By Jason McKeown
Filipe Morais has become an unlikely star in the League One promotion battle. After half a season largely glancing over from the sidelines at Valley Parade, the Portuguese winger has been in excellent form since making a January switch to Bolton Wanderers.
As Bolton have come roaring back into form, Morais has been assisting their sudden goal rush, setting up eight goals and scoring twice himself, over the last four games. After Tuesday’s Wanderers’ win over Oxford – where he was man of the match – Morais said he was playing the best football of his career. He is a shoe-in to win the League One Player of the Month.
On the surface, it is a surprise return to form for Morais, who struggled at Bradford City over the first half of the 2016/17 campaign. He started only nine games, managed just one goal and found it difficult to adapt to the new style of play. I remember closely watching him during City’s October 2-0 victory at home to Shrewsbury Town. Morais was a peripheral figure. He looked desperate to get involved, but was frustrated by team mates ignoring him for the pass and then, when in possession, often lost the ball.
And his confidence nosedived from that point. He was often brought on from the bench, but rarely made an impact. No one could accuse him of not trying, but he was making basic mistakes and looked afraid to make tackles. The new-look Bradford City had seemingly left him behind, and his departure appeared inevitable.
Whilst Stuart McCall has been brilliant for most of the Bradford City squad he inherited, Morais was one of a handful who didn’t thrive under the change of manager. It happens throughout football. But although clearly not his biggest fan, McCall still always kept Morais involved and never criticised his performances in public.
Clearly, the reuniting of Morais with Phil Parkinson has done wonders for the player. It was a surprise to see Morais move to Bolton at the end of the transfer window – Bradford City were apparently not aware it was a possibility, believing him to be Scotland-bound – but the money problems the Trotters’ continue to be weighed down by meant it made sense to snap him up on a short-term deal. And – aside from an utterly anonymous performance on his return to Valley Parade – Morais is proving good value for money.
What Morais’ resurgence highlights more than anything is the different expectations good managers have over signings. In his excellent book, Leading, Sir Alex Ferguson talks about how sustainable success can only be achieved through a core of players who can deliver high performances over long periods. But he was in charge of the biggest club in the land and was rarely lacking funds in the transfer market. He owned an abundance of such players. Other football clubs don’t always have such luxuries.
Which is why – mid-way through a campaign especially – a club’s season can be lifted by a short-term signing who can deliver the goods quickly if not in a sustainable way. There are many players in the lower leagues especially who are capable of bursts of strong form, but who in the long-term struggle to keep it going, perhaps as they feel settled but too comfortable.
Morais would appear to fit into that category. Had he stayed at City, it’s highly unlikely he would be producing the level of performances he has recently for Bolton. That might be partly due to the differing playing style and contrasting management styles of McCall and Parkinson, but the change of scenery has clearly being a huge factor too.
Morais is now 31, but Bolton are already his 11th different club. He has never started more than 50 games at any club he has been to. His playing history is littered with stories of strong starts that aren’t always maintained. We saw that at Valley Parade with our own eyes. In his first season he was signed on a five-month deal and quickly grew into a really important player. But it didn’t take long after signing a longer-term deal for his form to take a dip.
Picking up a bad injury blurs the ending for Morais. We will never truly know if missing a year of action was the main reason why his City career never returned to such heights; but his rejuvenation at the Macron suggests there are no long-standing injury concerns.
The point is that Morais might inspire Bolton to promotion, but isn’t necessarily going to enjoy a lengthy career at the club. Parkinson will know this better than anyone, but right now his priority is to get Bolton promoted and Morais is proving to be the perfect addition in helping that happen. If it all works out, the manager and player will deserve great credit.
Back at Valley Parade, Alex Gilliead’s long-term injury has meant no one has been able to come in and deliver a short-term boost for City. Gilliead was playing well and looking the part, whilst Alex Jones and Charlie Wyke are contributing. But the latter two – and the youngsters also signed up – have been brought in for longer-term reasons. City haven’t really tried to target a Morais-type of bounce.
McCall has received some criticism for Morais’ resurgence, but he has experience of having players struggling for form and then suddenly flying elsewhere. Go back to his first spell and the 2008/09, and the Irish striker Barry Conlon. Bradford City were on of 15 clubs Conlon played for.
At Valley Parade Conlon would be brought into the team and perform really well, only for a slight dip the week after and a further drop off the week after that. He’d have to be dropped, and the whole cycle would start again. A Barry Conlon full of intensity was a potent weapon in League Two, but he couldn’t mentally play that way week in week out.
Being such a high maintenance player to manage, coupled with poor off the field behaviour, led to McCall shipping Conlon out on loan to Grimsby Town. The transformation was considerable, as at Blundell Park Conlon scored five goals in eight games to help the Mariners avoid relegation to non-league. Conlon had enjoyed a spectacular short-term burst. McCall was heavily criticised. But the manager knew Conlon would not have produced such heroics had he remained at Valley Parade.
An argument proven by what happened next. Grimsby signed Conlon on a permanent deal and he failed to repeat that form again over the following season. Half a season of being in and out of the side, he was sent to Stockport County instead. Grimsby Town ended the season relegated. Expecting Conlon’s short-term burst to be sustainable at Blundell Park proved to be a mistake.
Morais has made over 300 career appearances and should be proud of his achievements. He will surely continue to play for many more years yet, enjoying positive impacts at more clubs. But, to date, he has not shown he is a Rory McArdle, Gary Jones or Stephen Darby type of person who can do it season after season for one club. Bolton fans should enjoy his excellent form while it lasts.