Interview: Andy Morrison, Scot who overcame alcoholism to lead Manchester City out of wilderness

Manchester City captain Andy Morrison lifts the play-off trophy after the win over Gillingham at Wembley in 1999. Picture: Gary M Prior/Allsport
Manchester City captain Andy Morrison lifts the play-off trophy after the win over Gillingham at Wembley in 1999. Picture: Gary M Prior/Allsport
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There were two men left in the dressing room; the kit man and the captain. Everyone else had gone. Manchester City had won the play-off final in the most extraordinary circumstances. Two down with a minute of normal time remaining, 2-2 at full time, winners on penalties.

Les Chapman was picking up the boots, preparing his kit bins. Andy Morrison was sat on one of the benches in the dressing room at Wembley trying to take it all in. Morrison was not just Manchester City’s captain, he was a recovering alcoholic. He has not touched alcohol since 2 February 1999. There had been booze everywhere in the dressing room. There would not be another meaningful match for two-and-a-half months. He had every reason to crack.

“There was no temptation,” he says. “I think somebody who has been on my journey would understand why. While Chappy was getting the boots together, I was thinking about all the sacrifices I had made, the lengths I had gone through. I thought this was my reward. Then we walked out of the changing rooms together. It had been such a battle to put the drink down and yet even, here, in the changing rooms at Wembley, that need had been taken away from me. There was just a warm feeling inside as I got up to leave.”

It was the last day of an extraordinary season, Manchester City’s first and you presume last taste of Third Division England. They had suffered defeats at York, at Lincoln. After they had lost 1-0 at Wycombe in November, Joe Royle, who was not one for screaming at his players, had stalked into the dressing-room at Adams Park determined to give the men inside a bollocking, slammed the door and heard it fall of its hinges behind him.

There were three minutes left when Robert Taylor scored Gillingham’s second. Morrison had already been substituted and, from the bench, he looked across at the steps that led up to the Royal Box.

“I thought I am not going to be walking up them to pick the trophy up. It was a pity because, in my mind’s eye before the game, I had visualised myself holding it up to the City fans. I could still hear Willie Donachie pushing us on from the touchline and things began to happen. Like some things in life I have no idea why. Once Paul Dickov got it back to 2-2 in the sixth minute of stoppage time or whatever it was, I knew we were going to win.

“Gillingham had gone, they were dead in the water. Once they went 2-0 up, they had taken off Carl Asaba, their main striker, to protect their lead. They seemed to have five centre-halves on the pitch. That it was Richard Edghill who scored the decisive penalty in the shoot-out, is to me poetic. He had been through the ranks, he was a City fan and the club was in his blood. He lived for it.

“The wonderful thing to me is that, 20 years on, Manchester City fans are being treated to the most incredible entertainment but they still have not forgotten that penalty shoot-out and what it represents. Magic can come from pain. I love what BB King said: ‘If you haven’t lived the blues; you can’t sing the blues’.”

Andy Morrison was eight years old, growing up in Kinlochbervie, a fishing village on the north-western tip of Scotland, when his parents’ car drew up outside his primary school. They told Andy to get in; they were moving to Plymouth, 750 miles away. It was an extraordinary journey. Plymouth was where Andy played football for Devon Schoolboys. It was where his father, who had been a Royal Marine, would take him out on his fishing boat, into Plymouth Sound, towards the Eddystone Lighthouse, to put the nets out for monkfish and skate. It was where he picked up his accent, a lovely West Country burr.

Plymouth was also where Andy experienced drink and violence in the bars behind the Fish Quay or on Union Street and encountered the kind of gang mentality that would have been recognisable in Moss Side. Until he gave up alcohol, he was a willing participant and it would wreak untold damage on his family. In April 2002, there was a drunken brawl. His older brother Ian threw a punch, a lad called David Taylor struck his head on Union Street’s hard pavement edge. The life support system was turned off and Ian served three years for manslaughter in Brixton Prison.

Four months later, Andy was on holiday in Tenerife with his family when his father phoned the hotel to tell him his beloved youngest brother, Cathel, had been found dead at a bus stop in the centre of Plymouth, killed by heroin. When Andy switched on his mobile phone, one of the voicemail messages was from Cathel, begging for help. Andy had by then been sober for more than three years, but the pressure to blot out the pain with alcohol must have overwhelming. That he resisted it is a testament to an extraordinary will power. By a very long way Andy Morrison was not the finest footballer to play for Manchester City. He was no Bell, no Silva, no Kinkladze. However, few possessed his fight, his drive, his determination to drag a result from a football field. During their year in the third tier, Manchester City needed Morrison like they needed no other footballer. They had employed the artistry of Georgi Kinkladze and they had been relegated twice. It was time to fight it out. It is probably not a coincidence that the upswing at Maine Road coincided with Andy Morrison renouncing alcohol in February. His first game back was a 3-0 win over Millwall.

Of the last 17 games of the 1998-99
season, ten were won and five were drawn. Had City maintained that kind of form throughout the season, they would have finished with 97 points and been promoted automatically with Fulham. There would have been no need for the Miracle of Wembley.

To this day, Andy Morrison wonders if Joe Royle really knows what part he played in transforming his life. In January 1999, two months after coming to Maine Road from Huddersfield, he found himself waking in a police cell in Inverness. There had been a long, savage drinking session that had ended in a familiar confrontation with a bouncer. Like so many alcoholics, his drinking disgusted him. There were solutions. One lay in his uncle’s garage, a .22 rifle used for shooting rabbits and foxes. It was a ten-minute drive away and Andy knew precisely where it was. He could take it out to the fields beyond his uncle’s house and end this pain. Happily, he carried on drinking and just as the bar was about to shut, he ordered a half-bottle of vodka and eight cans of lager. When the barmaid, a family friend, asked if he was sure he wanted this, Andy replied, “No, you’re right. I’d better have 12 cans.”

He took them to Drummond’s Pier. The sound was of the sea, of the rain and wind beating down on his car, the music from the CD on the dashboard and the fizz of each can being opened one by one. “When I got back to Manchester, I was called to a meeting. I thought the directors would be there. I thought I was going to get fined, get hammered. But when I walked in it was just Joe in the room. He said, ‘Sit down.’

“I was waiting for the speech that would include a big, wagging finger, the fine of two weeks’ wages, the phrase that I had let the club down. I knew that speech because I’d had it all my career. Joe just said, ‘What were you thinking?’ I said, ‘I am so sorry. I have let you down, I have let the club down. It won’t happen again.’ ‘I am not interested in that,’ said Joe. ‘I am interested in you. What about you, what about your quality of life, what about what you’ve not achieved? What about you selling yourself short? What you’re doing is killing yourself. This football club will move on. My life will move on but what about you?’

“It was the first time someone had talked to me like that. That was on the Tuesday morning. I had missed training on the Monday. I went to an AA meeting on the Wednesday night and I have not picked a drink up for 20 years.

“I don’t know how much Joe realises what an impact he had on me, but now I am a manager I just hope I can have something of the impact he had on me on just one young man.”

Morrison is a manager now and a successful one. The men on whom he is having an impact play for Connah’s Quay Nomads in the Welsh Premier League. In May 2018, Connah’s Quay had beaten Aberystwyth 4-1 to win the Welsh FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League. They will be at Hampden on Friday night to take on Queen’s Park in the quarter-finals of the 
Irn-Bru Cup.

Royle recognised Andy Morrison as captaincy material. He was a damaged and passionate man but Manchester City were a damaged and passionate club. They needed one another. The month before Morrison signed, the club had held its AGM at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester’s great venue for classical music. The team had just been booed off after a 1-0 home defeat to Preston.

“I hate this division, it drives me mad,” Royle had said at the meeting. Andy Morrison was to prove his best route out of it. He scored on his debut, a 2-1 win at home to Colchester. He scored in the next game, a 3-0 win at Oldham. For a centre-half that was quite an impact. “I often wonder why the crowd at Manchester City took to me,” he says. “I suppose it was because I didn’t give a shit about anything except winning games of football. Nothing matters to me except what goes on inside this arena. I have to win. A ferocity overtakes me. It’s not about banging the badge and kissing it because people see through that. I think the City fans saw someone who would head and kick anything.

“We were going to some horrible places, Colchester for example, and, if I brought anything to the club, it was that I wasn’t going to be fazed by any of that. Because of where I’d been and what I’d seen in my life, none of that pressure was going to get to me.”

Much of the pressure came from the stands. When City were being relegated at Stoke, Alan Parry remarked in his commentary that “the finance directors of Division Two (what League One was then called) will be rubbing their hands with glee”. The level of support was genuinely astonishing. In their season of third-tier football, Manchester City attracted an average home attendance of 28,261. This was slightly more than had watched them during their last season in the Premier League. Virtually all the away fixtures were sold out.

“What those fans went through made their strength of character,” says Morrison. “They lived through something that was embarrassing, that was catastrophic. Manchester City had always been a big club but they had never had to live with ridicule and embarrassment. United were in a different stratosphere to us. You couldn’t relate to them in any way. They won the European Cup in the year that we got promoted and that emphasises just how catastrophic it was being 2-0 down to Gillingham in the play-off final.”

The play-offs are a lottery but they had been loaded in Manchester City’s favour. They had finished third, they were in better form than any of their rivals and possessed a deeper squad. The team few of City’s players wanted to face was Preston, who under the management of the 36-year-old David Moyes had taken four points from them. Preston were beaten by Gillingham in the other semi-final. City beat Wigan, whose manager, Ray Mathias, was sacked immediately afterwards.

To most of the City supporters, Sunday, 30 May, 1999, is the date of Manchester City’s resurrection, the great turning point in the club’s history.

Less than 12 months after the 1999 play-off final, Manchester City had returned to the Premier League; their final match to go up was a 4-1 win at Blackburn. For Andy Morrison, it felt different to Wembley. He was still club captain, but his knee had gone again and he watched the game in a suit.

“There was a feeling of emptiness,” he recalls. “It was not as if I had played all the games leading up to Ewood Park and just missed out. I’d been injured after 16 games. I felt ‘they’ had done it, rather than ‘we’ had done it.

“I got back, played a few more games and then I was sent on loan, to Blackpool, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace, but the knee couldn’t stand it and it was all over for me.

“It is a closed book the football world. So much depends on who you know and when it happens. All I know is that when I have left Connah’s Quay I will have left an impression. When I left Manchester City, I left an impression. If you go to Blackpool or Plymouth, they will remember me.

“When I went to Southampton as a 13-year-old, my father said to me, ‘Make sure you leave an impression.’ They didn’t take me on but years later I was signed by Blackburn and the first player I met when I walked through the door was Alan Shearer. He looked at me and said, ‘You were at Southampton weren’t you’. I’d left an impression.”

From Caught Beneath the Landslide: Manchester City in the 1990s, by Tim Rich, deCoubertin Books, £18.99.