Joe Morrell: From failed trials to crucial Wales qualifiers

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Joe Morrell: From Margate to Modric
Euro 2020 qualifier: Azerbaijan v Wales
Venue: Bakcell Arena, Baku Date: Saturday, 16 November, 2019 Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Cymru & updates on the BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary

From Margate to Modric. From a failed trial at Fleetwood to playing alongside Gareth Bale.

Not so long ago Joe Morrell was surplus to requirements at a club adrift at the foot of the Conference South.

Now he is a Wales international and a serious contender to start the critical Euro 2020 qualifier in Azerbaijan on 16 November.

"It's pretty mental really," the 22-year-old tells BBC Sport Wales.

"I had trials at a few places - it hasn't been plain sailing. But a lot of people at Bristol City have had faith in me which ultimately is the reason I am still there."

Morrell, who is on a season-long at Lincoln City, won his first Wales cap in the friendly with Belarus in September, then came off the bench in last month's qualifying games against Slovakia and Croatia.

His progress this autumn has been spectacular given that as recently as 2017 he was cast aside by Margate, a team who were then heading for the seventh tier of the English pyramid.

At that stage, the idea of playing senior international football would not have entered Morrell's head.

He was too busy trying to figure out how to secure a career somewhere in the professional game.

"They were difficult times," Morrell says. "Being a small player, some people look past what you can do and look at what you can't do.

Joe Morrell of Wales beats Croatia's Nikola Vlasic to the ball in October 2019's UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier
Joe Morrell played the final 40 minutes of the Euro 2020 qualifier against Croatia in Cardiff

"I think especially at that time when I went (on loan from Bristol City) to Margate, it was really tough because no-one would take a punt on me.

"The manager said come and play two or three games and that it was a shop window because I didn't know what would happen the season after that.

"We trained on a Thursday night in a leisure centre.

"I then got a text to say the manager had been sacked. I was on the bench on the Saturday and played the last 20 minutes.

"On the Tuesday I got another 20 minutes and then they just said it was best for me not to come again because they were building for next season.

"I have three senior Wales caps now. It's a bit different."

While Morrell's first Wales appearance came as part of a much-changed side in a friendly, Ryan Giggs showed his considerable faith in the midfielder by using him in two Euro 2020 games in October.

Morrell played 32 minutes in Slovakia, then 40 minutes against a Croatian midfield which featured Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic.

"I have probably watched every Luka Modric video on YouTube because he is a player I look up to," Morrell says.

"Me and one of my mates are big Barcelona fans and we watch Rakitic all the time - we're cheering him on. Then you are playing against him - it's unreal really.

"It's not something you would ever predict. I played against Wimbledon last week, but with Wales I was playing against Modric."

Born in Ipswich to an English father and a mother from Merthyr, Morrell briefly lived in Treharris - where his grandparents live now - as a youngster before the family settled in Bristol.

He joined Bristol City as a 12-year-old and made his first-team debut at the age of only 16.

"When you play at such a young age the expectation level goes up," Morrell says.

"I don't think it affected me, but when you don't meet that expectation level, some people think something's gone wrong somewhere.

"Because I played that game, the fans and people were expecting me to be ready before I was. That can be difficult to handle."

Joe Morrell playing for Lincoln City against Accrington Stanley
Joe Morrell joined Lincoln City on a season long loan in July 2019

It would be four years before Morrell played for Bristol City's senior side again.

In between the appearances, there was that miserable stint at Margate and another brief spell of non-league football with Sutton United.

With his Ashton Gate future in doubt, Morrell had unsuccessful trials with the likes of Fleetwood and Tampa Bay Rowdies.

"There were a lot of doubts about how I was going to play, not just for Bristol City but professional football," Morrell recalls.

His break eventually came in August 2017, when Bristol City boss Lee Johnson convinced his own father Gary to take Morrell on loan at Cheltenham.

"He sort of made Gary Johnson take me," Morrell explains.

"I think he wanted to take one of the other lads, Taylor Moore, and he said you can have him but you need to take Joe as well.

"I wasn't supposed to start the first game. A guy called Nigel Atangana was ill and I started. I played the next 38 games and I haven't really looked back since. I always thank Nigel for being ill that day."

Morrell returned to Bristol City last season, but was allowed to join League One Lincoln - then managed by Danny Cowley - for this campaign having made only four appearances in 2018-19.

He has been a regular under Cowley - who left for Huddersfield in September - and his successor at Sincil Bank, Michael Appleton.

"I have only got good words to say about the club and the city as well," Morrell says.

"When I first got called up by Wales I was probably more surprised because of the level I am playing at, but it shows you the value the manager puts on playing football.

Wales are still in the hunt after draws with Slovakia and Croatia

"We played Wimbledon last week and Harry (Wilson) was playing against Manchester United. It's a bit different.

"But that's the value of playing regular football and playing in a team that lets me perform at my best."

Morrell may be a recent addition to the squad, but Bournemouth star Wilson is one of many Wales team-mates he knows well.

He played almost 50 international games at various youth levels, with Wilson, Joe Rodon, Chris Mepham and Dan James in the same Wales age group.

All four were with Morrell in the starting line-up against Belarus, when there were also familiar faces in the stands.

"I think probably half the stadium was people from Merthyr and that area," he says with a smile.

"All my mum's family are passionate Welsh people. The good thing about football is you don't just do it for yourself, you do it for others. That's what makes the job really special."

A ball-playing midfielder who can also break the game up, Morrell will hope for a first competitive Wales start this weekend in the absence of the suspended Joe Allen.

"If there is an opening, I need to make sure I am the person who gets called upon," he says.

As he speaks, Morrell's determination and desire are obvious.

Given the battle he has faced to get this far, that should be no surprise.