Joe Morrell: Fall and rise of former Bristol City starlet set to face England for Wales

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From failed trials to representing Wales at the World Cup in Qatar - we tell Joe Morrell’s story from school in Bradley Stoke to potentially facing England on Tuesday night

When a young Joe Morrell attended Holy Trinity Primary School in Bradley Stoke in the early 2000s, it’s fair to say that the young midfielder would have had no idea how far his love for football would go.

Fast forward a couple of decades and he’s performing on the world stage in Qatar, Bristol City defender named in England’s 55-man World Cup squad">representing his beloved Wales at the biggest competition in the football calendar, alongside some of the country’s legends.

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It has been almost ten years since the midfielder signed professional terms with the Bristol City at age 15, joining the club full-time following his GCSEs at the Castle School in Thornbury, and even before that point, Morrell had already represented Wales on the international stage, albeit at youth level.

Just months before signing a professional deal with the Robins, Morrell captained the Wales Under-16s in the Victory Shield, notably facing an England side boasting the likes of Dean Henderson, Jonjoe Kenny, Joe Gomez, Marcus Rashford and Dominic Solanke. and following his commitment to Bristol City, he went on to take the armband at Under-17 and Under-19 levels.

However, while still attending the Castle School, the Welshman’s future was still undetermined, with significant interest from Premier League giants Liverpool forcing the then 15-year-old into a life-changing decision, to stay in the South West, or to make the move to his boyhood club.

Of course, the decision was far from straight-forward, with the young midfielder admitting that at first he was “really excited” about the prospect of moving to Liverpool, and was “prepared to leave” the West Country. However, following discussions with then-manager Derek McInnes and academy head coach Willie McStay, Morrell was convinced to stay at Bristol City, believing that he had better chances of progression at the club, and thus, he signed a two-and-a-half-year professional deal.

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Morrell made his first-team debut on October 9th 2013 in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, at aged just sixteen, making him the youngest player to ever play for the club.

Dan Crowley of England and Joe Morrell of Wales battle for the ball during the The Sky Sports Victory Shield between England U16 and Wales U16 at The Abbey Business Stadium on October 27, 2011Dan Crowley of England and Joe Morrell of Wales battle for the ball during the The Sky Sports Victory Shield between England U16 and Wales U16 at The Abbey Business Stadium on October 27, 2011
Dan Crowley of England and Joe Morrell of Wales battle for the ball during the The Sky Sports Victory Shield between England U16 and Wales U16 at The Abbey Business Stadium on October 27, 2011 | Getty Images

The following year, he was called-up to the Wales Under-19s, captaining the side including the likes of current first-teamers Harry Wilson and Dan James against Portugal, before heading out on a month’s loan with Sutton United, then in the Vanarama National League, where he made a total of three substitute appearances.

Later that season, Morrell joined fellow National League side Margate, though his five-hour journeys to the east coast to train on an AstroTurf pitch proved to largely be in vain, as he struggled for minutes in the side who sat rock-bottom of the division. He even explored options away from Bristol City, going on trial with Fleetwood Town and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, though even those attempts were unsuccessful. This marked one of the lowest points of his career, admitting that he “just wanted to give up”.

Little did he know, things were about to look up, as at the start of the 2017-18 season, he signed a six-month loan deal with Cheltenham Town, under the management of Gary Johnson, father of then-Bristol City boss Lee, where the young midfielder finally returned to playing regular first-team football.

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Morrell made such a good impression that his loan spell was extended to the end of the season, and he returned to Bristol City with thirty-eight Football League appearances to his name, as well as another six international appearances, this time with the Wales Under-21s.

That summer, Morrell was invited to attend the senior side’s pre-season camp in Marbella, before making his league debut against Ipswich Town on the 28th November. He made a total of four senior appearances, including as a first-half substitute against Ipswich Town in the league, and three FA Cup starts, while also making the bench on eight occasions. His appearances in the first-team appeared to impress Wales manager Ryan Giggs, as he earned his first call-up to the Wales senior team, making his debut on the 9th of September 2019.

Joe Morrell with a rare outing for Bristol City, tackling Sammy Ameobi of Bolton Wanderers during the FA Cup Fourth Round match between Bristol City and Bolton Wanderers at Ashton Gate on January 25, 2019Joe Morrell with a rare outing for Bristol City, tackling Sammy Ameobi of Bolton Wanderers during the FA Cup Fourth Round match between Bristol City and Bolton Wanderers at Ashton Gate on January 25, 2019
Joe Morrell with a rare outing for Bristol City, tackling Sammy Ameobi of Bolton Wanderers during the FA Cup Fourth Round match between Bristol City and Bolton Wanderers at Ashton Gate on January 25, 2019 | Getty Images

Morrell joined League One Lincoln City on loan in the summer of 2019, where he made a total of 29 appearances before the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though he was later named the Imps’ Player of the Season.

In October 2020, he joined Luton Town on a permanent deal with the hope of playing regular first-team football, though after making just ten appearances for the Hatters, he joined League One side Portsmouth the following year, where he continues to play his club football today. Ahead of joining his new side, Morrell earned another call-up to represent Wales in the 2020 Euros, where started every fixture, including in Wales’ 2-0 victory over Turkey that took them to the Round of Sixteen.

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Morrell has since made 43 league appearances for Portsmouth, and remains a key member of the League One side, who currently sit just one point outside of the promotion play-off places.

The now 25-year-old could arguably count himself unfortunate not to have ever truly broken into the first-team at Bristol City, competing with the likes of Josh Brownhill, Korey Smith, Marlon Pack, and Niclas Eliasson for a place in the starting midfield. Manager Lee Johnson even once dubbed him “the unluckiest footballer in the world,” though it’s fair to say that his fortune has taken a turn for the better in recent years, and it would not be surprising to see him play at Championship level once again in the near future.

But first he looks set to play some part in Wales’ last-ditch attempt to progress from the World Cup group stage. The Welsh take on England on Tuesday night at 7pm - only time will tell if his fairy tale story continue to play in Qatar this winter.

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