Arsenal’s ambitions to be back in the top four again, it’s going to be a big challenge – Steve Morrow
The Gunners’ former head of youth recruitment talks to Goal about his exit in 2019 and what he achieved at the club during his time in north London
It was early 2019 when Steve Morrow really started to feel that his future would be best served by leaving Arsenal.
The 50-year-old – who enjoyed nine years as a player in north London and scored the winning goal in the 1993 League Cup final success against Sheffield Wednesday – was well placed at the time for a significant role in the ongoing restructuring of the club’s football department following the departure of Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidis a few months earlier.
Having initially held a key position within the senior scouting team at Arsenal, Morrow had spent the majority of the past decade shouldering the responsibility of leading the club’s youth recruitment department – a job that Wenger had personally offered him.
So, when the restructuring was taking place following the legendary Frenchman’s departure, Morrow held talks with Raul Sanllehi – then the head of football at Emirates Stadium – about how he might fit into the new-look Arsenal.
The role of technical director was one of the positions discussed but, in the end, it was another former Gunners star who got the job, with Edu being appointed in July, 2019.
“That’s a role and a project that I’m very much equipped for,” Morrow says in an exclusive interview with Goal. “Raul and myself sat down and had some football conversations around the structure of the club and the technical director role.
“He said I was an internal candidate, but then they went in a different direction and maybe that was due to who was in place as head coach at the time, Unai Emery.
“Things don’t work out for a reason sometimes, but I think when I got to that point and that didn’t happen, there wasn’t really another direction for me to go in.
“So, that was part of my decision-making and part of the reason why I felt it was the right time to move on.”
By the end of 2019, the curtain had come down on Morrow’s second spell at Arsenal. He left by mutual consent, with mixed feelings about his departure.
On one hand, he was proud of the work he had done during the previous decade and the role he had played in making Arsenal’s youth recruitment structure one of the most respected in world football.
But he was also concerned by the new direction the club was taking, with the recruitment network that had been built up over many years – both at senior and youth level – being disbanded by Edu and the new regime at the north London club.
“It does worry me,” Morrow confesses. “When you have such an attachment to a club because you’ve spent so long there, you want it to continue to do well. But I definitely do worry for the club now because of the amount of change and transition it’s had to go through.
“For it to continue to be successful, and to have the success that it did a number of years ago, is going to be a tough challenge. It’s down to the people there now and the leadership that is currently there to steer the club in the right direction and I very much hope it can do that.
“They definitely face some challenging times and sitting in mid-table right now is not where Arsenal Football Club belongs. I’m sure they have ambitions to be back in the top four again soon, but it’s going to be a big challenge to do that.”
Morrow adds: “There was a sadness when I left. I was lucky to be at the same club for so long working under leadership that had similar values. I knew exactly where I stood and what my place in the club was and the responsibilities that I had.
“Inevitably, when new leadership comes in and things change, people are going to have their own ideas. I very much want the club to continue with the same strong values it has and the reputation that it has, but new people and new leaders will have their own ideas.
“That’s not me saying that’s a bad thing, it’s just different. But that all kind of led to me wanting to take on a new challenge and realising my future lay somewhere else.”
Morrow’s long relationship with Arsenal stretches back to the late 1980s, when he arrived from Northern Ireland having signed as a 15-year-old schoolboy.
He initially linked up with the youth team along with the likes of Kevin Campbell and, by 1989, he was on the fringes of the first team. He was even part of the travelling squad on the famous night Arsenal won the First Division title at Liverpool thanks to Michael Thomas’ last-minute goal.
Morrow watched that game from the stands at Anfield and, after spells with Reading and Watford over the next couple of seasons, he eventually made his senior Gunners debut in April 1992 against Norwich.
Just over a year later, he was firmly established as a key member of George Graham’s squad and, on April 18, 1993, a remarkable League Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday took place at Wembley that ensured his name would forever be etched in Arsenal folklore.
Having fallen behind to an early John Harkes goal, Arsenal had levelled through Paul Merson before a mistake by Carlton Palmer deep inside his own penalty area saw a loose ball drop invitingly for Morrow 10 yards out.
“I remember it falling on my right foot and thinking I’m just going to swing at this,” Morrow recalls. “Luckily, it went in the back of the net and the feeling afterwards was just incredible.
“There were still just over 20 minutes to go after that and I was just focusing so hard on stopping them scoring with such a strong desire that the goal I’d scored would be the winner.
“So many young players dream of doing something like that, so it was incredible to be able to actually do it. It’s such a fantastic memory.”
However, for Morrow, the ecstasy of scoring the winning goal in a cup final would soon be replaced by the agony of a freak accident during the post match celebrations.
While the Arsenal players were waiting to go up to the Royal Box to lift the trophy, Tony Adams picked the match-winner up to celebrate and inadvertently dropped him over his shoulder, breaking Morrow’s arm badly and almost severing the main nerve.
“It was just a really freakish thing to happen,” Morrow says. “I knew something bad was going to happen when I was falling. I had to reach out because I was literally falling head first.
“I just felt my arm snap in two, looked over and it was twisted and pointed in the wrong direction. It’s all a bit of a blur after that. I was just in so much pain. I have slight memories of being in the ambulance and being rushed into surgery.
“Obviously, you have regrets at missing the celebrations afterwards but, for me, the overriding feeling is still the goal.”
The injury would rule Morrow out for the remainder of the season but there was a special moment before the FA Cup final – which again saw Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday – when he received his League Cup winners’ medal at Wembley just before kick-off.
He returned to fitness during the following campaign and it ended with him playing a starring role in the Cup Winners’ Cup final when Arsenal famously beat Parma 1-0 in Copenhagen to claim what was just the club’s second-ever European trophy.
Playing in midfield alongside Paul Davis and Ian Selley, Morrow helped the Gunners keep the immensely talented Italians at bay and protect the 1-0 lead that had been given to them by Alan Smith’s first-half strike.
“Even though I had the high of scoring the winner at Wembley, I would say that was a bigger achievement in many ways,” Morrow explains. “To play such an important part of such a massive game against such quality opposition like Thomas Brolin, Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla was very special.
“It was probably as hard and long as I’d ever run in a game before. That night was just a tremendous team performance.”
After being involved in the Cup Winners’ Cup final defeat to Real Zaragoza the following season, Morrow’s game time at Arsenal began to dry up and he eventually left in 1997, joining QPR permanently following a loan spell at Loftus Road.
He spent four seasons in west London before moving to the United States to join Dallas Burn, who would rename themselves as FC Dallas in 2004.
After retiring due to a neck injury, he would go on to become head coach of FC Dallas until, in May 2008, he left and returned to Arsenal, working in the now disbanded International Partnerships programme and within the recruitment department alongside chief scout Steve Rowley and Francis Cagigao, who played alongside Morrow at under-age level for the Gunners.
After two successful years working on senior recruitment, Morrow was called to a meeting by Wenger and asked to take on the responsibility of overseeing and restructuring the recruitment team at youth level.
“It was a tremendous responsibility, knowing that identifying and developing young players at Arsenal was a very important part of our club and our DNA,” Morrow reveals. “I was chuffed to take on that role.”
Players such as Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were spotted and signed from across London, while talent like Serge Gnabry, Donyell Malen and Gabriel Martinelli were brought in from abroad.
“I’m very proud of what we achieved,” Morrow says. “I was able to build up a great team of scouts over a number of years and I’m very proud of how we left things.
“You see the likes of Bukayo, Emile, Reiss, Eddie [Nketiah], Joe [Willock] and Ainsley playing for the first-team now and even Martinelli, who came in at the end.
“There’s a really strong group of players there and also others have gone on to do very well at other clubs: the likes of Emi Martinez, Serge Gnabry and Donyell Malen.
“It was the result of years of hard work from a great team of people. I’m very proud of all of the work we did and that the likes of Emile and Bukayo are helping to drive the first team forward at the moment.”
However, as the decade began to draw to a close, huge changes started to take place at Arsenal.
Wenger’s 22-year reign in charge ended at the end of the 2017-18 season and Ivan Gazidis left his role as chief executive soon after. A completely new executive team arrived and a club that had been so stable for so long, was in the midst of dramatic change.
For the likes of Morrow, who had a proven track record of working with his team and the recruitment methods, there was a sense of unease about the new direction that the strategy was heading.
He stayed at the club until the end of 2019 but, after failing to see his role evolve during the earlier restructure, he knew his future was elsewhere.
“I would say that until the end I continued to do my job and to fight for what I always thought was the best thing for Arsenal Football Club,” Morrow insists. “That was always my main objective and my main aim. I always put what was best for the club first.
“I left on good terms and I got on well with everyone. It was just more me as a person wanting to continue with my own development and push myself on because I’m very ambitious.”
Morrow adds: “There will always be a place in my heart for Arsenal. I will always be very fond of them as a club and attached to them because of the length of time that I spent there.
“But you do get to a point sometimes when things happen and clubs change. Looking back towards the end of my time there, probably for six months or a year, I had started to think about taking up a different challenge. I just felt in my gut that it was going to be time for me to move on.”
So, what now? It’s been well over a year since Morrow left Arsenal and despite discussing various opportunities elsewhere, he has yet to decide on his next step.
The coronavirus pandemic has complicated his search, but he is confident he will soon find the right club to satisfy his ambitions.
“When I moved on, I wanted to take a step back,” he reveals. “I spoke to a lot of people, including Arsene and Ivan, and was strongly advised just to take a break from the game for a bit.
“It’s really important for me to work with good people within a good environment and to have a good influence on an important project. Whether that’s a technical director type role or something else, I’m not too bothered. It’s about finding the right thing.
“I’ve had some interesting offers, but they either didn’t work out or develop because of Covid. So, I just need to be patient and make sure I pick the right project with someone who could benefit from the massive experience I’ve had at a big club.”