For a heady spell in the autumn of 1995, it was not unthinkable that the youngster who would blossom into Manchester United’s undisputed first-choice right winger for the best part of the next decade would be Terry Cooke rather than David Beckham.
Even though Cooke’s career probably peaked when he helped Manchester City win the Division Two play-off final against Gillingham in 1999, four days after Beckham helped United win the treble, the notion is not as ridiculous as it sounds.
Bear with me here. Younger than every member of the Class of 92 apart from Phil Neville, Cooke was part of a front six that featured Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs when he excelled on his Premier League debut, ripping Bolton Wanderers apart, starting an attack with an extravagant volleyed backheel before tearing on to a piercing pass from Scholes and crossing for Giggs to score at the far post.
That was as good as it got during Cooke’s time at United, though, and the way he drifted away comes to mind now that another young player who left United in search of first-team football is on the verge of a princely return. Yes, Paul Pogba. But this is less about Ed Woodward’s swaggering welcome gift to José Mourinho and more about the decline of his old pal from the youth team at Old Trafford, Ravel Morrison, who rather poignantly tweeted his cheeky Panenka penalty in a friendly for Lazio while reports were emerging of a breakthrough in 2016’s top transfer saga.
It was a little awkward, a six-second clip that had the unfortunate effect of reminding people that Morrison used to be a big deal. Remember me? Er, yes. Ravel, isn’t it? Here was a player who could have had the world at his feet only for that early promise to fizzle out as even his biggest admirers lost faith in him.
However, it was impossible not to be drawn in, to be seduced by the idea that Morrison could still become one of the best players in the world, even though he started once for Lazio last season. He is 23. It’s unlikely. United are splurging £100m on Pogba four years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s mistrust of the player’s agent, Mino Raiola, culminated in him joining Juventus for nothing, and yet Morrison is the intriguing character here, untold riches guaranteed for anyone who works out how to get inside his head.
A month older than Pogba, Morrison was tipped for greatness as a youngster. There is no Bring Ravel Home campaign, though. No one thinks that United were wrong to let him leave, bearing in mind that there have been precious few signs of him maturing in the past four years.
Yet in the same way that an alternative reality exists in which Cooke usurped Beckham before marrying a pop star and becoming the poster boy of modern masculinity, I am convinced that somewhere there is a bizarre world where Pogba and Morrison have spent the past four years as the twin dynamos of David Moyes’s all-conquering red midfield machine, smoothly breaking into the first team after their FA Youth Cup-winning exploits in 2011. Back in reality, however, Pogba is the player with genuine galáctico pretensions after leaving Morrison behind in Italy. While Pogba was the principal reason Juventus won Serie A at Napoli’s expense last season, Morrison made a handful of substitute appearances for Lazio.
Last weekend he scored their winner in their friendly at Brighton & Hove Albion, lashing in a volley from 20 yards. Unlike Pogba, though, this was a fleeting return to England.
Always present in the background with Morrison are the allegations of serious off-field demeanours. He left United because Ferguson lost patience with him and it was the same story at West Ham, who were relieved when he became Lazio’s problem.
Cooke, for all the romanticism of that debut, spent most of his career in the Football League after leaving United. Ultimately, he was not quite good enough but his attitude was never questioned. Morrison’s old coaches speak about him chipping goalkeepers in training, then sigh at his inability to apply himself.
He should be about to revive his partnership with Pogba. He should be capable of the levels Dele Alli hit for Tottenham Hotspur last season. He should have been in England’s Euro 2016 squad, though Roy Hodgson probably would have used him as a long-throw specialist.
If the penny ever drops, Morrison would probably control it in an instant and volley it into the top corner. His is an instinctive talent but all that artistry cannot compensate for his lack of focus.
There is a fairly convincing argument to be made that he was never worth the hype in the first place. A Panenka, a goal at Brighton, a volleyed Rabona goal from a training session that went viral in 2013; these snippets are devoid of substance on their own. But they hint at the genius lurking within.
It is not news that there are rarely any guarantees that young players will fulfil their potential. A day before Morrison’s solo goal for West Ham against Spurs in October 2013, Adnan Januzaj scored a superb double on his United debut; now he is a target for Moyes at Sunderland. Yet it is hard to let go after catching a glimpse of something special.
Those who saw Cooke against Bolton probably left Old Trafford thinking that they had seen a future superstar. There is no shortage of people who feel the same way about Morrison and though we have no stake in his future beyond a desire to see him make the most of his gifts, it will be a terrible shame if he doesn’t realise that time is running out.
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