Reading’s defensive linchpin Michael Morrison has been here before: staring a tense Premier League promotion run-in square in the eyes. With Leicester City in 2010 there was play-off heartache. With Reading in 2021 there is hope – an inspirational new manager and a strong balance of fearless youth and experience in the squad. Captaining The Royals in Liam Moore’s absence, Michael is determined to savour every moment, acutely aware that these opportunities in your career can be few and far between…
How would you describe yourself as a player?
I’m quite an old-fashioned centre half. I give 100 percent effort every game. I’m very consistent. I’d like to think that you can see I love playing and I love what I do. When I was growing up I saw centre halves who stuck their head in and defended. I was an Arsenal fan and you look at Tony Adams or that classic picture of Terry Butcher, head bandaged and bleeding. That is what English defenders were famous for.
What impact did playing men’s football for Cambridge at 17 have on you?
I benefited when Cambridge United were relegated from League Two, so I got in the first team probably earlier than planned. Being in a men’s environment really early, you know if you make a mistake you’ll get punished and people see that straight away. In under 23s you can concede a goal and it gets glossed over a little bit. As a senior player now, I encourage younger players to go out and play. It’s so different to U23s, it brought my learning on straight away.
What did you learn from your trial spells at big clubs?
The professional environment is a massive jump. I remember sitting in Glenn Roeder’s office at Newcastle, he said: ‘you’ve done really well but I don’t think you’re quite as good as Rio Ferdinand’. Looking back now I can’t help but laugh – to be compared to one of the best ever centre-halves. That’s what you’re competing with.
You got a move to Leicester in League One in 2008, how did you adjust?
Nigel Pearson was manager and knew my name from the Newcastle trial. It was a good environment. I was quite young, breaking into the team. We had a good pre-season, which helps you get comfortable. I felt like I deserved to be there. I was so lucky the team was so good – we ran away with the league.
You lost a play-off semi final with Leicester the following season and now you’re pushing for promotion again with Reading. Was the goal at the start of the season to reach the Premier League?
I wanted to play as many games as possible. At the moment, I’ve played every game and it’s been really pleasing – especially as there has been hard competition for places. As a club we didn’t have time to set targets. A new manager came straight in and we had to get ready for the Derby game. Then we clustered games into small groups and said, ‘we want three wins out of four here’. It has served us well. If we’re still in the top six in March we’re in a good position to finish in the play-offs and still in touching distance of automatic promotion.
New boss Veljko Paunović came in last August – what has he changed?
One of the biggest things is the connection with all the players and the team, making sure everybody realises that aligning individual goals will help the team, and vice versa. You can see that in the performances of Michael Olise and Omar Richards who have got a lot of the plaudits and interest from other clubs - and Lucas João is a good example. The way the manager has given us defensive discipline with that bit of talent up front has made a big difference. We can play with a lot of quality further up the pitch.
The manager is well travelled and has won the U20 World Cup with Serbia. What about him has rubbed off on you?
The positive reinforcement of good things that people are doing. A lot of times we see managers being critical. He highlights the things that we’re doing well and makes you want to do them even better. That’s one of the big things I’ll take on when I look to go into coaching roles – positive reinforcement. He’s always analysing training and that comes back into meetings. He breaks down not just what we have done in games, but what we have done in training and how we can implement that into our matches.
You’ve captained the side of late and been on a great run….
Yeah. Liam Moore is captain but he broke his metatarsal. I’ve just tried to carry on like normal. I don’t think there’s anything more I need to do, on or off the pitch. It’s a well-organised group now under the manager and Liam has put some things in place for the squad. I’ve just tried to be myself. I have been captain and lead teams throughout my career, it’s a real honour and I’ve really enjoyed being captain at Reading, especially when we get wins.
Are you confident about the team’s chances?
We’ve done so well. We had a record-breaking start to the season and we’ve been able to make a base camp in the play-offs, looking to push on from there now. We’ve got some real young talents who are fearless and have real hunger. We’ve also got that bit of experience through myself, Liam and goalkeeper Rafa [Rafael Cabral] who has played for Brazil.
What advice do you give the young players based on your experiences?
When you get knocked out of the play-offs at 21,22 you think it’s going to come around all the time. I’ve had to wait 10 years for another opportunity. I tell the young lads they need to make the most of this because it doesn’t come around that often. Don’t have any regrets and be ready to work as hard as you can to get it, because nobody will give it to you.
So next up: the Premier League…
It would be the real icing on the cake to play in the Premier League. If we can get a promotion and I play even just one game in the Premier League it would be a really big thing for me – as it would be for a lot of other people at the club.
You’re 32 now, what are you working on to keep developing your game?
As you get older, looking after your body is vital.
I’m often in the gym early in the mornings making sure I’m physically ready. It’s vital that everybody looks after themselves now, but as a senior player and somebody coming towards the end of their career you want to make sure you’re giving yourself the best opportunity. That means putting the best into your body and being as prepared as you can be – and that’s what I try to do every day.
Has your approach changed over the years as the game has evolved?
Yes! When I was at Cambridge United we used to have fish and chips on the way home and a couple of beers sometimes. Little things have changed – heart-rate monitors, GPS tracking – and in terms of football it’s always changing. As a defender, you now have goal kicks turning into one-twos with the goalkeeper. To survive you have to evolve with it.
Where will you be in your career in five years?
I hope I’ll still be playing. If I’m honest, I feel fit. Everyone I speak to who has retired says to stay in the game and keep playing for as long as possible. Eventually I will have to stop, my body won’t be able to keep going until I’m past 40 I wouldn’t have thought, so I’m making plans to stay in the game and there are so many routes now. I’m looking at coaching at the moment.
Has the PFA helped you to plan ahead?
The PFA has been brilliant. Steve Guinan was a really good coaching mentor and has really helped me out with my UEFA B license and helped me to find the right courses. Recently I started the sporting directorship masters at Manchester University, which is part-funded by the PFA. I’m a real advocate for them. They have been really helpful to me. They have so many members to help but when you ring them to seek advice you always find the people on the other end of the phone are really knowledgeable and point you in the right direction.
Campaign against hate
As a patron of anti-racism charity show racism the red card, Michael is heavily involved in raising awareness for the cause and educating against discrimination.
Michael has witnessed a huge cultural shift in the game in the 16 years since he turned pro. Dressing rooms are more diverse than ever with players of myriad faiths and backgrounds. But society, and that includes football, still has a racism problem. That’s something Michael is keen to address using his platform as a player.
Education charity Show Racism the Red approached him five years ago to support their campaign. “The main thing I liked about it was that they are in education and that’s the biggest way you can address problems like this,” he explains.
He signed up and his first appointment as a Birmingham City player took him to Stoke City’s Bet365 Stadium. “There were 100 kids who had entered a competition,” he recalls, “they made posters about discrimination. Seeing their hard work and the valuable reward of a day out of school was brilliant.”
Since then, Michael has become a patron of the charity. And he takes a leadership role at Reading, where players have taken part in a range of events and shared content on social media to help raise awareness for the cause. He is more involved than ever since Covid-19 hit.
“It’s so interesting to hear stories from people like John Barnes, who I joined for a Zoom call. It really hits home to hear somebody like him talking about racism and what he’s had to deal with. He’s still fighting the cause. I was on a call with other people like Chris Hughton, who have experienced issues I haven’t as a white person. It can’t just be black people fighting discrimination – it has to be everybody saying ‘no, we won’t accept people judging others because of the colour of their skin’.”
Within the game, Michael believes there is a progression towards greater inclusion. “A great example is when Liverpool celebrated the title and they had the alcohol taken out of the champagne for the spray. That was a simple, brilliant initiative that showed respect for the Muslim players and how things can change.”
As he looks ahead to a potential career in coaching when he finishes playing, Michael can call on the skills he’s picked up from playing under some top managers…
Michael has played for some high-profile managers over the years. “Sven-Goran Eriksson at Leicester is probably the biggest name. You reflect on how you would have reacted to some of the moments they were in and learn from managers like Sven,” he says.
“I’ve been fortunate with that when I look back at my career. When I transfer my skills into managing there are people I will call up for advice.” Chris Powell will be on that list, a man Michael played with as well as worked under. Nigel Pearson too.
But perhaps the biggest influence will prove to be his current boss, Veljko Paunović, who played for Atletico Madrid, managed big names in the MLS and won the U20 World Cup as Serbia boss. “He’s really detailed in the way he works,” says Michael. “And he’s got really good stock with the success he had at Serbia. I’m in a good position to learn from someone who has really helped younger players develop.”