Ryan Baldi’s book Next Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind seeks to shine a light on why some of the game’s outstanding talents never quite live up to their potential, why talent and desire alone often aren’t enough to ‘make it’, and what happens when the stars don’t align for these young men.
Fifteen such players – some long retired, some still playing – have shared their stories in Next Next Big Thing, each detailing their own unique path to unfulfillment, and exposing the many different factors – such as injuries, relationships with coaching staff, personal problems, timing and plain luck – that can affect a young footballer’s development.
This is an extract from the chapter on Adam Morgan, once a prodigious striker who rose rapidly through the ranks at Liverpool, the club he supported, drawing comparisons to Robbie Fowler and partnering Harry Kane for England at youth level.
Learn of Morgan’s fairy-tale ascent to the Liverpool first team, before he then hit hard against a glass ceiling, his progress halted by insurmountable competition for places, intense physical demands and a struggle to consider himself an equal of his heroes.
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Standing 6ft 3, hair shorn to the bone and nearly every visible inch of flesh from the neck down covered in tattoos, Martin Škrtel cuts an intimidating figure.
What the Slovak lacked in subtlety and full cognisance of the art of defending’s finer points during his eight years as a Liverpool regular, he made up for with brawn by the bucketload, all bludgeoning, ink-covered, sinuous limbs, power and prowess.
So Škrtel, as physically robust a defender as the Premier League had to offer, was little match for a wiry, scrawny, 19-year-old striker, whose exposure to competitive men’s football up to that point numbered minutes in the low hundreds.
“He put Škrtel against me once in training,” Adam Morgan says, recalling a 2013 session at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground, in which then-Reds manager Brendan Rodgers arranged for the youngster to come in direct competition with the towering centre-half. “And Škrtel absolutely battered me. Not nasty, but kicking me, moving me out the way.”
This was not some kind of punishment for an indiscretion, nor a case of a manager wanting to let a promising upstart know who’s boss. This was, plain and simple, a test: Rodgers wanted to gauge Morgan’s physical readiness for top-level football. “One hundred per cent,” Morgan agrees. But it was a test he stood no chance of passing. “If I’d have bullied him, it wouldn’t really have changed anything. I still would have been told I needed games. And I knew I needed games. It was frustrating me.”
These were the first months of friction for Morgan at Liverpool, having risen though the club’s youth system, into the reserves and then the first-team set-up with relative ease – always scoring, always ahead of the curve developmentally. Now, though, early in the 2013/14 season which would eventually see Liverpool agonisingly miss out on a first league title in almost a quarter of a century, he could feel himself bumping against a glass ceiling.
“My head went a little bit. Nothing was happening. I’d had a year left on my contract, then it was six months. Brendan Rodgers said, “You need to go out and experience games. We’ve got [Luis] Suárez, [Daniel] Strurridge…we’re not going to offer you a new deal.” My agent said we probably could have pushed for a new deal, another year, but we didn’t want that.”
A lifelong Liverpool supporter, who’d been on the club’s books since the age of five and had regularly bundled inside Anfield to worship his heroes long before rubbing shoulders with them, the realisation that the ambition of emulating his idols had faded from within reach to way out of view cut Morgan deep. After meeting with Rodgers, being told he wasn’t ready, that his future lay elsewhere, Morgan made it back to his car before he could no longer brave-face the devastation. He sobbed inconsolably in the Melwood car park.
Just seen that Adam Morgan has been released by Liverpool. I was certain he would make it into the 1st team as a regular. Shocked.
— talkSPORTDrive (@talkSPORTDrive) November 19, 2013
“As a young boy, I used to love Liverpool,” Morgan explains, nursing a glass of water as we sit in the bar of a hotel a stone’s throw from Liverpool’s John Lennon airport. Over his shoulder, at the bar, sit two Irish Liverpool fans who’ve flown in for the night’s Champions League game at Anfield. Little do they know, one of their beloved club’s most promising homegrown talents of the last decade sits on the edge of earshot, cathartically unburdening himself by sharing his story, bearing his soul, before dashing off to the gym, determined to maintain peak fitness in readiness of a testing season with Halifax Town in England’s fifth tier (he has since joined Sligo Town).
“I’d go home and away every week with my dad,” he continues, pressing home his devotion to Liverpool FC – his club; his father’s club; his father’s father’s club.
Morgan was first scouted by Liverpool at the preposterously young age of five, invited to train with the club once a week before eventually penning terms at nine, increasing contact with the club to two weekly sessions. His talent was no secret locally, and he had other offers, from Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United. But if Liverpool were an option, they were the only option.
While certainly a point of immense pride, representing the club he adored quickly became the norm for the young Morgan, who took elevation through the age groups in his stride, scoring freely. “It was easy. Just doing what I do, enjoying myself. It was a natural progression all the way up.
“Then at fifteen, I started thinking, “Will I get a scholarship?””
As the outstanding prodigies of their age group, Morgan and Raheem Sterling, the future £49million England international, were the first to be awarded scholarship deals, by none other than club legend ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish, Morgan Sr.’s hero, who was first-team manager at the time.
Conor Coady, Raheem Sterling and Adam Morgan were the best academy players I've ever watched. 2/3 made it
— Jordan Henderson Burner Account (@Bxerto) August 12, 2018
A scholarship meant the chance to train every day at Melwood, with the first team training on an adjacent pitch, passing the likes of Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher in the corridor, exposure to the life, the lifestyle, the standards of elite-level pros.
“Looking back, I’ve had some unbelievable times over the years, but that was probably my most enjoyable,” Morgan remembers, coming over beatific as his mind’s eye runs a halcyon slideshow, “because it was full-time football, at Liverpool – it was what I wanted to do.
“I was banging the goals in, everyone was talking about me. I think I scored 35 goals or something stupid like that.
“When you are a first-year scholar, you don’t really play [for the academy side] every week because the second-years are there, but I was playing every week, playing with some great players. Our starting team was: Jamie Stevens in goal, who’s at Barnet now; ‘Flanno’, Jon Flanagan, at right-back; Andre Wisdom, centre-half; Matty McGibbon, another local lad who was really good who doesn’t play anymore; Jack Robinson, left-back, QPR; Conor Coady, Wolves, centre-mid; Craig Rodden who is at Sligo in Ireland; then we had Suso on the right, who’s at AC Milan; Sterling on the left, who is obviously at Man City; Krisztián Adorján, who plays in Italy now; and then me up top. We had a really good team.
“We played in the Youth Cup that year, we beat Palace, Southend 8-0 or 9-0, and I scored five goals. Then we got Man United in the quarter-final, 20,000 people at Anfield.”
This particular game, against the equally talent-packed under-18s side from Liverpool’s bitter rivals and broadcast live on LFC TV, will for many fans be the moment Morgan came to their attention.
“I scored two. We were 2-0 up at half-time but ended up losing 3-2. Ravel Morrison scored two. I was heartbroken. [Paul] Pogba played, Jesse Lingard, Ravel Morrison, Will Keane, Michael Keane, and the goalie, Sam Johnstone. That was the final really, we were the best two teams. They played Sheffield United next and battered them something like 5-0.
“But we battered everyone, that was really enjoyable. We went close to winning the league. Loads of us had England commitments. I was playing for England as well. Everything was going well. Every time I played, I scored.”
United 3 Liverpool 2 1/4Final of Youth Cup. 2 Ravel Morrison goals. 2 red cards for each side. Morrison, Sterling, Morgan class above.
— Tom Pearson (@tom7p) March 13, 2011
The inevitable buzz began to grow louder. Liverpool, a club indelibly linked to its local community, had produced a slew of home-grown first-team stars in the 1990s, with the likes of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher all breaking through to ensure Scouse representation in red. Yet, through many false dawns, Liverpool fans had been denied a local-lad-come-good to truly pin their hopes on since Steven Gerrard’s emergence almost a decade and a half earlier. There was a desperation among fans for one of their own to make the grade. And there was no more fitting candidate than Morgan.
Liverpool fan Dan Fieldsend, author of The European Game, a triumphant close-up examination of elite continental clubs’ best practices, with a particular focus on youth development, remembers this pining for a new Scouse superstar: “When Adam Morgan was making this name for himself, around 2012, this was a time when we’d been starved of young players coming through for years. People were talking about Dani Pacheco as the next big thing. People were hoping that Adam Morgan coming through would be a bit of a lifeblood and inject that Scouse tradition that was being phased out at the time.
“I remember he did that celebration, the “five times” celebration, to the United fans [after scoring in the FA Youth Cup quarter-final]. I think, first and foremost, a player like that, who had a bit of edge and personality about them, was accepted first, and his talent and whatever he could do with the ball came second. The fans loved him for that. That was one of the first things I remember about Adam Morgan.
“From a fan’s points of view, we were desperate for him to come through. We did the same thing with Jordan Rossiter. We built him up as this next big Scouse hope. Now we finally have a player, in Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has the quality. But for years we were desperate for Adam Morgan.”
And, as a Liverpool-born-and-bred, left-footed striker with lethal finishing skills, comparisons to Anfield great Robbie Fowler – so adored on the Kop his nickname was, simply, ‘God’ – were unavoidable.
“Yeah, I could see that,” Liverpool Echo journalist James Pearce begins, remarking on Morgan’s stylistic similarities with Fowler. “He was that kind of natural finisher, the “fox in the box” kind of striker, as opposed to someone that was going to beat two or three players and bang one in the top corner. I could certainly see parallels to Fowler.
“But, even at that time,” Pearce adds, cautiously, exposing how such comparisons can often do more harm than good, raising expectations too high, too early, “you still tempered it, in the knowledge he still had so much left to learn and develop.”
That was the line of thought within the club, too, it seems. “I don’t think they’d ever put that pressure on a player,” Morgan suggests. “I’d go up and train at Melwood with the first team sometimes, but the next day I’d go back down [to the youth team].” The hype train, as far as those within the club were concerned, was best left at the station. Departure was imminent, though.
Adam Morgan will be better than Michael Owen in his prime, massive hype about this kid #LFC
— Alex (@amichaels33) August 23, 2012
Youth team, reserves – Morgan was scoring, scoring, scoring. “It wasn’t easy,” he protests, “because I always put the work in, but it just came naturally. I loved it.”
Kenny Dalglish’s romantic return to the Anfield helm in 2011 was only ever, realistically, a short-term measure. In May 2012, ‘King’ Kenny was sacked as Liverpool manager. His replacement, Brendan Rodgers, who had proven himself to be a modern, forward-thinking and bright coach with Swansea City, would oversee a pre-season tour of the United States and Canada as his first act as Liverpool boss. Morgan, as one of the club’s outstanding young prospects, knew he stood a chance of being included in the touring party.
“No one said anything to me,” Morgan recalls. “They just said the squad would be announced on the telly in the dressing room. The squad come on there and my name was on it. Unbelievable. A lot of young lads were going and we were made up.
“We flew from Liverpool Airport on a private plane, straight to America. You get there and you don’t go through passport control or anything. You’ve got your own private one. I was just thinking, “What’s going on?” I’d been away with Liverpool a hundred times, but always through the normal passport control. I was just loving it. I thought, “Here we go.” I deserved a chance.
“We were training at Harvard University. Unbelievable. I’ve seen that film, The Social Network, that’s set in Harvard. It’s the best university in the world and we were training there.”
The first game of the tour was to be against Toronto FC in Toronto. The squad flew north of the border for the match, and Rodgers pinned two team-sheets up in the dressing room: one for the first half, and an entirely new XI for the second half. Morgan was named in the latter.
Tied 0-0 at half-time, Liverpool fell behind after the break, but Morgan pounced on a Sterling centre to tap home his first senior goal for the Reds. 1-1. It was only a pre-season friendly, but for Morgan it might as well have been the World Cup final. He sped off in jubilant celebration, as only a lifelong fan of the club would. This was fulfilment, the result of 15 years of hard work, the moment everything that had come before was leading up to. This was the beginning.
“Honest to God, it was the best feeling in the world. It was unbelievable.
“My dad had flown out that morning. I got a phone call to my room. It was Robbie Fowler. He said, “Come down here, I want to speak to you about the game tomorrow.” “Alright, sound.” I went down and my old man was standing there. He flew over and we got him tickets for the game.”
— The Redmen TV (@TheRedmenTV) July 22, 2012
Morgan was again a second-half substitute in the next game, a 0-0 draw with Roma at Fenway Park, the home of the Bostock Red Sox, the baseball team who share an ownership group with Liverpool. This time he was played out of position, wide on the right, but toiled away regardless. His endeavour was rewarded with a start in the final fixture, against Tottenham, another 0-0.
This whirlwind, whistle-stop, coming-of-age trip around the States had Morgan’s head in a spin; his Twitter following quadrupled to 80,000 overnight; he was shaking hands with James Bond actor Daniel Craig in the changing room; he had scored a goal for his beloved Liverpool FC.
Morgan picks up the story of his magical summer of 2012: “On the way home, at the airport, they were giving all the young lads their passports back, but they hadn’t given me mine. I said to the man, “Have you got my passport, please?” He said, “No, no, I need to keep it. You are going to travel to Gomel next week,” where we played in the Europa League.’”
Morgan didn’t play in the Europa League qualifier against the Belarussians. He was taken as the ‘19th man’, a surplus player who’d travel with the team and fill in if a member of the 18-man match-day squad fell ill or injured. And it was the same story for the return leg at Anfield. But he was overjoyed just to be involved, to be seen as a first-teamer.
“I had my own locker [at Melwood], my own suit. I don’t think you can be called a first-team player until you play 50 games, but I was getting everything, all the perks of a first-team player – my own suit, suitcase, everything. I remember they came in and asked all the lads if we wanted the new iPhone, about two weeks before it came out. All the new boots, too – I had about six pairs.”
And his first taste of competitive action wasn’t far away. Liverpool breezed past Gomel, 4-0 on aggregate, setting up a tie against Hearts in the third qualifying round. Morgan again travelled with the squad for the away leg and was this time brought on in place of Fabio Borini in stoppage time.
In the return leg, he started. At Anfield. On a European night, when the stadium takes on an extra electricity. At the home of the five-time champions of Europe – never mind that the opposition, hailing from Scotland, carried none of the mystery or exoticness of a Marseille, a Porto or an AC Milan – midweek evening games in continental competition are special. And Morgan was starting.
“On the Wednesday, we were training. And what [Rodgers] used to do was, the day before a game, we’d warm up and then [coach] Mike Marsh would give the bibs out. Normally, if you’ve got the same colour bib as Gerrard, you were starting. I was running with Jack Robbo, just doing circuits in the warm-up. Mike gave me a green bib and he gave Jack a red one. I looked at Suárez: he had a green bib. I thought, “What’s going on here?”
“All of those in green walked over to the other pitch and I just stayed still. All the young lads and the lads who weren’t starting went the other way. I’m just stood in the middle. Then Rodgers said to me, “Morgs, come on.” Oh my God, I’m starting.
“I could not wait to get off the training pitch. I wanted to get inside and tell my dad. We were doing unopposed shape drills – out to the wide man, cross it in and then finish. The fences at Melwood are no higher than me. I was that nervous, when the ball came to me, unopposed on the penalty spot, I booted it right out of the training ground, into some neighbour’s garden. All of them, and the manager, stared laughing – “You’re going to play your way out of the team.”
“I was starting on the right of midfield – well, right of a three, really. I’d have played left-back, I wouldn’t have cared. I just wanted to play at Anfield.
“I’d played at Anfield 14 times, but in front of a hundred people. This was the first team. I knew it was going to be full.”
A combination of nerves, anxiety and excitement made for a long day the team hotel before the evening fixture. But, having sourced 46 tickets for friends, and with practically his entire family crammed into an executive box, Morgan played his first – and, ultimately, only – competitive senior game for Liverpool at Anfield, playing 65 minutes on the right wing in a 1-1 draw. “I kept it simple,” begins Morgan’s assessment. “When I could get forward, I would. I did well. [Rodgers] praised me afterwards, said I’d done really well.”
With a competitive senior match at Anfield now ticked off his bucket list, Morgan next eyed a Premier League debut that was ultimately never to arrive. He was perhaps only denied this next milestone by a matter of mere inches, however.
“I scored in the game [against Hearts]. I put the ball in the net, but they said the ball had gone out of play. I buried it like normal and ran off, then saw the assistant with his flag up. If that would have counted,” Morgan posits, “I probably would have been on the bench for the Saturday game. But I lived my dream there.”
HT: 0-0 at Anfield, it's a bitty affair compared to Sunday. Morgan eager but nervous, Liverpool trying to settle, Hearts tweaking their nose
— Iain Macintosh (@iainmacintosh) August 30, 2012
Morgan made one more first-team appearance for Liverpool after the Hearts game, starting and playing 61 minutes of a Europa League defeat away to temporarily cash-rich Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala in October of 2012. By this point, he was training exclusively with the first team. But with competition for places unfeasibly stiff in the attacking positions at Liverpool, and question marks lingering over his physical readiness, Morgan played only for the reserves, occasionally selected for senior match-day squads but remaining unused by Rodgers.
A short loan spell with League Two’s Rotherham United in January did little to persuade Rodgers to persevere, and Morgan was informed early the following season that his contract was not being renewed. It was time to find a new club. The Liverpool dream was over.
Morgan partly attributes his failure to truly grasp the few fleeting first-team opportunities that came his way to intimidation. Here was a lifelong Liverpool fan and regular Anfield attendee who suddenly found himself a peer of his childhood idols. He never quite mastered how to reconcile the awe the likes of Gerrard and Carragher inspired within him with an acceptance that his heroes were now his colleagues, team-mates and competition.
“I found it easy going up [to train with the first team] when there was just a few of them [first-team players], but when I went full-time, I’d be nervous every single day.
“These were my heroes. If I was at Everton I probably wouldn’t have been as nervous – they’d just be players. But these were my heroes I was going in to work with.
“I look back now and think, “Should I have gone in and just thought, ‘Fuck this, I deserve to be here’?” I’d be like, “That’s Steven Gerrard!” I love him – I. Love. Him. But I don’t love, like, Ashley Williams at Everton. I would have thought, “Fuck you, I’ll get the ball before you.”
“I never would have gone and smashed Steven Gerrard in a tackle. He would have nailed me first, mind. But I would just be thinking, “Whoa, whoa: hold off.” And you shouldn’t be in that mindset.
“I was in awe, massively in awe. I’ve seen these players; I just want to do what they’ve done. I should have been like Gerrard when he said to Paul Ince, “I’m going to take your place.” He just went in like a little Scouser and said that, but he meant it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was never going to play every week – I had Suárez, Sturridge, Borini ahead of me, and Andy Carroll, who was just leaving when I went up to the first team. It would have been very difficult for me, but you don’t know what could happen.
“Jack Robinson is still one of my best friends. I speak to him almost every day. He would say the same: “Remember how nervous we used to be going into that dressing room at Melwood?”
“For me, I never felt fully like I belonged there. That wasn’t because people didn’t make me feel welcome; everyone always made me feel welcome. It’s just that, when you’re training with them and they are calling you by your name …I’ve loved him [Gerrard] since I was this big, and he knows me. It’s just like you are one of the lads.”
If you’d like to read Morgan’s story in full, along with the stories of other lost wonderkids from the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, Ajax, Inter MIlan and more, order your copy of Next Next Big Thing here.