MILLWALL wouldn't be in the Championship without the right boot of Steve Morison and so much more besides from their departing captain.
It was Morison’s experience and stealth that saw him lurk on the shoulder of Nathaniel Knight-Percival before stealing in at the back post to fire past Colin Doyle for the winning goal in the 2017 League One play-off final.
It was appropriate too that the assist was from Lee Gregory. The pair struck up an understanding from the start. Morison returned to Millwall from Leeds in the summer of 2015 and in the first game of that season he scored the equaliser against Shrewsbury at Greenhous Meadow before Gregory struck for a 2-1 win in the first league game of Neil Harris’ first full season in charge.
Morison and Gregory scored 46 goals in all competitions that season as the Lions reached the League One play-off final against Barnsley. Half an hour before kick-off at Wembley, fate intervened and Morison experienced one of the low points of his professional career. Morison was supposed to lead the side out as captain, and in pre-match interviews spoke of the pride he would feel. But Byron Webster was injured in the warm-up, and that meant Tony Craig started for the first time since the previous October and wore the armband.
There were ructions in the dressing room, but it says a lot about Morison’s character that he was one of Millwall’s best performers on a disappointing day when they lost 3-1.
Morison admitted the episode had hurt him. Yet he returned the following season and was top scorer with 19 goals, one ahead of Gregory, as the Lions secured promotion at the second attempt.
Morison and Gregory were the focal point of Millwall’s play. The direct football wouldn’t have worked without them.
The question in the summer of 2017, though, was whether they could do it in the second tier. Morison had bullied League One teams, but, turning 34 at the start of 2017-18, could he still do it in an ever-improving Championship?
That question didn’t stay unanswered for long. After two points from their first four league games, Millwall played Norwich at The Den and humiliated them 4-0. The opener was a classic Morison-Gregory combination. As he has done so many times, when he somehow wins headers without jumping, purely through anticipation and a nudge on a defender, Morison flicked on Jake Cooper’s long diagonal ball and Gregory finished past Angus Gunn.
Morison only scored five league goals that season but that doesn’t reflect his influence on and off the pitch. On it, he occupied defenders, winning the majority of his aerial duels and creating room for the likes of Jed Wallace and George Saville surging forward from midfield.
Morison had high standards at the training ground, including reminding younger players to be on time for team meetings or gym sessions.
He has a reputation for being surly and rarely smiles on the pitch. But Webster gave a window into another side of Morison. The pair, both with homes in the north, shared a flat in London and Morison would cook dinner when Webster was recuperating from cruciate ligament surgery.
In 17 seasons in senior professional football, Morison has never been relegated. He was close twice with Millwall, in 2013-14 when it went to the last day, and last season when they survived with two games to go. He’s proud of that record and Shrewsbury, who he joins on loan, will hope that record continues, though the signing of Morison shows higher ambitions.
The Shrews finished 18th in League One last season under Sam Ricketts, Morison’s former Wales team-mate. The pair are also studying for their Pro Licences, and Ricketts likely sees a coaching role for Morison at the club at some point.
Morison feels he has a lot left on the pitch, but he will move into football management. Given he has said many times he always played his best football at Millwall, he will surely return to the club.
He had an up and down relationship with Lions fans. He said the pitch invasion after the play-off final win at Wembley had “ruined” the occasion for him. Morison could also be critical of supporters’ criticisms of the style of play under Harris.
It will be interesting to see what kind of coach and manager Morison will make, in an era of real tactical advancement from Pep Guardiola’s passing style permeating through football at all levels, and England national sides from underage to senior adopting a more technical model of preparation and play.
And it wouldn’t be a surprise to one day see a Morison side playing at home at The Den.
Image: Millwall FC