John Morling: Ferguson, Moran and different approaches to development
Written by Simon Austin — February 15, 2023
EVAN FERGUSON and Andy Moran have a lot in common.
Both joined Brighton's Academy at the age of 16 from clubs in the League of Ireland; both are now part of the first-team set-up under Roberto De Zerbi.
However, there were big differences in the way that the two players were developed after they arrived at the south coast club, as their former Academy Manager, John Morling told TGG.
“I always think of three areas in talent development - identification, recruitment and management,” said Morling, who worked for the Seagulls from 2012 to 2022.
“In the case of Evan and Andy, we had two players of a similar age at the same club, but the talent management was completely different for each of them.”
Morling’s contacts in Ireland helped the Seagulls secure the signatures of the duo. Prior to joining Brighton, he had been Player Development Manager and then Under-16s and U17s Head Coach for the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
“Andy came to us as a recommendation from his club at the time, St Joseph’s (a feeder club for Bray Wanderers), from Will Clarke (the Director of Club Operations at Bray). He said, ‘We’ve got a very technically good player, but no-one will look at him because he’s tiny.’
“We got a couple of reports and then took him on trial. He did very well and we decided to give him a go and take him, because technically he was excellent.
“He came to us as a scholar in July 2020 and we initially thought he might have to play for the 16s at some point, because of his physical capabilities. That changed, because within two weeks of pre-season the 18s and 23s coaches came in to me and said, ‘There’s more chance of him playing in the 23s than the 16s here because he’s done that well.’
“He could handle the ball well and being a small player was fine, because technically he was so good. He just needed to get up to the speed of the game and from a physical point of view improve and be patient with his growth.”
Thinking back to Morling’s three talent areas, the first two had been straightforward.
“There wasn’t a lot of talent ID, because he came to us through a contact I knew and most of it was on a trial," Morling, who is now a consultant with the FAI, added.
“Recruitment was straightforward as no-one else was interested, probably because of his size. Talent management was really important though - where he played, how long for, who he played with, what his strength and conditioning programme was going to be like, what psychology support he needed.
“He was coming a new country, to a new club, in Covid. That’s all very difficult, as well as being a physically small player.”
The club put together a bespoke programme for the midfielder, overseen by Morling, which covered S&C, sport science, psychology, nutrition and coaching. Communication between the different departments was key, to ensure everyone was working towards the same goal.
“We had multi-disciplinary meetings and information went daily and weekly across the departments, so that everyone knew what they’re doing," Morling remembered. "Then it comes to a stage where you dip him into the 23s, he has a bit of first team training, and all the while you're careful about how much game time he gets where.
“The talent management of 18s to 23s to first team has to be fluid and you have to have people in between each, with someone on top to make sure each stage is being done in the right way for the right reasons.
“You have input from lots of different departments - education, safeguarding, welfare, media, S&C, sport science, nutrition, psychology. There are so many people who have an input and that has to be kept control of. It has to be the right part at the right time for that particular player. it’s about giving them the best chance to fulfil their potential.”
Moran made his first-team debut for the club as a substitute in their Carabao Cup game against Cardiff City in August 2021. His first Premier League appearance came on January 3rd this year, as a sub in the 4-1 win at Everton.
The way that Ferguson was managed after arriving at the club was “completely different”. The forward had been breaking records in Ireland and was on the radar of big clubs including Liverpool.
“Evan came to us at 16, having already played first-team football for Bohemians at 14,” Morling explains. “He was 6 ft 2 and looked like a 21-year-old. He never really played in the 18s for us - just a handful of games and some training - and most of his time was in the 23s.
“That was what he needed. The challenge can’t be too easy or too hard but has to keep moving a player forwards. Then you have to decide whether he goes on loan or into the first team. That bit is critical.
“You could have your best player having the least game minutes in his age group, because he’s training with the first-team squad, and that can’t be right. Then the player could plateau and in two years time is in the same place.”
Ferguson made his senior Brighton debut in the same game as Moran - as a sub against Cardiff in the Carabao Cup - but has gone on to become a fixture in their matchday squads. He made his Premier League debut in the win against Southampton on Boxing Day and has since played another five Premier League games, scoring three goals.
As Morling explained, it’s not only the multi-disciplinary experts who influence a player’s progress.
“There are lots of people who have been involved in the development of the player - agent, mentor, digs people, kit people, people in the canteen - and they all add value,” he said.
“If they go on loan, they will work with the staff and players at another club. It’s important that everyone is on the same page in terms of the development of the player.”
Although a lot of people were involved in the development of the duo, Morling was eager to pick out a few of Brighton’s staff in particular.
“Mark Beard was U18s coach for Andy and Evan and did a great job,” he said. “Simon Rusk was 23s coach for Evan - and for Ben White as well. Ian Buckman succeeded me as Academy Manager and has been at the club for almost 10 years, so he’s played a really important part.
“And Leroy McCourt is Brighton's Irish scout and was involved with all of our Irish players at varying levels.”
In fact the Seagulls have had a lot of success with Irish players in recent seasons, aided by Morling and McCourt’s knowledge and network in the country.
Jayson Molumby, Des Hutchinson, Dylan Burnett, Daniel Mandroiu, James Furlong, Aaron Connolly, Warren O’Hora and Jamie Mullins have all joined the Academy from Ireland in recent seasons.
CHOOSING THE BEST GAMES PROGRAMME
Morling highlighted Ben White as an example of how effective the loan system can be for a young player. The defender was released by Southampton at the age of 16, but is now an Arsenal and England player following a £50m move from Brighton in July 2021.
“Ben went through three loans while he was with us and they worked perfectly,” Morling explained. “He went to Newport County first, with Mike Flynn and Lennie Lawrence, then Peterborough with Steve Evans, and then Leeds with Marcelo Bielsa.
“Each of those loans added something to his game and when he came back to us (in 2020/21) he was ready for Premier League football. All of the staff at those clubs have all had an input into his development.
"For Brighton, there were a lot of judgements to be made. Should he go out on loan or remain at the club? If on loan, what type of club and manager should he go to at each stage of his journey?”
There has been plenty of criticism of the U21s Premier League 2 for not properly preparing players for first-team football, but Morling argues there is a good menu of options.
“The Premier League have done a very good job, in my opinion, of providing a games programme with a lot of variety,” he said. “Papa Johns are the best games, because they are playing against first teams in a first-team environment.
“If you are looking at taking players on loan, they are the games you watch them in. Premier League 2 is good technically and tactically. Then you have the option of loans.
“Different players are ready for different things at different times, which is where your expertise comes in - giving them the right amount of water to grow. They have to face adversity and challenges along the way.”
Brighton were pioneers in the idea of fielding an over-aged player in their U23s. Andrew Crofts, 36, was the first to take on the U23s player-coach at the club, in 2019.
“I found that very beneficial,” Morling admitted. “We did it where you had to be a past player of the club. It wasn’t just anyone, it was a player-to-coach scheme.
“You had to have the right person - someone who was really fit, that could train every day, play some games. Fitness wise had to be in the top three or four and able to stay at that level, who would be development orientated but it’s also a good step from player to coach.
“It was a real good transition. It was beneficial to have an insight from on the pitch, because they would tell you the little golden nuggets that you don't get on the outside.
“They are involved with the players and get a feel for them of what the mood is and what goes on. At the start I can remember one player saying to me, ‘You’re bringing in a 35-year-old and taking my game time.’ I said, ‘Will you trust me for a month? We’ll have that chat then.’
“I can remember going out onto the training pitch after two weeks and him looking over and giving me a wink. He knew he was going to learn so much from Crofty. Sometimes they played together and sometimes they didn’t - and you still have to have to earn the right to play, no matter who you are, including Crofty.”
Brighton’s recruitment and development process is aided by the fact they have clear playing principles, Morling believes.
“It’s a possession-based philosophy, so that’s what the players spend a lot of time doing in the younger ages,” he said.
However, you still have to be open-minded.
“You would have a clear identity and player profiles for each position, but you have to be open for something different as well," he added. "You have to be open to an anomaly.
“Take Andy and Evan - they are very different. But times can change over four or five years, in terms of who the manager is or how the team plays, so you have to be adaptable. You always have one eye on the future game and what that could be.
"People change their systems now more than ever; it’s not rigid, it’s fluid and flexible. So players have to be as well. Players can now take on more information than they ever have and they need to, because tactically they need to be very astute, because game management is a lot different than it was even five years ago.”
The fundamentals of what it will take to become a professional football will never change though, he argues.
“The minerals you need to go from 16s to 18s to 21s to first team has not changed and will not change,” he said, “but the environment is forever changing. You’ve got to be coachable and want to learn. You've got to be the best version of yourself, on and off the pitch.”