In a footballing era where player loyalty is at a premium, testimonials are supremely rare, almost a throwback to a bygone age.
But then Chris Morgan was and still is, exactly that.
This article was first published on Sunday June 14, 2015
As a footballer he wore his heart on his sleeve; gave everything he had, on the pitch, and off it; he seemingly renounced the trappings and luxury that so define many players in the modern game.
Put simply, Morgan is an old-fashioned Yorkshireman, a South Yorkshireman at that, who never strayed far from those working-class Barnsley-bred ideals that made him the person he is.
So if anyone deserves to have a match organised in their honour, with United due to play Newcastle at Bramall Lane on July 26, then Morgan fits that bill, and then some.
Had his career not been cut short by a knee injury in his early 30s, which in the latter stages had forced him to constantly take anti-inflammatory pills, even now at the age of 37, Morgan would have likely been preparing for next season, ready to pull on the red and white again.
He was never blessed with great pace anyway, but as a central defender he could read the game brilliantly and his astonishing, whole-hearted commitment during games would have seen him maintain his reputation as a teak-tough leader of men, more than capable of advancing into another season-long battle.
As it is, Morgan’s remit this summer will be to prepare Sheffield United’s under 21 side for a fresh campaign, readying the next batch of potential stars to hopefully make the step up into the first team, now under the stewardship of Nigel Adkins. It is a role ‘Morgs’ relishes, as he reflects on his 12 years at the Lane.
“I can’t believe the season coming up is the fifth full season that I’ve been involved in the coaching side, so that’s scary in itself,” he said. “To think it’s five years since retiring, never mind the playing side of it. It’s flown by.”
And throughout those years, one moment, understandably stands out as THE highlight... 2006, when a win over Cardiff on Good Friday all but secured promotion back to the Premier League after years of near misses.
“It was a fantastic acheivement for the club, to be involved in something like that with the group of players that we had, with the staff that we had, was a special season,” he recalls.
“It was a proud moment when we actually achieved the promotion but to captain the team to promotion was a special time and it is something that I will always remember.”
That captaincy role came a year after signing from Barnsley, a move he admits brought about extremes when deciding to switch from his home-town club.
“It was difficult and very easy,” Morgan says having already pointed out the contradictive nature of his answer. He explains: “Very easy from a career point of view. We had just had a year in League One with Barnsley; Sheffield United had lost out in the Championship play offs to go into the Premier League.
“They had had FA Cup semi final, League Cup semi-final so from a career point of view as soon as I knew the interest it was an easy decision.
“It was a difficult decision, first and foremost to leave Barnsley. I had been there from I was an 11 year old boy. I talk about the feelings of the people that I have worked with at Sheffield United, there was a lot of people who I was close to at Barnsley. A lot of really good people, so it was a difficult decision but it was basically taken from a career point of view.”
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And seemingly, he had already beee earmarked by boss Neil Warnock as a future skipper. He said of gaining the armband: “It was difficult taking over from Rob Page because I know that Rob had been a fantastic captain on the field and the stuff he had done off the pitch as well. So taking it from him was always going to be hard and hard because we had a friendship as well. It was a great honour, particularly only being here a year.
“It was something that I always enjoyed doing and something that I always tried on the pitch and certainly off the pitch as well, to help in the community and help with local charities and that’s why I wanted to get local charities involved with the testimonial as well (Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice, Weston Park Cancer Charity and the Gary Speed Trust will benefit from the game against Newcastle).”
A year later, though, the elation of promotion was drowned amidst the bitterness of dropping back after losing to Wigan on the final day. Relegated on goal difference, one goal, with West Ham against all odds beating Manchester United at Old Trafford to avoid the drop.
“It’s a disappointment whenever you get relegated from any division, and by one goal as well,” he says.
“As a defender you think back and think ‘could I have done more on that?’ but then once you start thinking like that it’s all other things come into play, you probably got goals at times when you shouldn’t have got goals.
“It was bitterly disappointing . I remember playing and thinking, surely the supporters are going to start cheering in a minute, that Man United have gone 1-0 up or 2-0 up against West Ham.
“Just to come so close to staying in there and not doing it and then not having the opportunity, with Neil leaving at the end of that season, with that group, to go and have a right good push at getting promoted again.”
United haven’t been that high since and now have yet another challenge ahead, to finally get out of League One.
Morgan is hoping that new boss Adkins is given the time to take on that task.
“I hope so. Any new manager going into any football club would like to think that they are going to be given four, five, six years to build a squad but unfortunately I don’t think that happens anymore,” he says. “We are talking about testimonials and players staying for 10, 12 years - I think managers now getting five or six seasons unfortunately doesn’t happen any more.
“The average in the championship last year was seven months which is staggering really. It makes you wonder as a coach, ‘do I really want to manage?’”
NIGEL CLOUGH’S SACKING
I think it surprised me as much as it surprised everybody else. I think it was a disappointing end to the season. We all knew that promotion was the main target, it was the main drive that we had and unfortunately we didn’t achieve that. We had had discussions about next year and how we wanted to take things forward and the players obviously, with the recruitment, the players that we wanted to identify and try to bring in. Obviously meetings took place and Nigel was relieved of his duties.
BECOMING A MANAGER
I interviewed for the job when Danny (Wilson) left, before David Weir got the job and I was unsuccessful at that point. Probably through eagerness and through doing the job for the first time I threw myself at it. I interviewed and genuinely wanted to do it and did want the job. Davie got the job and at that point it probably gave me the oportunity to sit and look and analyse. I looked how unfortunate Davie was with his brief tenure as a manager and you think ‘that could have very easily been me’. It could have so easily been me if they decided ‘yes, Morgs we want you to be manager and you crack on and do it.’ So I am under no illusions that it’s not an easy job because I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that it is not an easy job through working with vastly experienced managers like Danny Wilson and Nigel Clough.
OLD CLUB BARNSLEY
It’s a good football club, very much similar to here ...honest hard-working people at the club. It’s a club that’s supported by workers and grafters and that’s what the majority of our supporters are. And they are typically Yorkshire people. They want to pay their money and they want to be entertained on a Saturday afternoon. And if they see a group of players that are out there, A, they are trying and B, they are trying to entertain, then they are happy. The only time I have known disgruntled supporters here or when I was at Barnsley is when the supporters don’t feel as though the team are giving the whack. And that’s a trait that we do have in Yorkshire, that if people are giving everything they’ve got and trying to do the right thing, people are happy to go with it.
NEIL WARNOCK’S DEPARTURE
He’s a manager that gets promotions and I do genuinely believe that he was a damn good manager and we had a really good squad, that if we had the chance to keep that squad together...you can’t say we would have definitely got promoted again but I think, certainly from playing in that team and knowing what we’ve got, you’d have been thought we’d have been right up at least in the top six, pushing again for automatic promotion and play offs. But decisions are made the club has to move on. You can never criticise a board for the decisions they make because they are always making it for the right reasons, or you would hope for the right reasons. They had a vision of what they wanted to do. They wanted to change things. From Neil’s point of view as well, did he want a change? We’ll never know.