Wed, Feb

Alfredo Morelos: no quarter given, no quarter asked

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“A liability”, “an irredeemable hot head”, “notorious mood swings” “temperamental” and “no brains”.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the comments above are drawn from the social work report of a seasoned violent criminal. Some further context may provide more of a clue on the individual the subject of these damning comments is:

“Could just as easily have been sat on a therapist’s couch given the scale of the issues and demons that seem to follow…and psychiatrists who would be falling over themselves to write case studies”

Nope, still not a violent criminal I promise. Here is another clue:

“He continues to let himself and his team mates down….he is suspended or not fit as much as he is available”.

Any closer? Of course, it is none other than Alfredo Morelos the 22 year old Rangers striker who is the league’s top scorer and on course to become the first player in Scottish Premiership history to score in eight successive games. He is also on course to become the first Rangers player since Kris Boyd to score thirty top flight goals in a season, which in doing so would make him the youngest player to achieve this since Jim Forrest over fifty years ago. What is even more remarkable about the start Morelos has made to the season is that all 17 of his goals have come from open play and his total should be even higher given the terrible officiating errors which saw legitimate strikes disallowed against Kilmarnock, Rapid Vienna and Spartak Moscow. He also currently leads the charts in top tier football anywhere in the World as the player who has contributed the most goals for his team, with 17 goals and 9 assists resulting in 26 top tier goals. We are only just out of November.

You would be forgiven for not knowing any of this because the narrative around Morelos is strangely skewed. The story of a 19 year old who left his native country and flew over 6,000 miles from Medellin to Helsinki on his own in pursuit of a dream is replaced with misplaced South American stereotypes and clichés, as well as desperate attempts to balance out any positive with as many negatives as can be found, regardless of accuracy. One article in particular by Keith Jackson received condemnation from “Kick It Out” last year for references to cartels, drugs and people trafficking, all of which of course had absolutely no relevance to the young striker’s career in Scotland. It has led to a belief that there is something more deep rooted going on when approaching the discussion of Alfredo Morelos the footballer.

An approach that has seen him labelled “a diddy” by one journalist who, after a man of the match performance against Rapid Vienna, strangely decided to dedicate an article to the striker the next day to explain why the two goals he scored and penalty won for his team actually masked an otherwise poor individual performance.

An approach which also saw Hearts Manager Craig Levein strangely asked after the match if he felt the striker gets away with too much. In my many years of following Scottish football, I can’t remember this question being asked of an opposition Manager before. A Scottish football which has seen the likes of Mark Hateley, Duncan Ferguson, Chris Sutton, Michael Higdon, Kevin Kyle, John Hartson - to name but a few – battle with centre backs has suddenly taken exception to a 5 foot 9 inch 22 year old forward having the audacity mix it up with choir boys like Christophe Berra and Peter Hartley as he leads the line on his own in a football environment notorious for being physical.

An approach which also saw the aforementioned Keith Jackson create similar confusion with his column last week, where he compared the “demons” and “issues” of 22 year old Alfredo Morelos to experienced Scotland striker Leigh Griffiths. Griffiths, who confirmed over the weekend that he has been too fat to play in recent weeks and recently decided not to attend national duty with Scotland, has been on the front pages several times over the course of his career. From separate incidents of racism to speeding, in amongst a complicated personal life and bans for provoking opposition supporters as well as increased reports of gambling issues it is safe to say Griffiths has demonstrated tendencies of being a flawed character. To compare those “demons” and “issues” to those of a 22 year old striker who picks up the occasional booking for waving his hands in the air in response to a foul is almost incomprehensible and actually fairly irresponsible. Amongst all the criticism of Morelos he has not once been on the front page of a newspaper for off field behaviour or been at the centre of any kind of controversy that would suggest he has any “demons” or “issues” that could be helped by a psychiatrist.

It is curious that Jackson hasn’t felt the need to write similar about his comrade Kenny, who in contrast to Morelos has had his share of genuine controversies this season – from being suspended by Rangers, being suspected of being a mole within the dressing room (with some merit given the Daily Record exclusives have dried up since his exit), dismissed as Manager after a matter of weeks by Livingston and sent off for Dundee and causing anger amongst his new club’s supporters in the process by applauding the home fans as he trudged off with his team bottom of the league and 4-0 down. I mean in terms of controversy, demons and being a liability it isn’t quite waving your hands at a ref, but Miller has had a busy year and not one that appears to have warranted any criticism from those lining up to have a pop at Rangers current centre forward.

Whilst there is an understanding that journalists have to create articles to stir controversy in order to generate engagement, even more baffling is the criticism Morelos receives from those who have played the game. As an example last week, for some unexplained reason, the Scotland Coach James McFadden – once booked 15 times in one season and who latterly in his career served a three game ban for gesturing to opposition supporters - offered his thoughts, where he criticised Morelos for letting his team mates down and stated “he is either suspended or not fit as much as he is available.”

McFadden’s comments provide a further lazy and inaccurate insight in to a player who has shamefully been on the receiving end of this kind of slur all too often. Taking the suspension criticism first, Alfredo has missed four games through suspension in his Rangers career so far – a career which has seen him play 71 times for the club in just over a year. In relation to misgivings about his fitness, he has missed one solitary game through injury over the same period – a midweek fixture against Aberdeen last season. To play 71 times in a Rangers career not yet spanning one and a half years is an incredible feat for someone who is either suspended or not fit as often as he is available. Indeed McFadden’s comments are even more galling when you consider that the 43 games Morelos played last season for Rangers is more than he ever amassed in one season at any club over his entire 17 year career – remarkable considering the striker had already played half a season in Finland prior to arriving in Glasgow. Would James McFadden reflect on his own career the same way? His comments weren’t just ill-judged, they were completely made up and without any foundation or base of accuracy whatsoever.

Sadly, McFadden is not the only ex pro who has offered criticisms based on a made up, rather than exaggerated, baseline. Earlier this season Kris Commons weighed in with his own views on Morelos and his “ill-discipline” where he used the example of a red card from the season before that didn’t exist, once again completely made up. Davie Provan is another former pro with a view, noting that Steven Gerrard can coach Morelos but “can’t give him brains” whilst Chris Sutton has had his say in labelling the player “a liability” after he was booked in an incident Sutton admitted he had not yet seen at the time of comment. Others such as Tam McManus and Michael Stewart have also offered opinions on the player, whilst after putting Levein on the spot BBC’s Sportscene dedicated a section of debate to the player within the highlights package in relation to Levein’s comments without then showing any clips to back up the Hearts Manager’s assessment that he should have been sent off.

And yet despite the constant criticism and cheap headlines, you may be surprised to see how Morelos compares to his peers in terms of discipline. Last season for example, he received 6 yellow and 0 red cards. In comparison, John McGinn and Graeme Shinnie - 2 Scotland internationalists incidentally - received 15 yellow cards each. You would be hard pressed to find similar criticism of either player. Indeed when John McGinn was the subject of transfer interest from Celtic and Aston Villa through the summer, there was not a single mention of his ill-discipline or temper. Liability? Hot head? Nope. And yet we have a Colombian outsider who accumulated 9 bookings less yet has been subject to speculating articles on the state of his mental health, temper and discipline.

Additionally, a South American stereotype wouldn’t be complete without a mention of diving and play acting. The Motherwell Manager, Steven Robinson, recently obliged when he came out after their recent hammering at Ibrox to comment that referees “are being conned by the same people” in relation to the foul on Morelos that led to poor Carl McHugh – 2 reds and 4 yellows this season in addition to 12 yellows last season – being sent off. This was another strange comment without substance, as in his year and a half at Rangers Morelos has only once been cautioned for diving or play acting – a decision which was rightly later reversed when evidence showed that the Dundee goalkeeper had to be taken off injured as a result of his contact with the player. There is a strange type of irony around the likes of Robinson and Levein complaining to referees about the antics of other players, particularly as Levein recently felt his own striker grabbing the private area of another player just a bit of fun.

I don’t expect the narrative around Alfredo Morelos to change any time soon within the crazy World of Scottish football. There is however a disappointment that the story we tell is tainted with so many inaccuracies and stereotypes, as we are missing out on a really fascinating individual journey.

At a time when so many voices within Scottish football were critical of the decision to snub BT over Sky in securing Scottish football coverage for the years ahead based on the difference in talking up our game, there is more than a touch of hypocrisy around this in how many of those same people speak about Morelos. This is a player who has scored 17 goals this season and at 22 has become a full Colombian international on our watch. A player who, at the age of 19, packed his bags and flew to the relative football backwater of Finland with a view to forging a career as a professional footballer which led to him becoming a full international through hard work, dedication and application. A player who should be an inspiration to young players all over Scotland, as they look to fulfil their own dreams of becoming a professional. After all, are there examples of many young Scottish players who would be willing to make the same sacrifice to forge a successful football career if they hadn’t quite made the grade here? His journey to where he is now, and where he is going if his rate of improvement continues, is a story worth telling yet no one appears to want to do so.

Can anyone answer why that is? You wonder what it is that has put so many noses out of joint. Is it the reality of a foreign player leading the line for Rangers instead of someone “more local”? There are many who would think so. Or is it as simple as it being about the colour of his shirt than his skin?

And yet, Morelos can’t be accused of being a lazy foreign mercenary who has come in to our game without embracing it in full. He doesn’t take to the media either here or in his homeland to complain when centre backs twice his size are kicking him up and down a park. He embraces it and gives as good as he gets. He doesn’t go in to hiding on the cold winter fixtures or the plastic parks appearing to long for a return to sunnier climates. He rolls the sleeves up and gets on with it. In interviews in his native Colombia Morelos has spoken respectfully of the Scottish game, and spoke in glowing terms about his fellow pros when nominated for the Young Player of the Year award last year. He deserves better than being singled out for public criticism by the likes of Berra, Levein and Robinson before we even start to discuss the lazy criticism from pundits and tabloid journalists.

Maybe one day Alfredo Morelos will get the respect he deserves within our game for his ability, work ethic and achievements, but for now I will listen to Steven Gerrard who has advised we should enjoy him whilst we have him as he is going to be a top player. After all, Steven Gerrard knows a thing or two about top players. For now however I prefer to think of Alfredo Morelos as a 22 year old kid with bags of ability and potential who could break all sorts of records if he were to stay long enough and who has dragged us to the top of the league with his contribution in the final third. A player who typifies everything the Rangers supporters want in a centre forward – ability, character, maximum effort every week who does his talking on the pitch with no quarter given, no quarter asked.

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