On this day 24 years ago, Jody Morris made his Chelsea debut just six weeks after his 17th birthday.
Now our assistant head coach talks exclusively to the official Chelsea website about that day, his lasting record as our youngest-ever Premier League player and the current homegrown crop making an impact at Stamford Bridge…
Rio Ferdinand once labelled him ‘the best schoolboy footballer in London’ and so it was with much hype and excitement that Stamford Bridge welcomed a teenage Jody Morris on to the field for the final 18 minutes of a comfortable league victory over Middlesbrough in early February 1996.
Glenn Hoddle, himself a prodigious talent as a teenager who had played over 50 times for England before hanging up his boots the previous year, had carefully introduced Morris into the first team setup.
With the Blues 5-0 up courtesy of goals from John Spencer, Paul Furlong and our first Premier League hat-trick by Gavin Peacock, Morris was given the signal to enter the fray. He was 17 years and 43 days old but looked completely at ease as he got on the ball in midfield and kept the play ticking over.
‘I didn’t think too much about being in the squad again because I’d been on the bench at QPR in the FA Cup a few days before and didn’t get on,’ Morris recalls. ‘Hoddle sent me to warm up but everyone was going to get warm so I just thought it was part of that.
‘I remember hearing a few fans shouting at me from behind as I was warming up down the touchline. I was trying to watch the game really but as I glanced round there were about four or five of them and they were all pointing back to the bench where Hoddle was calling me back.
‘He just told me to go out and play my normal game. He said I’d been training great and not to do anything different, just enjoy it and get on the ball. The first time I touched it, I got fouled straight away but I just wanted to keep getting on it. I loved every minute of it.’
Many observers cite the Middlesbrough performance and result as the benchmark for the style of play that Hoddle had been working towards, with the wing-backs rampaging down the flanks and Ruud Gullit dictating play in the sweeper role.
‘We played so much good football under Hoddle but then sometimes we’d concede sloppy goals and look quite open at times,’ admits Morris. ‘We were able to spray the ball around a lot and the wing-backs got involved for fun. We did that to a lot of teams, we could really dominate football-wise but then mistakes at the back would cost us.’
It was six months before Morris played for Chelsea again, although he would go on to represent his boyhood club in the Champions League – memorably going toe-to-toe with Xavi and Barcelona – and featured 173 times in total, winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup and FA Cup.
He is still fondly remembered by Blues supporters and is often serenaded by them as he sits in the dugout alongside Frank Lampard in his new role as our assistant head coach. His tenacious midfield play is a reason for that but it is his local upbringing on an estate in Hammersmith, a mile-and-a-half up the road from Stamford Bridge, that has proved most endearing.
‘I walked from home,’ he says of the day he made his senior debut after almost a decade working his way through the ranks in our Academy. ‘I would always walk down the North End Road unless a number 28 bus came, which you could jump on and then get off at Fulham Broadway. Sometimes it was a bit awkward if you got caught in between bus stops because we had to wear the club suit and you’d have to have a little run.
‘After the game, it was quite a proud moment walking back to the estate from the ground with my mum and dad. I remember walking past the pub and everyone came out to give me a little ripple of applause. I always felt I had a lot of support from around my area, just because people wanted a local lad to do well.
‘Chelsea fans, like most clubs, support their own and I felt that even before I made my debut. I’d played for the England youth teams and gone to Lilleshall [the FA’s School of Excellence] so there was a bit of hype already. I always felt the support but to actually play for the team that I’d been at since eight years old and supported as a boy was a special feeling.’
After a 17-year professional playing career, Morris switched to coaching after his retirement and spent five years in our Academy, winning seven trophies in two seasons after taking charge of the Under-18s from 2016 to 2018.
‘As much as there is more scrutiny and pressure now, there’s also the support to go with that. I know that me and my family would have benefited from the sort of support the Academy offers our younger players now in various areas. It’s a lot more professional so maybe there are more pitfalls but at the same time, the support and education you get at this football club is amazing.
‘Some people would call mine a tough upbringing but it was all I knew. I’ve still got mates who live round the estate where I grew up and it was a big part of making me who I was as a footballer but also as a lad. You always had an opportunity to get away from there and to give yourself a better life.
‘There are still projects and things going on round there to this day that are supporting the young people and giving them an outlet to go out and play, to keep out of trouble. That was a big thing for me and a lot of my friends growing up.’
Fast forward 24 years and Morris’s journey has come full circle. He is back at Stamford Bridge and the emergence of young homegrown talent is the topic of conversation once more. Joe Edwards and Chris Jones, Lampard’s other assistants, have also spent time coaching in our Academy so it is perhaps no surprise that this has become such a seminal season for our emerging Cobham-cultivated youngsters.
‘We’re almost becoming a lot of people’s favourite second team now because of the amount of young English players that have been getting opportunities,’ continues Morris. ‘I’ve always been a massive advocate for playing young players but they have to be good enough, they have to pull their weight and be professional, they have to want to play for Chelsea and put the hard hours in.
‘If you have an Academy like ours, why would you not look at the ones that are good enough? Thankfully, the way we raise the young players here, they’ve come over and wanted to grab their opportunities, hence why there have been so many debuts and so many minutes given to the homegrown players this season.’
Despite the debuts, Morris’s record as our youngest-ever Premier League player remains intact. Ethan Ampadu was 46 days older when he came on against Huddersfield in December 2017, while Callum Hudson-Odoi was four days younger than Ampadu but still over a month clear of Morris’s 17 years and 43 days when he played against Bournemouth in January 2018.
‘I’m surprised but just really proud of it – I’d love for it to stay there forever,’ admits Morris. ‘I know I didn’t make ground-breaking news as a player at Chelsea but I’m proud of the fact that I’m a local lad. I did manage to come through at a time when it was very difficult and I managed to play a decent amount of games, even if I feel it should have been more.
‘To hold any type of record at a super club like Chelsea is something I’ll always be proud of and it’s incredibly special to me. It’s something I’ll always hold dear, even if it is eventually broken.’