Johnny Morris

Recalling 'Fiery, Controversial & Gifted' Johnny Morris

Club Historian John Hutchinson, helped by Leicester City legend Howard Riley, recalls gifted inside-forward Johnny Morris, a Foxes star in the 1950s.
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Morris died on 6 April, 2011, aged 87. Despite the passage of time since his heyday, his feats as a footballer deserve to be remembered. He was a fiery, controversial and gifted inside-forward who also played with great distinction for Manchester United, Derby County.

In 1949, Derby broke the British transfer record to sign him from Matt Busby’s successful post-war Man Utd. Three and a half years, later Leicester paid a Club record fee to bring Johnny to Filbert Street. Riley, who became a City star in the 1960s, rates Johnny as one of the best footballers he played with.  

Outside-right Howard made his Leicester debut on 22 August, 1955, four days after his 17th birthday. He starred alongside Morris on his debut and has clear memories of him.

“Looking back, I remember when he first signed for Leicester City in 1952,” Howard recalled. “I was about 14. I was sitting in the old Double Decker Stand and the announcement came over the public address system that Johnny Morris had just signed from Derby County.

“There was a great roar from the crowd because he was such a big name. Three years later, when I made my debut, four days after my 17th birthday, I was playing alongside him. I played about 25 to 30 games alongside Johnny.

“It would have been more but I spent two years in the Army doing my National Service. He was a very gifted player. He had a gift like George Best. He could send people the wrong way, with a shimmy and without touching the ball. What struck me most was his distribution.

“He would time and angle his passes brilliantly. Whenever I got the ball from him, I just had to run on to it. A lot of times when you get the ball you have got to control it and bring it down but Johnny laid the ball right in front of you or inside the full-back.

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Johnny Morris

Johnny Morris, pictured centrally, in action for the Foxes in the 1950s.

“This meant that you then had time to have a shot, centre or take somebody on. He had this gifted ability to go past players and set wingers up, blend with them and provide a good service for them. He wasn’t a particularly fast player. He was also a good tackler. He scored quite a few goals as well.

“Johnny was a fiery and competitive character. He is probably the only player to get sent off in a pre-season practice match against his team-mates! I played in that game. He was very abusive to the ref. 

“He was one of the best players I ever played with. He was in the same category as great inside-forwards like Johnny Haynes, Peter Broadbent and Leicester City’s Jimmy Walsh and Davie Gibson.”

When Howard made his debut playing alongside Morris, he would have been very aware of the veteran inside-forward’s high standing in the game. 

Lancashire-born Johnny’s accurate passing, courage, tackling ability, high work-rate and impressive finishing with either foot were all key factors in helping Manchester United achieve successive runners-up spots in the league in the first three post-war seasons.

They became the FA Cup winners in 1948 and league champions in 1952. There seemed to be no limit to what he could achieve. 

He was a very fiery character and objected strongly to both the poor pay he received and to the retain-and-transfer system which prevented footballers from leaving a club even after their contracts had expired. To compensate for this, he repeatedly requested Manchester United for a benefit match.

This was refused. He therefore asked for a transfer, but he was told that he would never be able to leave the club. His way round this was to ask for his cards, with the intention of becoming a golf professional. Realising they would not receive a penny for him were this to come to pass, United accepted a British record fee of £24,500 from Derby in March 1949.

He was one of the best players I ever played with. He was in the same category as great inside-forwards like Johnny Haynes, Peter Broadbent and Leicester City’s Jimmy Walsh and Davie Gibson.

Howard Riley on Johnny Morris

Derby’s intention was to partner Johnny with their previous record signing Billy Steele. He made a brilliant start to his Baseball Ground career, with his fine dribbling skills, his artistry, his tenacity on the ball and his power in front of goal. In the 13 games between his transfer and the end of the season, he scored 13 goals. The Rams finished the season in third place, equal on points with his old club. 

His performances soon resulted in three England caps, to add to his five Football League selections. Between May and September 1949, he played against Norway in Oslo, France in Paris and the Republic of Ireland in Liverpool, scoring a total of three goals. 

Johnny spent three more seasons at Derby, playing alongside the ex-Leicester City FA Cup finalist and favourite Jack Lee, in a side which was steadily declining. The Rams slipped to mid-table for two seasons and then to 17th, before being relegated at the end of the season that Johnny signed for Second Division side Leicester City in October 1952. 

Signing Morris was a very ambitious move for City but, following their FA Cup final and near relegation to the Third Division in 1949, the Filbert Street club was making progress under manager Norman Bullock, who had taken over as manager in 1950.

He had a five-year plan to get Leicester back into the top flight, a stratagem which succeeded in 1954. 

The first reference to City’s desire to sign Johnny is in the directors’ minutes, dated 23 September, 1952. The entry reads: “The Chairman intimated that the manager wished to secure the services of J. Morris but in view of the heavy transfer fee involved, the authority of the Board to proceed with the negotiations was desired.”

The Board was split 4-1 in favour of the transfer but 'full approval was given to secure the services of the player subject to the transfer being obtained in the region of £20,000'.

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Johnny Morris

The 1954 Leicester City side, with Johnny Morris positioned on the bottom row, second inside from the left.

The minutes of the next meeting, on 7 October, confirmed the transfer for a fee of £21,500. Some £14,000 was to be paid immediately with the final £7,500 due in January 1953. Johnny’s team-mates when he arrived at Leicester included Matt Gillies, Mal Griffiths, Derek Hines, and Arthur Rowley.

Within two years, aided by Johnny’s skills at inside-right, they were crowned Second Division champions, ahead of Everton (who have not been relegated since) on goal average.

At this point, events took a turn for the worse. Leicester struggled in the top flight, sinking to 21st in the league by the end of December. The directors’ minutes indicate that, on 28 December, 1954, at an unscheduled board meeting at the London Road home of director Denis Sharpe, the directors secretly agreed to ask Bullock to resign at the end of the season. 

Bullock’s position was then further undermined by two breaches of discipline by Morris.

The first was on 8 January, 1955 following an FA Cup defeat at Rotherham, but the most significant was a ‘serious incident’ on 5 February, 1955 at the Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay following a game against Newcastle United. At an emergency meeting the next day, the directors engineered Bullock’s resignation by suspending Morris for only 14 days. Bullock found this unacceptable and resigned.

Chairman Len Shipman and the directors picked the team for the rest of the season, but after only one season, Leicester City were relegated back to the Second Division, along with Sheffield Wednesday.

In June 1955, David Halliday, who had just managed Aberdeen to the Scottish League title was appointed City’s new manager and Johnny’s fortunes improved.

He was a virtual ever-present for the next two seasons. By the time Leicester stormed to the Second Division title in 1957, Johnny had switched to right-half. His team-mates now included the likes John Ogilvie, Jack Froggatt, Willie Gardiner and Derek Hogg.

That season, the side broke existing Club records for most wins, most away wins, fewest defeats, most points, most goals and the highest individual goal-scoring total, with Rowley scoring an incredible 44 goals in 42 league matches. Johnny’s contribution was invaluable. 

Johnny’s final season at Filbert Street was 1957/58, when the Club narrowly avoided being relegated in their first season back in the top flight, as had been the case in 1955. As Howard mentioned, Johnny had started the season very inauspiciously by getting himself sent off for abusing the referee in a public practice match against his team-mates.  

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Johnny Morris

Bobby Charlton and Alan Birchenall help Johnny Morris celebrate his 80th birthday on Filbert Way in 2003.

His 14-day suspension didn’t help the Foxes' cause at a time when the team lost nine of its first 12 games, sinking to the bottom of the table. Relegation was only avoided on the last day of the season at St. Andrew's. Needing a point to stay up and not having won away from home all season, City, with Howard in the side, managed a 1-0 victory.

It had been close. Johnny, having been first choice all season, missed this game, as did Rowley. Len Chalmers, another star of the early 1960s, made a nerve-wracking debut in this game. Morris and Rowley never played for Leicester again.

Johnny became player-manager at Corby Town before joining his old City team-mate Jack Froggatt at Kettering Town in July 1961. 

The last glimpse the Leicester fans had of Johnny was on 27 September, 2003 when he was guest of honour on his 80th birthday at a Leicester home match. Totally appropriately, City’s opponents that day were Manchester United, the team he had starred for in the post-war years before his transfer to Derby.

Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall and Bobby Charlton presented Johnny with a cake at half-time.

Leicester City Crest

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