Joe Morrell has never seen The Jolly Boys’ Outing, an ageless episode of Only Fools and Horses whereby a coach trip to Margate culminates with a faulty radio setting the bus alight and Del and Rodney throwing stones at a hotel window in the early hours but his visit to the seaside resort was equally eventful and almost ended in tears.
It is three years since, after failed trials with Torquay and Fleetwood’s under-23s, he joined Margate – a team marooned at the bottom of Conference South on a 12-match losing run – on a month’s loan only to be afforded two run-outs off the bench before being told it was best for all parties that he returned to Bristol City.
That conversation marked a rollercoaster few days, typified by Margate sacking their manager hours after Morrell had travelled 200 miles for his first training session, a day before defeat against Whitehawk. Three days later, disillusioned following his second 20-minute cameo during another home defeat, this time against Chelmsford, he checked into a Maidstone services hotel on the advice of Brian Tinnion, City’s loans manager who was concerned about Morrell driving the five-hour journey home late at night.
“It was the worst hotel after the worst game you could ever imagine and I’d probably go as far to say it was the lowest point in my life,” Morrell says. “I just wanted to give up. I was so low I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I ended up laughing, which was good in the end.”
Morrell has tried to erase those days from his memory and has long since put that Kent pitstop behind him, earning five Wales caps last year and playing a pivotal role in helping them to qualify for Euro 2020 after impressing Ryan Giggs at Lincoln, the League One club he joined on loan last summer.
In November, when Wales beat Azerbaijan in Baku, Morrell starred in the centre of midfield surrounded by Gareth Bale of Real Madrid, Aaron Ramsey of Juventus, Ethan Ampadu of Chelsea, Daniel James of Manchester United and Harry Wilson of Liverpool, the latter two with whom he has played since the age of 14.
Morrell captained Wales at youth level and came close to joining Wilson on Merseyside at a time when Premier League clubs were queuing up to sign him. “That is what made the rejection even weirder. I looked around Liverpool’s academy, I had sorted out where I was going to live, go to school and was prepared to leave.
“But after conversations with the then first-team manager [Derek McInnes] I decided Bristol City was the best place for me and signed a professional contract at 15, which is unheard of really, and made my debut at 16. I’ve gone the long way about it but I think I made the right decision.”
Morrell became one of City’s youngest players but did not make another first-team appearance until August 2017. Earlier that year, with the blessing of the club, he explored moving on and spent a fortnight on trial with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Florida. As Morrell got older, a common theme amid those stories of rejection was his height but in some ways that proved to be the making of the 5ft 6in midfielder.
“My agent had put the word out there to say: ‘He is available, do you want to have a look at him?’ And no one came back. At the time I was gutted but looking back I can understand it because I had never played any senior football and people were looking at it thinking: ‘I can’t take a risk on a 20-year-old centre-midfielder who has never played a game and is physically not the most imposing.’
“Ever since then I’ve overcompensated and made sure I’m the most horrible person on the pitch, the most aggressive on the pitch, the person on the pitch with the most personality.”
Lee Johnson, the Bristol City manager , once described Morrell as “the unluckiest footballer in the world” but, the season after returning from Margate, someone else’s misfortune proved his gain. After being loaned to Cheltenham alongside Taylor Moore and Freddie Hinds, Morrell made a big impression in League Two under the guidance of Johnson’s father, Gary, after Nigel Atangana fell ill before a match against Stevenage.
“He was sick overnight and green-faced, so I ended up starting the game and started the next 38 that season. Not just in football but in life you need opportunities and when you get them you have to take them and luckily I did.”
Since then Morrell has mixed it with Luka Modric and hopes to come up against another idol when Wales play Italy in Group A next summer. “I have probably watched every [Marco] Verratti video on YouTube. I will watch PSG just to watch him; he is one of the best three midfielders in the world.
“Even before a game, I just think: ‘What can I do that he does so well and how can he improve my game?’ I’ve always taken bits from other people and I’ll try and learn little things off him, even if it’s just the smallest thing, how many times he checks his shoulder before he receives the ball or how he manoeuvres his body to play a longer pass. He is right at the top of the game and if I can take little things from him then hopefully it will benefit me.”
The coronavirus pandemic has momentarily halted Morrell’s progress and while he is naturally disappointed he cannot perform for Wales this summer he is determined to be in an even better place before the tournament next year. For the time being, he has returned to Bristol from Washingborough, where he was living with Lincoln teammates Jake Hesketh and Aaron Lewis.
His girlfriend, Ellie, is a nurse in the cardiology ward at Bristol Royal Infirmary, and Morrell acknowledges now is the time for football to take a back seat. “Of course I wish I had a game to look forward to on the weekend but I don’t have to look very far to see how much the situation does affect people and how much more important things there are than football.”
When Morrell felt his career was in limbo, an email from the Professional Footballers’ Association advertising coaching roles in China piqued his interest, so much so he floated the idea to his parents, Dave and Sian. “I almost said it as a joke but in my head I was thinking: ‘Actually, is it worth playing football any more?’”
Given those thoughts, his international debut was the source of great pride not just for Morrell but the whole family – notably his grandparents, Pat and John, who live in Treharris, near Merthyr Tydfil, and his aunt, Sue.
“She’s probably my self-confessed biggest fan. To see their faces after the Hungary game [when Wales secured qualification for Euro 2020] was pretty special. I hope some of those managers who didn’t fancy me were flicking through the TV and watched that match. I’d like to think I’ve proven a few people wrong and, ultimately, a few people right.”