The making of Eoin Morgan: ‘You got a sense he was something special’

Andy Bull

“Here’s a story,” says Paul Farbrace. It is from a one-day game at Trent Bridge in 2015, when he was England’s stand-in head coach. “New Zealand had made 349. In the old days we’d have had no chance but Hales and Roy got us off to this great start, and now we’re 90-something for none. So we need 260 off 40 overs, and all we really need to do is bat properly. Hales gets out and he comes and sits down between me and Jos Buttler. Jos asks him: ‘Did you think at any stage that maybe we didn’t need to keep playing these big shots?’ And Alex goes: ‘No, no. You just keep hitting it.’

“Now Morgan’s out batting with [Joe] Root, and Matt Henry is bowling. So Jos says: ‘Look, we’ve scored five off this over already. Rooty has hit a four off the first ball and a single off the third, So all we’ve got to do here is bat sensibly.’ And as he says it, Morgs runs down the wicket and flat-bats Henry over wide mid-off for this huge six, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen him hit. And all three of us just fell about laughing. It summed him up, really. There are so many times I’ve seen him do things that other people wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, but for him it’s a natural thing. Always has been.”

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Farbrace should know. He met Morgan when he was 14. Morgan was already playing for Ireland Under-17s then and the England and Wales Cricket Board had paid for them to play Farbrace’s England Under-15s at Eton. “He was this feisty, in-your-face little Irishman, standing at silly point and getting stuck in. He’s still like that now. He’s a genuinely lovely bloke, very quiet, keeps his cards close to his chest. But on the field he’s aggressive and he expects his team to be aggressive. Ask his old coach Brían O’Rourke, he’ll tell you.”

“Oh, Jeez,” says O’Rourke. “We went hard at each other for a few days in that game. In the end Farby and me agreed to call a truce because it all got out of hand. It was England v Ireland, you know, which is always fiery. Some of the English guys were semi-pros even then and were coming out to bat in their county gear, which added fuel to it. Eoin was right in the middle of it. But then he was a passionate kid and he loved playing for Ireland.”

It was not just the old rivalry, O’Rourke says, it was that the Irish lads thought the English were looking down on them.

England declared, set Ireland 247 to get in 43 overs. “We knocked them off with four overs to go,” O’Rourke says. Morgan was 40-odd not out at the end. “I think Farby was a bit embarrassed about it but he was already thinking ahead.” After the game was over, he took Morgan aside. “I saw the two of them chatting in the middle and I knew they weren’t talking about football, but about getting Morgan to Middlesex and doing his residency to qualify for England.”

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“We’d already had Ed Joyce over from Ireland,” says Angus Fraser, Middlesex’s director of cricket. “Now they were saying we had to have a look at this lad because he was even better. He was only 15 but there was already a buzz. You got a sense that he was something different, something special.”

Joyce had heard it, too. “But the first time I ever saw him bat was in 2005, at the World Cup qualifiers,” Joyce says. “Ireland had never made it to the tournament before, so these were very high-pressure games, but he just seemed to take them in his stride.” Morgan took 93 off Bermuda, 39 off Uganda, Ireland won both.

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Joyce got called up by England the next summer. He was the first born-and-raised Irishman to play for them in more than a hundred years but he was dropped after a run of games and did not play again. “I was still on cloud nine that I’d made it in county cricket, to be honest, and then suddenly England came along. It’s pretty clear Eoin’s taken to it all better than I did. But then he’d always aimed for it from a young age and I hadn’t.”

There is an old, often-told story about the time Morgan met Ireland’s then head coach, Adi Birrell, and told him he was planning to play professionally in England. He was only 13. Now, aged 32, he is leading them into a home World Cup as favourites to win it. Or he will be, so long as the finger he broke in training on Friday heals in time. “It was pretty clear he had something else about him that we didn’t,” says Joyce. “He was so single-minded from a young age.”

He gets it from his father, Jody, who loves the game so much that he missed the birth of Eoin’s younger brother because he was playing for Rush. There were five kids altogether, and they all played cricket on the concrete strip by the wall at the end of their terrace on the St Catherine’s estate. The other children looked at them like they were mad. That is the way the game was in Ireland. “Cricket was looked down on,” Morgan says. “There’s a scene in that show Derry Girls where they’re talking about a crush one of them has, and her friend says: ‘He can’t be handsome, he’s English.’ It was a bit like that with cricket.”

Morgan broke a finger in training on Friday but should be fit to face South Africa.

Morgan broke a finger in training on Friday but should be fit to face South Africa. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Jody Morgan was a stubborn man. He had to be or else Eoin would not have made it. When Jody fell out with the people at Rush Cricket Club, Eoin moved to Malahide. When the two teams played each other in the league later on, Morgan made an unbeaten 41 to win the first game and an unbeaten 50 to win the second. An old teammate, who asked to be anonymous, says Jody is not someone you cross. “If you do he’ll basically never speak to you again. Eoin can be a bit like that himself: if you let him down he’ll never forget about it. But the flipside of that is he’s incredibly loyal, and once you’re in with him, you’re in and he’ll always have your back.”

Morgan fell out with Phil Simmons, too, when the West Indian replaced Birrell as Ireland coach. “You had to be a bit careful man-managing him,” remembers O’Rourke, “because he was a bit different to the others. He had a vision and no one was going to get in the way of it.”

In a short documentary about his life Morgan says every village in Ireland has a story about a local guy who was good enough to make it out but couldn’t. That was not going to be him. “Anyone who knew cricket understood why he moved to England,” O’Rourke says, “but the guys in the street wouldn’t understand it, an Irish guy playing for England, it’s just not done. And there are guys in the Ireland team who wouldn’t have done it, too, especially the lads from Dublin, but then you’re getting into politics and religion.”

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Morgan grew up with both. He could not not have. But when he talks about them now he frames them in the context of the game. He says it was only when he went on tour that he realised there were people in the world who did not have religion. And he remembers how, travelling north to play and train in marching season, he would feel so conscious of his Dad’s Dublin numberplate.

Fraser wonders if Morgan’s focus distances him from the fans. “I’m not sure he’s loved by a lot of Middlesex members, and I’m not sure he’s loved by a lot of England supporters, either, because people seem very quick to get on his case when he doesn’t perform.” Fraser, who says he “loves him to bits”, finds it frustrating. “There’s lots of stuff people don’t see.” He tells a story about Middlesex’s match at Lord’s against Yorkshire in 2016, when the County Championship was on the line. “He was desperate to play in that game but he understood he couldn’t because the players that got us there deserved the chance to play. So instead he’d come in every morning and joined in the huddle, and then left us to get on with it.” Morgan tells me later he watched the entire match from the Grand Stand.

“The thing is,” Fraser says, “he’s his own person, got his own confidence, is very clear about what he wants, what he likes and doesn’t like. He doesn’t play the game, does he? He’s not interested in winning you over, and he’s not worried whether you like him or not.”

This is the Morgan who refuses to the sing the national anthem, who would not lead a tour to Bangladesh because he could not be sure the trip would be secure, who refused to come back from the IPL even though he had been told quitting it was his only way back into the Test team. Morgan has played more games in the new Ten10 league than he has championship matches in the past three years. “He’s always wanted to play red-ball cricket for us but the way the season unfolds he hardly ever gets a run of games,” says Fraser, “and sometimes when he does it’s been such a horror you almost wonder if he’s bloody colour-blind or something. He goes out there and smacks the white one all around and then all of a sudden this red thing is coming down and he’s struggling to lay a bat on it.”

Farbrace says he wonders what would have happened had anyone given Morgan the same sort of encouragement he now gives everyone else. “If people had told him to play Test cricket the way he plays one-day cricket, I think he would have had a far more successful Test career,” Farbrace says. “But the good thing about is it means he’s fresh. The breaks allow him to go away, think clearly about his plans and how he wants to play, then come back full of energy and ready to take the game by the scruff.

“Right from the start Morgan told the team he wanted them to be bold and aggressive, regardless of the situation. Now that’s a very easy thing to say and a much harder thing to do. But Eoin’s always played that way himself, even when he’s been under pressure for his place in the team. Which makes him a natural leader.”

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Farbrace has countless examples. The 2015 game at Southampton when England were bowled out inside 46 overs by New Zealand and Morgan told them: “Brilliant, that’s exactly how we should be playing,” or at Chester-le-Street in the last match of that series, when he was caught on the boundary first ball trying to hurry along a chase, or at Edgbaston in the 2017 Champions Trophy when they were 10 for two against Australia and he ran down the wicket and crashed Josh Hazlewood for four.

“He does demand high standards around practice, high standards around behaviour, high standards around the way you play the game, but in return he backs them to the absolute hilt,” says Farbrace. “Trevor Bayliss has done a fantastic job as coach and England have got some fantastic players – Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler. But the single biggest factor in their improvement has been Morgan’s leadership. A team reflects its captain and at the moment this team reflects Eoin perfectly.”

Back in Ireland Joyce says: “Maybe there’s a sense of loss, a sense of ‘wouldn’t it be great if he was playing for us’ but, if he does win it for England, everyone here will be proud of him. We’re all proud of him anyway, to be honest, because he’s done something a lot of people over here can only dream of.”