Leicester City defender Wes Morgan’s rise has been just as remarkable as that of the team he leads.
The imposing centre-back did not make his top-flight debut until he was 30, but is now captaining the Premier League leaders in one of the most incredible seasons the Premier League has ever seen.
Just over 18 months on from finally making it into England’s top division, Morgan talks to BBC East Midlands Today about title dreams, his mum’s burgeoning pride and how his journey was nearly over almost as soon as it started.
‘His legs rubbed together so we hid him’
Morgan was released by Notts County as a youngster in 1999 but after a couple of years playing non-league football, he was given a second chance across the River Trent.
But the journey was still far from smooth. John Pemberton, then Forest’s academy director, remembered having to keep Morgan away from manager Paul Hart when he first joined because he simply wasn’t fit enough.
“His socks didn’t go up to his knees because his calves were too big, his legs rubbed together and his shirt was skin tight. He was well overweight,” Pemberton said.
“Paul saw him in the car park and said: ‘Who’s that lad?’ We said he was a trialist and Paul said: ‘We don’t want any trialists looking like that’. So we hid from the manager – and we actually hid him for about eight months.”
Morgan said: “Getting released wasn’t nice. It was hard to take. But I remained positive and I got a trial at Forest and that was an opportunity to get back into it and that’s where it all started.”
From heartache… to Hart-shaped
Despite an inauspicious beginning, Morgan is quick to thank Hart for the big part he played in getting his career up and running.
After heeding the timely fitness advice, Morgan made his debut as a 19-year-old in August 2003 and soon became a first-team regular.
“I came on trial and did well and was kept on for the season,” Morgan said.
“I wasn’t in the best shape possible and had to work hard. There was a lot of conditioning work to get to the point where I needed to be.
“You have to be at a certain fitness level and I needed to put in the work to get to that point.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Paul Hart. He gave me my first professional contract and my debut. It all began with him.”
Hart told BBC Sport: “When I first saw him he was quite big and I said I am not putting him in our kit until that changes.
“But he worked extremely hard. You always saw a good footballer; he always had the basics. I gave him his debut at left-back and he was excellent.
“Wesley was very aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and when you have that you have a great chance.”
From Forest to Fox
Morgan’s move across the East Midlands after 10 years with Forest came as a shock in 2012, but Leicester manager Nigel Pearson was desperate for a dominant centre-back who was both a reliable leader and a steadying influence.
He was convinced he found his man, saying Morgan was a player they wanted to build their team around as they looked to win promotion from the Championship.
“He’s as good a defender as there is at this level and has been since he’s been here – never mind just this season,” Pearson said.
Remarkable rise under Ranieri
Morgan has remained one of the many Pearson players to play a central role in their astonishing season under new manager Claudio Ranieri.
And Morgan is enjoying every moment.
“To be in the position we are in is an achievement in itself,” he said. “Anything that happens now is definitely a bonus. People tipped us to be relegated at the start of the season and we are competing at the top of the league.
“We are just delighted with how things have gone so far.
“We have a real confidence and belief and know that on our day we can be as good, if not better, than anyone out there in this league.”
Making up for lost time and recognising your roots
Morgan has spent much of Leicester City’s fixture-free week coaching youngsters with his lifelong friend and former Forest team-mate Julian Bennett.
The pair grew up together in The Meadows, one of Nottingham’s toughest areas. The council estate has a reputation for gun crime, drugs and gangs and Morgan has always said his love for football could well have saved from a very different path.
It makes him appreciate his life even more.
“It has always been a dream of mine to play in the Premier League and I have done,” Morgan said. “I am very thankful for that and I am glad to be able to give something back with the coaching alongside my good friend Julian.
“From as early as I can remember I used to see Jules – he used to live two or three minutes away from me and playing football on the streets was a big part of growing up. We have always had that passion.
“I thought the opportunity to play in the Premier League had passed me by. Everyone wants to play at the highest level and it took a lot longer than I anticipated and wanted, but I got there eventually.
“I am enjoying it a lot!”
Mum’s the – first and final – word
Morgan’s biggest fan is undoubtedly his mother. The pride and love is unconditional of course, but even he has noticed a slight change of late.
“Right now things are going well so I’m getting extra kisses on the end of the text message after games,” Morgan said.
“She is obviously delighted. But win, lose or draw she is happy for me and what I have achieved. I know she is very proud of me and it’s good to have that support.”