Turning 34 years of age isn’t a particularly significant birthday but it was for James Morrison. This year was the first time, possibly in his life, where being a professional footballer was neither his dream nor his job. Morrison retired in October 2019 after leaving West Brom meaning that this year, amidst the Zoom calls to friends and family, was the first birthday where he could sit down and truly reflect on his career.
There’s no more contract extensions to chase or transfer moves to mull over but there’s plenty of moments to be proud of and achievements earned to reminisce over. A professional career almost exclusively consisting of Premier League football with Middlesbrough and West Brom throws up the debate of what Morrison can regard as his greatest footballing moment.
Is it making his debut for Boro against Notts County in the FA Cup in 2004? Is it scoring his first ever goal against Banik Ostrava, forever writing him in to the history books as Middlesbrough’s first away goalscorer in European competition? Is it featuring in the iconic comebacks against FC Basel and Steaua Bucharest? Is it starting in a UEFA Cup final while still being 19 years old?
Is it, despite clearly being from Darlington, the 46 Scotland caps or scoring against England at Wembley? Is it helping to establish the Baggies as a solid Premier League side for the majority of the 2010s, becoming a club stalwart and being part of two promotion campaigns?
It’s none of the above.
The single greatest feat of James Morrison’s career as a footballer was taking the Theatre of Dreams moniker to the extreme by living out the dreams of fans and players around the world and absolutely clattering Cristiano Ronaldo at the end of an FA Cup quarter-final replay between the Boro and Man United in 2007.
In the dying seconds of stoppage time, with United leading thanks to a Ronaldo penalty, the Portuguese star nudged the ball towards the corner flag to kill off the game and Morrison saw the opportunity. A right leg dangled for a split second too long.
It was a complete cheap shot that sent Ronaldo crashing to the floor. It was more WWE dropkick than it was football tackle. It wasn’t a cleverly disguised cruncher from a master of the dark arts that gets *just enough* of the ball. It was a cynical attack that on any other day could’ve changed the world of football and put Ronaldo out of commission.
It caused handbags that would’ve ended badly for United as Mad Dog Pogatetz, George Boateng, Woody and Abel Xavier joined the fray. It was as close to assault as you can legally get away with on the pitch and it was fucking beautiful.
There is almost a generation of football fans, namely those who have Twitter accounts dedicated to individual players and love talking about net spend and expected goal ratios, who won’t quite understand the sheer contempt felt for Cristiano Ronaldo by the majority of the British public during his initial years at Manchester United.
Yes, there are still plenty of people who harbour ill will for the former Galactico but a lot of that is a result of habit, repeated success and the annoyance of someone so arrogant always backing up their case as one of the best to ever do it with endless goals, trophies and individual accolades. It’s almost pantomime in nature; Ronaldo turns up, people boo his every touch, he scores, he wins a Ballon d’Or or Champions League medal and the cycle of greatness continues.
However, that wasn’t the case when James Morrison scythed him down in 2007. We didn’t hate Cristiano Ronaldo because he was one of the best players of all time. We didn’t hate Cristiano Ronaldo because he always seemed to win or because he always seems to have his top off displaying his rippling physique on Instagram.
We hated him because he was a greasy haired, diving baby. We hated him because he was a cheat. We hated him because he kept doing step overs all the time. He’s still guilty of those things now but it went deeper than that.
We hated him because he played for Man United, when Man United monopolised the English game and school playgrounds were littered with plastic United fans and Ronaldo’s swaggering dickhead act personified the intolerable dominance the Red Devils held. We hated him because his talent was beginning to equal his inflated ego.
We hated him because he’d helped shatter millions of English hearts during the 2006 World Cup with the infamous wink following Wayne Rooney’s red card and we particularly hated him on Teesside because he had a particular penchant for scoring or going down in the penalty area against Boro. He’d even drawn the ire of Gareth Southgate, then Boro manager and now renowned for his calm and collected manner, with his constant “gamesmanship”.
That’s why when James Morrison decided to wipe out United’s number 7, he encapsulated the feeling of a nation. It wasn’t just James Morrison taking out Ronaldo. It was every man, woman and child that wasn’t a Manchester United or Portugal supporter taking out years of frustration for every dive, faked injury and petulant appeal for a penalty against their team from Cristiano. It helped to exorcise the demons of Portugal dumping England out on penalties in successive tournaments. It finally gave Ronaldo a real reason to be on the floor. It was just retribution. There was a collective “you deserved that” in homes across the world.
It was James Morrison’s finest moment in football. Well, at least it was our favourite one. Never mind the fact that Boro should never have sold him that summer and that he should’ve been a mainstay on Teesside for years to come, he should’ve been given a life-time contract as a thank you.
Morrison is the assistant manager of West Brom’s under-23 side now. I hope he’s taught them how to take one for the team like he did that night at Old Trafford.
Photo Credits: Sportige, Teesside Live