by Chris Dunlavy
WHEN Clinton Morrison was 18, he walked into the Crystal Palace dressing room for the first time and spread his arms wide.
“Don’t worry, boys,” he told a bunch of non-plussed first-teamers. “Clinton’s here. Everything is gonna be all right.”
In actual fact, it wasn’t. Though Morrison scored on his debut, the Eagles were relegated from the Premier League that season. Yet the tale is a perfect illustration of a player whose explosive ability went hand in hand with abrasive braggadocio.
Was it arrogance? Confidence? Or simply a bit of South London chirp from the Croydon streets where he grew up? Either way, the striker managed more wind-ups than a watchmaker.
Simon Jordan, the former Palace chairman, called Morrison a “belligerent little runt” and even threatened to “kick his teeth in” during a pre-season trip to Spain.
Alan Smith, his manager at Selhurst Park, grew so fed up with Morrison’s backchat that he slapped him on the transfer list.
“I like that brashness and swagger about him,” said Smith, after Morrison had responded by netting ten goals in as many games. “But I don’t like it when he tries to be bigger than the football club.”
After Palace had defeated Liverpool 2-1 in the first leg of the 2001 League Cup semis, Morrison told a newspaper he’d have taken “at least two” of the chances missed by Michael Owen.
Before the home leg at Anfield, Phil Thompson pinned the cuttings to the wall, with Steven Gerrard recalling a determination to put “that cocky p****” in his place. The Reds won 5-0.
Yet, for all the sass and swagger, you will struggle to find anyone who dislikes Morrison.
Those who have worked with him all recognise the cockiness is a front, the wisecracks and sly digs mere banter.
As Jordan admitted: “There’s a good lad underneath all the bluster”.
That much was evident when Morrison was called up to Mick McCarthy’s Irish squad in 2001 for the first of 36 caps that yielded nine goals and a place at the 2002 World Cup.
“I’d read some press reports in which Clinton was saying this and that and I admit I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” said McCarthy. “But, to be fair, he’s a lovely guy who has fitted in exceptionally well. You won’t meet a nicer kid.”
Chris Coleman played alongside Morrison at Palace and, in 2008, signed him for Coventry.
“Clinton is constant,” he said. “Every day in training, if it’s not right, he has to say something. He can’t help himself. As soon as he says something and upsets someone there will be a big to-do.
“But immediately afterwards he’ll go and speak to that person and say ‘This is what I meant’. Then he’s shaking hands and it’s all positive. I didn’t see it as negative at all.”
Morrison would never escape questions about his attitude and remains convinced that Irish boss Giovanni Trapattoni was among the sceptics. Never in doubt, though, were his predatory instincts.
As a youngster at Selhurst, he was taken under the wing of legendary hitman Ian Wright, who would analyse Morrison’s displays before doling out advice.
“He told me to go ice-cold in the box,” recalls Morrison. “To think of something, anything, that would stop me getting hot and flustered.”
It worked. In two spells at Palace, Morrison netted 113 goals in 315 games, becoming the club’s joint-fourth leading scorer of all time.
And, while a £4.5m move to Birmingham failed to ignite, he is fondly remembered at both Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday, where a regular flow of goals were matched by a blistering work-rate.
“What I liked about Clinton was his resilience,” said Kenny Cunningham, a team-mate for Birmingham and Ireland. “He will miss opportunities, but he will pick himself up and go again. He is very strong mentally.”
McCarthy, meanwhile, found that Morrison’s old-school poaching complemented the more nuanced play of Robbie Keane. “Clinton’s a natural goalscorer,” he said. “You don’t always see him in games and then, out of nothing, he gets a chance and puts it away. He makes good runs into channels and does well with his back to goal. He can be a top class player.”
Even Arsene Wenger thought so, scouting the striker on several occasions before his move to Birmingham.
“I like him a lot,” said the Arsenal boss in 2002. “He is very mobile and he will develop into a top quality striker. Morrison has the confidence and attitude and I like the way he gets in behind defenders. There’s no doubt in my mind that he has a big-club temperament.”
Yet the highest level proved elusive, those three seasons with Birmingham his only taste of the big time.
After leaving Wednesday in 2012, he spent two seasons at Colchester and has spent the last two at Exeter. Manager Paul Tisdale has called his attitude “a breath of fresh air”. Maybe those doubts can finally be quashed.
“I’m still the same loud, bubbly person,” said Morrison last year. “And I’m always going to be judged as someone who hasn’t got the best of attitudes.
“But everyone who knows me knows that, deep down, I’ve got a good heart and that my attitude is just a will to win.
“It might come across the wrong way, but it’s just me. I can be irritating. I’d be the first to say that. But I get on with everyone.”