“Hopefully I can become a regular at East End Park next season” – Stuart Morrison is determined to make the grade with the Pars

 This interview was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on the 9th December 2017 versus Queen of the South. 

Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on my website. 

Dunfermline youngster Stuart Morrison is thriving in his first full season of first-team football, with the teenager playing regularly in League Two with Edinburgh City, while the on-loan defender has also forced his way into the Scotland Youth Set-Up under Donald Park too. We spoke with the Pars player last week…

Morrison, who is 18, is a local boy who has been with Dunfermline since a child…but he isn’t a supporter of the Fifers.

“I was born in Kirkcaldy and brought up in Dalgety Bay. My earliest memory of playing football was when I was kicking a ball about my back garden. I have done that basically since I could walk: it was always my desire to play this sport – my ambition when I was growing up was to become a professional footballer. Thankfully I am on the road to being able to do that. My mum and my dad are both from up north; my mum is from Inverness and my dad is from Ellon, which is near Aberdeen. I actually grew up supporting Inverness as my gran and grandad still live up there, so, when I was younger I would go up there on a Friday night to see them and stay over and I would go to the football with them on a Saturday.

Back then, when I first started supporting them, they had a lot of good players; the ones who stand-out for me are probably Barry Wilson, as he was the first player I remember. Albeit he was at the end of his career, he was an amazing player. Other guys I looked up to were the main defenders over the last couple of years such as Josh Meekings and Gary Warren – even centre-halves like Grant Munro who is now retired were players I really looked up to and wanted to be like. When I was younger, my football in Fife meant I couldn’t get up to Inverness matches as much as my Under-11 and Under-12 matches were usually on a Saturday morning. Before that, I was always going to the games and as soon as I got to Under-13 level and the matches switched to a Sunday, I was back up north supporting them again on a Saturday. There wasn’t many cup-finals until recently so I have been lucky that I have seen us play in the League Cup Final against Aberdeen and then win the Scottish Cup against Falkirk. That was actually my last match I have been to for them as I then came in the following season here to train full-time, so it was great that my last memory of supporting them to date is seeing them lift the trophy!”

Was Morrison ever a dab-hand at sport while growing up?

“If you ask all my friends from school, they will tell you that the only thing I was good at while at PE was football!” quips the youngster. “Football has been my only focus and I have been with Dunfermline for 10 years now – since I was 8. Before that, I was just playing with my local boys club, Bayside, who I played with for around a season. I think I got picked up, in fact, from the community initiative here while I was training at Pitreavie: I think it was Roger Arnold who got me into the youth set-up here, but now he is at Hearts. I used to be an attacking player up until Under-14’s and then one day we didn’t have any centre-halves so the manager told me I was playing there as I was the tallest in the team – I didn’t get give any choice! I think it has benefitted me as I have got really far in my career to date as I have played with the Under-20’s since I was 14 or 15 as well as getting involved with Scotland Under-19’s. I didn’t enjoy the move back the park, to be honest, to begin with but it was probably a blessing in disguise now that I look back at things.

I was playing with the Under-15’s and Potts [John Potter] was inviting some of us into training with his Under-20’s group on a Thursday, which was our day release from school, which basically allows the younger lads to get a day off from education and come into a footballing environment and experience what training full-time would be like. I just tried to show up as best as I could and prove what qualities I had. I felt I had done well at the time and, ironically, I got asked to go along to a match with the Under-20’s squad to Inverness and by chance I managed to come on for the last 10 or 15 minutes at their stadium; it was only ten days or something like that after I had turned 15 so it was weird going from watching inverness from the stands to playing for Dunfermline against some of my idols, as they had a few first-team players playing that day.”

John Potter was in no doubts the attributes of Morrison would be something that Pars couldn’t turn down, even at such a young age:

“Stuart had been in the academy for a long-time so I was aware of him as he was coming through the ranks. Then I saw a couple of games that he played in and I liked what I saw of him. He very quickly transferred to our Under-20’s team from the Under-15’s – he was very young at the time but we liked what we saw from him and we wanted to get him involved as much as we could. He has been involved ever since whether it be playing games for the Under-20’s or training with the first-team squad; he has played a lot of matches for someone so young. The better ones usually shine through at the age of 14 or 15 and he was certainly one of them and I am glad we were able to get him in as we have been very impressed.

These guys go through different periods in their life – they are still at school, they are still growing; they are still maturing so it is difficult to fully analyse someone at 13, 14, 15 but you are always looking and you are always searching for players with the right attitude, the ones who are playing well and looking as if they are improving. Stuarty was one who was always earmarked as I really liked him considering that used to be my position. I saw him as an old-fashioned centre-half and to be fair with him, he has never let anyone down in that regard. He has played a lot of tough games against experienced opponents but he has always done well and competed.”

How big a gamble was it for Potter to put Morrison into an Under-20’s match at such a young age?

“It was [a bit of a risk] but, if I didn’t think he was physically or mentally ready to make that step-up then I wouldn’t have put him on the park. If I remember correctly, we had quite an experienced side out that day with guys like Lewis Martin and Ryan Williamson playing in defence, so, we knew they would have helped him get through the match as well as learn off them. I think Stuart is very single-minded as he knows what he wants. He has done and will continue to do everything he can to be a top footballer. That side is important as when you are dealing with young guys, you need to make sure they are physically ready to play so they don’t get injured easily as well as being mentally strong enough so that if they make a mistake or if they don’t do well, then they can recover from that and not let it affect them as ultimately, they will make mistakes or they won’t learn and improve. We never had any doubt about Stuarty but the biggest indication for us as a management team was that when he first came in to the first-team environment, the older guys instantly liked him and that shows a level of trust.”

Morrison would continue to be involved with the Under 20’s squad over the coming years.

“I remember Potts phoned me one Saturday night and said to me that he was needing me to start for the Under-20’s on the Monday night against Hearts. I hadn’t done any kind of pre-season or anything like that so I was a bit apprehensive, but, I felt I done well considering I was up against top players like Jamie Walker, Jason Holt and Gary Oliver. That was the first-time I really experienced that side of things but I really enjoyed it. It stood me in good stead for the rest of that season as I played more matches after that despite only being 15 that season. It was very surreal for me initially but once I got a couple of touches of the ball early on I settled down in to the match and I have never looked back since then. When I first started out I was still young and not fully grown-out, so, as soon as I had played in that match I knew I had to improve my physical strength: since then I have been constantly working hard in the gym to improve that area of my game and now I really enjoy the physical battles with strikers.

Also, when Potts phoned me, it gave me a massive boost in confidence as he had centre-backs involved with the first-team who could have stepped in to that role but he had the trust in me to go and do a job for him. There was a match against Falkirk and initially Jim Jefferies had said to Potts that he was going to play [for the Under-20’s] and I was going to be on the bench but when I turned up to the stadium, Potts told me I was starting as Jim had changed his mind and decided he wanted me to play. That was a shock to me as I had just came into the Under-20’s then but I played really well that night and I felt that benefitted me a lot. I have played against guys like Josh Magennis and Anthony Stokes – guys who have played at the highest of levels. To be able to compete with them and not make it easy for them is pleasing as there is no point, in my opinion, not being tested. It is okay coming up against boys of your age group but to be seriously worked, you need to ply your trade against guys who are bigger, stronger, fitter and faster than you so you can learn and see where you need to improve. It also gives you motivation and makes you aspire to get to that level as you can see where it can take you, so, to experience all of that at such a young age has been amazing for myself and it has really allowed me to mature very quickly.”

Morrison was given a 2-year-deal as an apprentice, which would allow him to train full-time with the Pars Under-20’s. The defender impressed once more from the off.

“He came in very fit, which impressed us all during pre-season,” explains Potter. “We knew what he could do and we knew where we needed to work on. Generally, when the youngsters make that step-up they all make massive strides straight away but then the majority will take a dip 3 or 4 months in as they become tired and it is difficult for them. Stuart had a dip but he has picked up again and that is where the tough mental attitude is needed. He has continued to improve and we all hope he is going in the right direction.

We thought about sending Stuart out on-loan last year but we didn’t. We made a point at the start of the season that he would go out as I have seen it myself in other young centre-backs; they need to go out and learn the game in a first-team environment. It is difficult to break into our first-team at the moment so we had earmarked Stuart as one of the players who would benefit from going out on loan for a season – it has worked great as he is playing every week; he has got himself involved more regularly with the Scotland Under-19’s now and by doing this, he has learnt so many new traits. He has played in various positions, while also understanding what it means to win and to lose. He has played alongside older professionals every week and it is just a case of looking at where he is at in the summer and we will then take things forward from there. “

Why Edinburgh City?

“When you are looking to send a player out on loan, you have to take everything into consideration; the level the team is playing at; their squad; the likelihood of the player playing every week; does the manager really want him. The distance they need to travel for training and matches; the style of play of the team, and with all things considered, we felt Edinburgh City were a good fit. They told us the opportunity was there for Stuart to play every week if he was performing to a good standard and despite having a few other things on the table, we felt this ticked all the boxes for us. It is tough for him at the moment as they are struggling at the bottom of the table just now but we constantly remind him that he is there to learn and increase his own development and that these experiences are working great for him.”

Before Morrison could kick on with the Pars, he encountered an unforeseen bout of illness.

“I knew I was getting a contract here but my parents wanted me to get my exams over and done with first at school. I ended up getting four B’s and an A at Higher Level which I was happy about, but, they are at the back of my mind now as I want to fully concentrate on my football. It was just unfortunate I missed a lot of games to begin with. I had been given a vaccination at school and I took a bad reaction to it. I was literally lying in my bed all day as I was that tired – the only time I would get up would be to go to school to study or sit my exams. I lost 10 kilos in 2 or 3 weeks so that was disappointing for me as I had worked so hard to get to where I was strength wise and then I lost it all again. The club were concerned about me and I wasn’t able to play in any matches for them. Eventually, I got back to fitness and forced my way back into the Under-20’s squad again. It amazed me how fit you needed to be to train full-time and compete to a high standard every week, that was probably the most surprising thing for me. There is quite a step-up in terms of tempo in training to what I was used to at youth levels so that also means your fitness levels need to be high. I found that tough when I first came in. There were a few games last year I knew within myself I didn’t do that well for the Under-20’s but everybody has bad games so I wasn’t overly concerned. I managed to get onto the bench the last few matches of last season but after playing three years of Under-20’s football, I knew I needed to get out on loan this season to continue my development. When I was offered a new contract in the summer, I was buzzing as I wasn’t expecting it considering I still had a year to go on my initial deal. When the gaffer pulled me in and told me, I jumped at the opportunity as I am enjoying training and I was happy to commit to the club for the longer-term.

When I knew I was available for loan, I kept on checking Sky Sports News to see who was signing where and checking online at the squad lists of other teams to see if anyone was short of defenders to see where I might be going out on loan to! The main difference for me, from playing Under-20’s football to playing for Edinburgh City is there are bigger crowds at these games, which is a new thing I have had to adapt to. I knew I had to improve all aspects of my game too – that includes my physical attributes, my technical ability as well as understanding more about the tactical side of football. I feel that having played a lot of games this season so far [13 in all competitions] I have came on leaps and bounds already so hopefully that keeps up and I will come back to East End Park a better player. There are a lot of experienced pro’s in League Two: you have got Rory McAllister and Willie Gibson playing at Peterhead, David Goodwillie at Clyde…maybe they aren’t as sharp as they used to be but their ability and knowledge of the game is still there, so I have to be switched on fully to make sure I don’t make any mistakes.”

With Dunfermline training full-time and Edinburgh City part-time, how does Morrison combine both duties?

“On a Monday I train in the morning and then I do a gym session in the afternoon. Then, on a Tuesday I will train during the day and then travel to train with Edinburgh City at night. Wednesday is our day off, before I do a gym session Thursday then head to train at night with Edinburgh before training during the day with the team here at East End Park on a Friday. I then hopefully play on a Saturday before getting the Sunday off. I am really enjoying both sets of training: I have good facilities here, such as the new gym, which I can use whenever I want which is great for me. I am also training with a group of really talented players here so I am getting the best out of myself while at the club. I am also understanding what it takes to be a first-team player, too, however. For me, in League Two, if you want to be successful, you need to be at least a 7/10 as a defender. You can’t afford to have a bad game or make a mistake as if you do, you may lose your spot in the starting eleven or even the squad for the next game. Within the squad, players have chopped and changed but I have been relatively consistent so far – I have been one of the few players who has played every match so far [prior to the Peterhead match last weekend].

That was the first time I had experienced a change of manager happening when Gary Jardine got sacked. I knew of James McDonaugh from his spell with Falkirk but didn’t know him personally so I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. I knew I had to impress but my first game under him was arguably my worst performance this season so far. I was worried I would lose my spot in the team the following match but thankfully I kept it and I think I have kicked on once more since then. The experienced players in our squad really help me. We have guys like Jesus Garcia Tena who was at Hamilton; he talks me through the match as we play in defence together. We also have guys I have played with before such as Farid El Alagui who has just recently signed on with Edinburgh City and you can never not learn off these players as they have played at very high levels of football. The are teaching me things such as game management – if it is near the end of a half, just clear the ball instead of trying to play it out of defence, that kind of thing. We have a really good squad on paper but we haven’t had much luck in front of goal recently and the results haven’t went our way so far. Being involved with a team who are near the bottom of the table, every match is virtually a cup final so it is imperative you win every game and losing isn’t fine. The league is really tight and a few wins would see you shoot up the table. I feel that is good for me in my first pro season to be with a team in this situation as it gives me a chance to learn how to cope with these scenarios. I have an app on my phone where they send me clips of my performances so I usually watch them back and Potts sometimes get them sent them too. The management here keep in close contact with the guys at Edinburgh City and they are always talking about how I have got on and what I need to improve on. I wouldn’t say no if Edinburgh wanted to keep me til the end of the season. There is no point in me trying to get another team in January as I am playing most weeks where I am just now whereas if I went to a new team there is no guarantee I would be involved regularly, so if I keep my consistency levels up and I have played a full-season of first-team football then I think I will be ready to come back in the summer and compete here for a place in the squad.”

Morrison has also saw recognition internationally, too, with Donald Park calling up the defender – alongside Pars team-mate Callum Smith – into the Scotland Under-19’s set-up regularly over the past few months.

“I was on the bus home from training one day when I got an email from Potts as well as Stephen Wright, who was the head of youth development at Fife Elite at the time. They were asking me for my passport details as I was being called-up by the Scotland Under-19’s but I didn’t believe them at the time! A few hours later I got another email which told me I was in the squad to play friendlies across in Greece: it is an honour to have played for my country and I am grateful I have been given that opportunity to do so. I really enjoyed it, it was really good. I was nervous as I didn’t know anyone personally but I managed to go around with another couple of lads who I had played against previously which helped me settle in easily enough. The overall experience of traveling away and training abroad; coming up against different countries and different styles of play was helpful too as it gives you another dimension to add to your game. We didn’t train too much, though, to be honest as it was 35 degrees so it was certainly different as we ended up just doing wee drills and more learning about how we wanted to play.

This year, I felt I was a lot more prepared for what to expect and I was ready for the opportunity when it came up. It was a great experience, playing against France, as they have some top-quality players coming through their youth system. I am sure one guy plays most weeks in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund and I am positive the goalkeeper has played 70 matches or something like that for Tolouse in Ligue 1 in France. I really enjoy testing myself against the best players in the world, I was really happy with how I done, especially as I wasn’t in my natural position of centre-back. I got put out to right-back and I enjoyed that new role too. I done well, in my opinion, considering it was all new to me but I think it shows I am willing to play anywhere and do whatever is required to help out my team and my team-mates. I hope I have secured my place in the squad as I feel I have done well the last few times we have been away. If I get into the squad next time it’d be great as we are in the next phase of the European Qualifiers so I will be coming up against even tougher opposition and as I have said previously, I relish those types of situations as it can only help me as a player. If I get a chance, I will take it with two hands as I want to impress the gaffer here, as well as my team-mates and the fans, so, hopefully I can become a regular starter at East End Park next season.”

Pars coach and former Under-20’s manager John Potter has no concerns that Morrison won’t be a Dunfermline player in the future, if the teenager continues progressing as he is currently.

“The experiences he is gaining, by playing against better players, and at a different level, with different squads and different tactics – while coping with all that – shows him all he needs to know about what is required to get to the top. He is playing alongside players such as Ryan Porteous [of Hibs] or guys from Celtic or Rangers who can emphasise to him how tough you need to work to break into the first-team environment. With Stuart proving he is as good as these guys, it really should boost his confidence and allow him to kick on. I think he was generally very quiet when he first got called-up by Scotland Under-19’s but now he has integrated into the squad he seems to have really opened up and, again, that can only be a good sign. The feedback we are getting is he is doing really well and we hope that he can continue impressing.

He is improving his own side – his strength, his pace, his power – and he is doing that all by himself. He is learning from another coach James McDonaugh now and that is making him very competitive when he comes back to train with us here at Dunfermline. He is strong and aggressive and the loan spell with Edinburgh has really brought that out in him. The biggest thing as a centre-back though is your game knowledge and he is gathering those wee tips right now, but, I fully believe Stuarty has all the attributes needed to become a first-team player with us here at East End Park in the future. As I say, he is still in the developmental stage, but, he is on the right road and if he can keep his head down, work as hard he is right now and keep picking up wee snippets of knowledge and understanding of the game then I don’t see why he can’t force his way into the first-team set-up on a more regular basis at the club.”

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