the time but Cahill and Milner are the ones who have gone right to the top.”
Morrison started to have the sinking feeling that he was destined never to reach the top in the English international set-up when he could not make the breakthrough to the under-21s side. Then, after making McLeish wait three weeks for his “big decision”, it told him all he needed to know that his former Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren, by then in charge of England, did not make contact to ask him to reconsider when news filtered out of Scotland’s interest – as happened with Gabriel Agbonlahor around the same time.
“I made my decision back then, I’m on this side now and, although I get the banter about it, I’m glad I chose Scotland,” Morrison says. “I have no regrets at all because I’ve had some great times. I’ve bought into it 100 per cent and am glad I did it because I’ve played against some top players and that’s what I wanted to do.”
For the old country, the player at the very top remains Wayne Rooney. With the Manchester United captain having now earned his 100th England cap, there has been much discussion over where he ranks in the pecking order of those to have enjoyed such longevity for our southern football neighbours. Rooney has had a growing list of detractors in recent years, and has said himself that he feels he must make a major impact at a major finals to rank with the cream of England internationals. Morrison, though, is in no doubt he deserves prime status – among the current crop, at least. He believes Roy Hodgson is going down the German route of moulding a team full of coltish potential, with such as Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley to the fore. Morrison’s West Bromwich team-mate Saido Berahino could soon come into that equation but Rooney remains central to England getting the “right blend”. Morrison said: “I think Rooney is a fantastic player.
“He gets overlooked sometimes which is a bit hard on him. I think he will break the goal record and then he’ll definitely be up there with the rest of them. He’s a great all-round player, he can play up front, off the front or in midfield. I think he’s best off the front playing with a striker.”
In two days’ time, that striker could just be Berahino. Called up to the senior squad for the first time this month, seven goals in six games for an in-form Hawthorns side makes the Burundi-born forward one of the hottest tickets in the English game at the moment.
Last season, Morrison found the tempestuous 21-year-old too hot to handle after the pair were involved in a dressing-room altercation as a consequence of Berahino refusing to apologise for a goal-costing mistake in a 3-3 draw against Cardiff.
Morrison laughs off the incident as he insists much has changed. “Saido has grown up, you can see that by the start he’s made,” he says. “I’m getting quite sick of talking about him really. He’s had a lot of hype on him and pressure on a young lad. There’s pressure on him to score goals at West Brom so he just has to keep that going now. The manager has been great with him, he’s kept his feet on the ground. He’s deserved his opportunity and it’s similar to what Gordon [Strachan] does here, he’s brought young players into the squad to get a feel for it. I don’t know if he’ll play or not, but he’ll benefit from the experience.”
The benefits Morrison has had from his Scotland experiences, meanwhile, will be life-long.