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Former Liverpool striker rediscovering 'love and hunger' for football in Sligo

“People say ‘what’s happened to him?’, but I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy.”

IT’S A TYPICAL January afternoon in Sligo. Benbulbin is obscured by grey clouds taking a brief breather before the natives have to reach for their umbrellas again. Sharp winds making their way in from the Atlantic ensure there’s little respite from the elements.

In the cosy confines of the Clayton Hotel lobby, the leading goalscorer in last season’s FA Cup is verging on exuberant while discussing his next competitive game. The opening weekend of the League of Ireland season has seldom been spoken of with such vigour.

This isn’t phoney enthusiasm. You don’t need to spend very long in Adam Morgan’s company before that much becomes clear. When he was being hailed as the next Robbie Fowler, a move to the west of Ireland by the age of 23 wasn’t what Morgan saw on the horizon. Yet he’s grateful to be here. The visit of Limerick FC on 17 February can’t come quickly enough.

New Signing Adam Morgan Adam Morgan is one of Sligo Rovers' new signings for the 2018 season. Source: Michael Melly

Sitting bolt upright for the duration of our conversation, he rubs his hands together and can’t suppress the grin that crosses his face each time Sligo Rovers’ opening game of 2018 comes up.

“I can’t wait for the season to start, to get the ball rolling,” he says. “I actually can’t wait. You really don’t know how excited I am for this. It reminds me of when you’re a six-year-old kid with mud all over your knees. I’m going to bed at night looking forward to training the next morning. I can’t remember the last time I felt like that.”

At Sligo Rovers, Morgan has linked up with one of his childhood friends. He first met Craig Roddan when they were a couple of ambitious 10-year-olds at Liverpool FC, dreaming of becoming professional footballers for their hometown team. Roddan, who’s been with Sligo since 2016, was “a big factor” in Morgan joining the club earlier this month.

“It was all about Liverpool in our family,” Morgan recalls. “I was at the club from the age of five. At one stage my dad didn’t miss a Liverpool game — home or away — for about five years. He took me to all the games then when I got older. I remember crying after a defeat to Everton when I was about 10.”

It wasn’t the only time his attachment to the club brought him to tears.

After graduating through Liverpool’s academy, Morgan was earmarked for a bright future after scoring 21 goals in 20 appearances for the U18 team in the 2010-11 season. There’s plenty of footage of those goals on YouTube, much of it featuring Morgan and Raheem Sterling terrorising opposing defenders in tandem.

As a left-footed local lad with an eye for goal, it was around then that Liverpool supporters began to take notice of the Robbie Fowler comparisons. Three months after his 18th birthday, Morgan was invited on a pre-season tour of North America. There, he scored the first goal of the Brendan Rodgers era in a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC.

Fowler was impressed by his heir apparent. Speaking about Morgan in August 2012, he said: “As a goalscorer I think he’s fantastic. As a finisher he is probably one of the best I’ve seen for a long, long time to be honest.”

Soccer - Pre Season Friendly - Toronto v Liverpool - Rogers Centre Morgan being interviewed by Canadian TV after scoring against Toronto FC. Source: EMPICS Sport

When the competitive action began for the 2012-13 season, Rodgers gave him his first-team debut as a substitute in a 1-0 Europa League win away to Hearts. Six days later he started in the return leg. Anfield, 45,000 people packed in and 18-year-old Liverpudlian Adam Morgan named in the team alongside Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez.

It was the realisation of a dream, and for a brief moment Morgan appeared to have marked the occasion with a goal. As he wheeled away in celebration, however, the referee’s whistle told him that the ball had gone out of play before Suarez’s cross found him unmarked in the box. Nevertheless, tears of joy were cried in the Morgan household that evening after he made the short journey back to Halewood from Anfield.

Morgan was handed another start later in that Europa League campaign in a defeat away to Anzhi Makhachkala. At the time it seemed like another step in the right direction. It transpired to be the final first-team game he’d ever play for Liverpool. After a brief loan spell at Rotherham United, he was transferred to Yeovil Town in the Championship.

“I remember Brendan Rodgers called me into his office after training,” Morgan recalled in a November 2016 interview with the Liverpool Echo. “It was after a session when I had been battered by Martin Skrtel. Not in a bad way, he wasn’t kicking lumps out of me, but he was just very physical.

“Brendan said he didn’t doubt my ability but he said that physically I wasn’t ready and looked out of my depth. He explained that was why he had asked Skrtel to stay close to me throughout the training game. He said he thought I maybe needed to go to a Championship club and kick on from there. He told me it straight. I went and sat in my car outside Melwood and cried.”

Although it’s now just over four years since Adam Morgan’s time at Liverpool ended, the psychological wounds he sustained from being rejected by the one club he ever imagined playing for have only recently begun to heal. His move to Yeovil marked the beginning of a decline that brought him as low as the seventh tier of English football.

St Johnstone, Accrington Stanley, Hemel Hempstead Town, Colwyn Bay, Curzon Ashton and Halifax Town have all hoped to be the beneficiaries of a revival from their former Liverpool striker. Along the way, Morgan has produced intermittent reminders of his ability. But mostly he’s been travelling a rocky road since 2014.

There’s a candor to Adam Morgan, a charm and a warmth, which doesn’t tally with the rumours that have shaped his reputation. Immature, ill-disciplined, troublesome, a risk not worth taking — he’s heard all sorts of descriptions of himself over the years.

PA-14562961 “Brendan said he didn’t doubt my ability but he said that physically I wasn’t ready and looked out of my depth." Source: Barrington Coombs/EMPICS Sport

Morgan doesn’t attempt to portray himself as an angel. He’s made his fair share of mistakes which have accelerated his descent. But he also feels it’s important to assess his career so far by taking context into account.

Having been attached to Liverpool since he was five, he’d scarcely considered the prospect of ever leaving the club by the time Brendan Rodgers summoned him to his office to deliver the bad news. Yet within a few weeks he was dispatched over 200 miles away to Yeovil. For a 19-year-old kid who still lived at home, it was a shock to the system.

A few months after arriving at his new club, he fell out with manager Gary Johnson, who publicly criticised the mentality of his teenage striker. Morgan was dropped from the squad and condemned to training alone. A temporary move to Scotland only served to exacerbate his problems.

“Imagine if for your whole life you’ve been moving up, up up, and everyone is telling you that you’re brilliant all the time,” Morgan explains. “You achieve your dream of playing for the club you love when you’re a teenager, and then all of a sudden you find yourself in a place you’re not familiar with, you’re told you’re not wanted so you’re training on your own.

“People don’t realise sometimes how tough it can be mentally. I was 19 years old, being told to train on my own in a place I didn’t know. I didn’t have any family around me there. Everyone reacts to things differently. I didn’t know how to react. When you hit that level of negativity — especially at that young age when you don’t have the life experiences — it’s very hard to shake it off.

“It was just a snowball effect. Then I wasn’t eating properly and wasn’t going to the gym properly because of the impact it was having on me mentally. The most important thing about football is to be healthy mentally. The rest will follow. If you’re not healthy in your mind, you can have all the ability in the world but it won’t matter.

“I got great experience at Liverpool and they were the good times. Things were flying and I didn’t have a worry in the world. It was what came after Liverpool which affected me mentally. It really challenged me. People tend to put that aside. They say ‘what’s happened to him?’, but I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy.

“I look at Tyson Fury now talking about mental illness and I can relate to that completely. I was on the verge of something there. I hated football, enjoyed nothing about it anymore. My love of the game was gone.

PA-12051177 Morgan in possession for England's U19s against Denmark in November 2011. Source: Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport

“Momentum is a big thing for a footballer. My momentum was going downward and I couldn’t stop it. It got to the stage where I didn’t have any interest in playing again. Probably the only reason I kept going was my mum and dad, and all the time they’d put in over the years, dropping me from place to place for football.

“There have been many low points over the last few years. There was Yeovil, and then when I went on loan to St Johnstone. I only went because I didn’t want to train on my own anymore, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I wasn’t there for long in the end.

“I was playing in a U20s game and I got sent off for kicking out at someone. I think it was only 14 minutes into the game. I didn’t even care. It was just a lot of frustration and anger coming to the boil. As I was walking off the pitch, I remember looking up and seeing my dad. He had driven all the way up to Scotland to watch and then I went and did that. I was just like, ‘what have I just done?’

“To be honest, I don’t really like to discuss all the bad moments too much, because there have been many. There have been some dark, dark times which have been terrible and I really struggled. But I’ve had plenty of great times as well. I lived my dream. I played in the first-team for Liverpool, the team I love.

“Life is full of highs and lows. That’s life. Unfortunately there was just a time when I couldn’t deal with that. Never get too high when you’re up, never get too low when you’re down. That’s what I’ve learned. I definitely don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”

Life after Anfield hasn’t been entirely doom and gloom for Adam Morgan. There have been occasional glimpses of the pedigree that earned him a place in the Liverpool team at such a young age.

He marked his debut for Halifax Town by scoring twice against Darlington. A couple of weeks earlier he bagged a hat-trick against Wimbledon for Curzon Ashton in the FA Cup. That took his tally for the competition to six, which saw him end the campaign as joint leading goalscorer alongside Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min.

There were indications at Curzon and Halifax that Morgan was beginning to hit his stride again. He played regularly and goals were no longer hard to come by. But as a means of taking the next step in a bid to establish the consistency he’s been lacking, he reckons the move to Sligo is the kind of fresh start he requires.

Curzon Ashton v AFC Wimbledon - Emirates FA Cup - Tameside Stadium Morgan took home the match ball after his FA Cup second-round hat-trick against Wimbledon. Source: Richard Sellers

Morgan knows that onlookers expect him to fail. They see Sligo Rovers as the latest bend on a downward spiral. But he now believes his experiences and subsequent maturity have removed the psychological barriers that once restricted him.

He’s realistic enough to accept that he’s unlikely to return to the heights of representing one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs. What gives Adam Morgan peace of mind these days is that he’s certain he’ll never fall so low again.

He says he’ll one day go into more detail about his past, but for now he’s putting his energy into shaping a better future instead of pondering regrets. At this stage he can’t afford to set targets, yet he’s confident of progressing to a point in his career where he’ll no longer be defined by the 126 minutes he spent in the limelight at Liverpool.

“I wouldn’t be in Sligo if I didn’t think that was possible,” he says. “What would be the point? I’d go and get a job and play with my mates on a Sunday. I’m 23. Jamie Vardy made his Premier League debut when he was 27. Whether I manage to get back to the Championship, League One or play for the top team in Ireland, I’m going to do it my way. I’m not going to let people affect me anymore.

“I’m going to keep my standards high and give everything I’ve got for Sligo Rovers this season. If it takes me somewhere, great. If not, I’ll be able to live with myself because I’ll have given it everything. I can’t control whether people will only see me as the lad who used to play for Liverpool. That will always be there. It would still be there if I went to Nottingham Forest. As long as I can live with myself, that’s what matters. I could have the best season ever here and some people will still say I’m shit.

“I just want to prove it to myself now. There was a time when I worried too much about what other people think. I took it into account with everything I did. Then you over-extend yourself by trying to do things to impress people. Now, the only opinions that matter are my own and the ones of the people in the network around me.

“Obviously I’d rather it be positive, and that’s what I’m trying to do. But people can say what they want to. I know what happened and the people close to me know what happened. People on the outside can form their opinions — which they’re entitled to — about my career, and that’s fine. It doesn’t matter to me anymore.

“Some day I’ll say everything that’s happened, whether people want to read it or not. I think then they might look at it from a different perspective. I’m not hiding anything now, but for the time being I’m just looking forward.”

PA-14443930 "I can't control whether people will only see me as the lad who used to play for Liverpool. That will always be there." Source: Martin Rickett/PA Archive/PA Images

He adds: “I do want young boys to learn from my experiences too. I’ve spoken to Alex Inglethorpe [Liverpool FC's academy director] and offered to come in and speak to the U18s. Some people will come into contact with them only because they play for Liverpool.

“There’s distractions with girls, cars, money… I could speak to them about all of that. But the thing is, I know when I was that age that if someone like that came in you’d probably complain it was taking up your afternoon. It’s hard. But that’s something I’d like to do.

“It did take me a good few years to get over what happened at Liverpool. I couldn’t live with it. I went through every single age group there since I was five. I played three first-team games for the team I love. You don’t get that by winning the lottery. You get it by being a good player. I’ve always believed in my ability and I still do.”

One of Morgan’s priorities for his future is to do justice to those who have shown faith and stood by him when they were needed most — family and friends. He’s particularly keen to acknowledge his former Liverpool team-mate Jack Robinson — now at Queens Park Rangers — whose support kept him going when the white flag was within reach.

Morgan also understands that he needs to produce more than just soundbites to get his career back on track. He makes all the noises Sligo Rovers supporters and manager Gerard Lyttle will want to hear. The real test of his endeavour will come when he’s living off scraps at places like Turner’s Cross and Oriel Park, and Sligo are fighting for the points that will keep them away from another relegation battle.

Bring it on, he insists. Morgan feels equipped for the tough times now. He’s ready to make a contribution for a club he feels he owes a debt of gratitude to. And while he may still be just 23, he knows he’ll soon run out of opportunities to salvage something from his career if another one comes to nothing.

There’s no deadline. Morgan isn’t in a hurry to climb the ladder. But he has seen the kind of platform the League of Ireland has provided for the likes of Sean Maguire, who he recalls crossing paths with at Accrington Stanley. The move to Sligo has brought Morgan back to full-time football for the first time since that spell with the aforementioned English League Two club in 2015.

“Training has been great. The manager has been brilliant with me, as have all the coaching staff. All the lads have as well. They’ve taken me in like one of their own. I’ve felt at home straight away,” says Morgan, whose cousin Anthony Stewart is a former Shamrock Rovers player.

New Signing Adam Morgan Morgan signing for Sligo Rovers in the company of manager Gerard Lyttle. Source: Michael Melly

“It’s been hard getting back into full-time football again but I feel a million times better after a tough two weeks. I’m as fit and determined as I’ve felt in years. I feel like I’ve got a new lease of life in me, especially with the faith the gaffer has shown in me. I’ve wasted too much time in my life, waiting around, being negative about myself, wondering where it’s going. It’s time for me to do my talking on the pitch now.

“I’ve given up drinking completely. I’m not saying I used to fall out of nightclubs. Every couple of months I used to have a night out, and footballers don’t have to be robots. But I just want to give myself every possible chance to make a success of this, so that if it doesn’t work out then I’ll have no excuses. I’ll be able to look myself in the mirror, hold my head up and be honest with myself.

“This really feels like the start of a new chapter, and a new chapter that’s going to be positive. I’ve been really impressed by the set-up here. It’s helping me to get my love and hunger back for the game. I thought I’d lost that forever. I didn’t think I’d feel this way about football again. I want to give something back to the people who have supported me now. I’ve been affected mentally by what I’ve experienced but my ability and talent hasn’t left me.

“I know this season I’ll have challenges in my mind. But what I’ve learned now is how to deal with those things. If I get a yellow card or if I get dropped for a game, it’s not going to affect me because I know how to respond in the right way. I’ve spoken to numerous sports psychologists and there’s one I’ve been doing really well with. It’s something I keep private but she’s helped me massively.

“I’m only 23. People seem to forget that. People have retired me already, written me off. I feel like I’m 53 with some of the life I’ve lived. But that’s going to hold me in good stead when tough times do come again. This is a massive season for me. I’m tough enough mentally now. I’m in the shape I need to be in mentally and physically.

“I’m looking forward to showing everyone what I can do here. It’s not just a short-term thing. I want to enjoy it here for as long as I’m wanted. Whatever happens after that I’ll leave to other people. I’m counting down the days. I wish the season was starting tomorrow.”

A well-known poet from these parts once wrote that the Second Coming is at hand. While Adam Morgan is in Yeats Country, he won’t reincarnate Robbie Fowler, the man who was once known as ‘God’ by Liverpool fans. But he does expect to rediscover the joy in football again. That’s his dream now.

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Paul Dollery

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