Sheffield United: Why new signing Morgan Gibbs-White's first words as a Blade will be music to Slavisa Jokanovic's ears
“I’ve been playing football since I could walk,” Morgan Gibbs-White says softly, after completing his first round of interviews since joining Sheffield United. “I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s freedom, well it is for me anyway, being out there on a pitch.”
Staring into a laptop at their Steelphalt Academy training complex, fresh from completing his latest workout session with Slavisa Jokanovic’s squad, the midfielder sounds at peace with himself and his new surroundings. Not everyone there, it seems, is wilting under pressure. Or, following an underwhelming start to the new Championship season, concerned about their ability to challenge for promotion.
This afternoon, when Peterborough visit Bramall Lane, Gibbs-White is expected to make his first appearance for United since arriving on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers towards the end of the transfer window. Billed as favourites to go up, Jokanovic’s squad entered the international break positioned 23rd in the table and already 11 points off the top two pace.
Although it is still far too early to predict how the division might unfold, United’s performances during their first five league outings under Jokanovic have concerned supporters and coaching staff alike with the Serb, who officially started work in July, recently voicing suspicions that many of those under his command still bear the mental scars of being relegated - and relegated well - from the Premier League last term. Having explained the importance of “clean minds” during Thursday’s pre-match briefing, Jokanovic hopes the arrival of Gibbs-White and his fellow loanees Conor Hourihane and Robin Olsen will help to improve both form and morale.
“It was my dad, he was the one who really got me into it,” the 21-year-old continues, explaining how his love affair with the game started. “He used to take me everywhere when I was young. Anywhere there was a match on, we’d go.
“He used to play football himself, although not at the highest level. He was a striker for Stafford Rangers, where we’re from, and a really good finisher.
“He took a different route to me. But he was still my inspiration. Everywhere I went, he went too.”
After catching the eye of their scouts in the nearby market town, Gibbs-White was only eight years of age when he enrolled on Wolves’ youth programme. Before making his professional debut for the club in 2017, the next stop on his footballing journey was Thomas Telford School - an award winning establishment in Shropshire where Des Lyttle, the former Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion defender, is employed as a coach.
“It was a programme that Wolves did, we’d go to training in the morning and then lessons in the afternoon,” Gibbs-White remembers, confessing that despite passing all of his exams, he wasn’t always the model student. “I got all my GCSE’s but I didn’t always behave myself. Nothing too bad you understand, just the usual ‘lad stuff’. I liked to be the clown of the class.
“Des was brilliant,” he adds. “He helped me out quite a few times. The thing was, if you got into a bit of trouble, you weren’t allowed to play football. But he wanted me in his team and he knew I had potential. So there were one or two occasions when I know he had to put in a good work for me with the teachers.
“The best piece of advice he ever gave me was ‘Just be yourself. Don’t let anyone take your identity away from you.’ I’ve got to where I am by being who I am.”
Twenty of Gibbs-White’s 66 appearances for Wolves have come in the PL but an injury, sustained during a spell with Swansea City last season, has curtailed his progress. Despite a series of exciting displays earlier this summer, as his employers began life under their new head coach Bruno Lage, he jumped at the opportunity to join United when Jokanovic’s interest was relayed to his employers.
“I’ve loved every minute so far here. It’s an honour to play for this club and also for a manager with such a great reputation.
“The biggest surprise for me has been the mood on the training ground. Everyone was telling me it might be a bit down but, actually, it’s quite the opposite. Right from the very first day, I could see the quality was really high and that was even with the international lads being away. For me, looking at that, it’s just a couple of results we are missing.”
One of those absent from Shirecliffe was Rhian Brewster, who scored his first goal for England under-21’s during their meeting with Kosovo on Wednesday. The centre-forward has endured a difficult time at United, netting only once in 34 starts following a £23.5 move from Liverpool in October. But his effort in midweek could earn Brewster a place in Jokanovic’s latest starting eleven, alongside Gibbs-White. The two were teammates - and both on target - when the Young Lions beat Spain in the final of the 2017 FIFA under-17 World Cup.
“I made a phone call to Rhian before coming here. It was really just to ask about the staff and everything else. I’ve played with Rhian since I was 16, so we have a really good relationship and hopefully we can play some really good together here.”
An attacking midfielder by trade, Gibbs-White’s ability to perform a variety of roles should lead to plenty of opportunities under Jokanovic who gained a reputation for being a flexible tactician during successful spells in charge of Watford, Fulham and Partizan Belgrade.
“I can also play on the wing but I’m an all-rounder really,” Gibbs-White says. “If I have to come back and defend, I’ll happily do that as well. I just feel you have to do what it takes to win. I like getting assists as much as goals. And winning? That’s the best feeling in the world.”