It’s Thursday lunchtime in a small office at Middlesbrough’s training ground and Morgan Rogers’ conversation is ranging from the benefits of loan moves, through self-doubt and individual expression within a team structure, to contemporaries such as Brennan Johnson, Jude Bellingham and his friendship with Cole Palmer.
There is some cricket too — Rogers turned down trials with Worcestershire to concentrate on football a decade ago — and of course there is Middlesbrough’s League Cup semi-final second leg at Chelsea on Tuesday night. Rogers is the competition’s leading scorer with four goals. He missed the first leg through suspension. Boro lead 1-0.
Intriguingly, given what happens a few hours later, there is also a reference to the recent FA Cup-tie against Aston Villa at the Riverside and a statement of youthful ambition regarding the Premier League as a destination — “It’s a dream to play there.”
Having left the small room confirming, over his shoulder, his height — 6ft 3in — Rogers disappeared back into his daily environment. Then, at around 7pm, it emerged that he had been the subject of two bids from Villa.
Both were rejected by Middlesbrough, but another was anticipated last night and this interest is evidence the 21 year-old midlander who began at West Brom, was sold to Manchester City at 17 for a reported £4m and who has blossomed at Boro after a slow start, is beginning to fulfil his obvious potential. Presumably Unai Emery thinks the same.
Rogers’ current manager Michael Carrick thinks so and after Friday’s training session, on Saturday he named Rogers in his starting XI against Rotherham in a Championship match Boro could have done with winning. They drew 1-1, their equaliser from Marcus Forss coming from a clever back-heel from Rogers.
In his post-match press conference Carrick tried to pass off the noise around Rogers as “speculation”, saying Rogers is “a massive part of the group”. When asked directly if he expected Rogers to be at Stamford Bridge with Boro on Tuesday night Carrick replied “Yes” and stood up. Rogers had, noticeably, just walked around the Riverside pitch applauding the fans.
There a fortnight ago Rogers had played 90 minutes against Villa in a tight match won 1-0 by the visitors in the 87th minute. On Thursday Rogers says he “loved playing in the Villa game, because you learn so much playing against them. You want to compete against the best players.”
Having just discussed the subject of Man City’s structure and how as a teenager he found it difficult to adjust, did he notice Villa’s Emery structure?
“Of course,” Rogers says, admiringly. “But I think we competed. It showed how far we have come. We were toe-to-toe. They won the game but we left with our heads held high. We competed.”
What happens next is fluid — Carrick speaks again on Sunday afternoon — but whichever club employs Rogers, it knows it has an asset rising in value. It should also know it has a young footballer who displays rare maturity.
Just over three years ago Rogers was appearing in the Youth Cup final for Manchester City. He scored in a 3-2 victory, as did Cole Palmer. It was against Chelsea.
The competition’s name indicates the age range and since then Rogers has played on loan for Lincoln City, Bournemouth and Blackpool and, after yesterday, is 32 games and six goals into his Middlesbrough career. Having started with West Brom at eight, it means he has six clubs on his CV and he is not 22 until July.
Hence Rogers feels “like I’ve been through quite a lot already, which I’m grateful for,” adding of that November 2020 Youth Cup final, “it feels like a while ago and not a while ago. A lot has happened since.
“Yet it’s not that long ago.”
On top of this accumulation of first-team minutes are appearances for England at every age level from 15-20.
Considering it all, plus his form on Teesside, Rogers could be pleased with himself. But as he talks through his career, he refers to what has not gone well as often as to what has.
He mentions, for example, his older brother Daniel, a therapist whose company has done some work at Chelsea, and how they spoke personally and professionally when Morgan found himself out of the team at Bournemouth. He explains how he found the transfer to City and their positional approach to the game different and difficult. He acknowledges the education he received in a relegation battle with Blackpool when “every point is massive”. There is a level of self-awareness that mixes with natural ambition and belief.
A fundamental question is where he sees himself on the pitch. At Middlesbrough he has played centrally and wide, effectively as a No. 9, 10 and 11. On Saturday he was central in the three in Carrick’s 4-2-3-1 formation. His touch is smooth as is his movement, although he is quick to say he is not ‘the finished article’
“I’ve always prided myself on the number of positions I can play. I’ve done that since I was young. I love the game and I know what each position entails. I have the football intelligence to know what’s asked and to try to carry it out for the team. Some positions suit more than others, of course, but I’m more than happy to play anywhere – as long as I’m on the pitch. That’s the most important thing and always has been.”
Yet previously he has spoken about individual expression and team structure as if they are contradictory.
“That comment comes from when I was younger,” he explains. “When I moved to Man City, it’s the most structured team in the league, in the world. I found it hard to get that balance right. They signed me because of my abilities, obviously, but at the same time there’s a structure there and the structure works. I found it difficult to put the two together.
“I was being a mannequin, just doing what they said, which isn’t what they want. They do tell you, but they want you to put your own capabilities on it. I struggled, to be honest.
“I had to go away and learn, how to take instructions from a coach and impose myself within that. It’s still a work in progress but I feel I’m getting better at it. I can still do a job for the team but be myself, express myself. Ultimately that’s what they want.
“I’d been a winger at West Brom, but I had more freedom to do what I wanted. At City it helped me learn, but it took me back a bit. It definitely made me a better person, having to learn that.”
Current Leicester City manager Enzo Maresca was one of Rogers’ City coaches – “I didn’t play a lot under him but I did train under him,” Rogers says. “He had the perfect mix of getting the best out of players while within that structure. I learned a lot.”
City first sent Rogers to Lincoln in League One. He was 18 and he and Brennan Johnson were the speedy highlights of a team Michael Appleton took to the play-off final at Wembley – “It was such fun, free football, a manager who just let us express ourselves,” Rogers says.
Then came Bournemouth as they tried to win automatic promotion to the Premier League under Scott Parker, which they did. But Rogers played only 17 times, mainly as a late substitute, and he is hard on himself rather than anyone at the club – “Bournemouth was a struggle because of lack of game-time.
“At the same time I learned more about myself there. If you’re not playing, if you’re not in the team, don’t waste time, focus and improve yourself. I took my eyes off the longer term project of my career. It didn’t go well.”
Again, this seems overly critical from someone who was 19?
“I don’t think I looked at myself negatively the whole time,” he replies, “it’s just there were aspects where I thought: ‘I’m better than that.’
“I didn’t need to let my standards drop. I had to demand from myself. It’s hard to take a step back, but when I did I looked at what I hope will be a massive career in football. I’ll be the first to admit I let the frustration get to me at times at Bournemouth.”
On Thursday when Carrick was asked about Rogers and this sense of a young man finding his feet, he understood, saying: “At 21 you’re still young in many ways, though 21 year-olds now are a lot more grown up than I probably was.
“But, yeah, you’re still so young, you can’t expect them to be the finished article, the answer. To be consistent is not far off impossible, that’s the stage they’re at, they’re learning, finding out about themselves, what works, what doesn’t.
“That’s great for us because we’re here to guide them and develop them, let them feel comfortable with making a mistake, because you find out what your limits are. Until you push your limits you’re going to play within yourself. That expression – ‘go, trust yourselves’ – I think Morgan’s finding that at times.”
At Blackpool a year later there was relegation, though Rogers calls it “another vital experience — different because I’d played for teams like City and West Brom, even at Lincoln we were high in the table and Bournemouth were top.
“But Blackpool were playing teams better than us every week. So you’ve to adapt and still try to be effective in a game where you have minimal chances. It pushed me in a way I’d not had before. You notice how much it means, every point is massive. When you’re around the place, that drive to do anything to get a point, it is definitely ramped up.”
Rogers scored his only Blackpool goal in his final game for them last May. In July, still 20, for an initial fee of around £2m, he joined Middlesbrough. His first game was a home defeat by Millwall and Boro, missing Chuba Akpom and Cameron Archer, had a stuttering start to the season.
The League Cup, seen as a nuisance by some clubs, was a release and an opportunity. Boro knocked out Huddersfield first, then Bolton, Bradford, Exeter and Port Vale, all away from home. Carrick was able to field alternative XIs and Rogers bedded in.
“We had new players, me being one of them,” he says, “and it took a bit of time to get us integrated. It takes time to click and mesh but once that developed, you can see how good we can be.
“I’d played against them [Middlesbrough] the season before when I was with Blackpool and they blew us apart. It was just an onslaught and playing in it, you feel how good the team was. It’s a serious team and most of those players are still here. You can see the winning mentality within the squad and that got me. I wanted to come here. I knew one of the coaching staff from before.”
Aaron Danks, Carrick’s assistant, is the coach Rogers knew. That was from West Brom, where it all began in the under-8s — alongside the recently signed Finn Azaz — with frequent games against neighbours Birmingham City. Rogers says his parents, Deborah and Howard, knew Bellingham’s parents before he and Jude mixed, first locally then with England under-age groups.
“We got to know each other and then he got picked for England in my age group — he was a year below — and we just got closer from there. We’ve been following each other since. I think everyone can see how well he’s doing.” On social media Rogers calls Bellingham, 20, “little bro”.
Those international get-togethers were when Rogers first met Palmer, the two becoming room-mates. The friendship grew at City and it has given this semi-final a personal tang.
“He’s one of the closest people I have in football and in life, one of those I speak to consistently,” Rogers says of Palmer. “When you see him doing so well you feel happy and proud. To play against him would be something special.”
The two friends had a chat after the first leg, when Palmer missed a couple of great chances. Chelsea are favourites to go through on Tuesday, but Boro have their goal and another would trouble Mauricio Pochettino’s players.
The events of Thursday evening have placed a question mark against Morgan Rogers’ participation then, if not against his career progression.
“I’m still young, I know,” he says of that career, “but I want to be the best person I can be in my prime years. I back myself and believe in myself; I know when the time is right that chance will come and hopefully I can take it. Being an established Premier League player, I think everyone in this changing room wants that. Taking this club there this season would be the best-case scenario.
“I was so proud of how we played [in the first leg], given the magnitude of the game and the opposition. To show a bit of everything, pretty good with the ball in the first half, then having to dig deep, I thought we defended well. We’ll have to do that again.
“But the way the staff here are wired, the way the players are wired, we go in to win every game. We’re realistic, we know we’re the underdogs and not meant to win. We still have belief.”
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
Read the full article here