Steven Gerrard’s Rangers have acquired plenty of talent with Premier League experience this season. Scott Arfield, Gareth McAuley and Steven Davis are just a few examples who’ve played in England’s top league, but there’s one man whose arrival was anticipated the most. That man is Jermain Defoe, who’s signed on loan from Bournemouth. He’s managed 162 goals in 496 appearances in what many call the greatest league in the world.
The prospect of having him partner Alfredo Morelos, the current top scorer in the SPFL, is an exciting one for Rangers. Morelos will surely be as thrilled as anyone about this. The Colombian has openly expressed his desire to play in the Premier League numerous times, so is likely to pick the brains of his new strike partner at every opportunity. Though he can’t speak much English, it’s imagined that with help from his teammates he’ll be intently listening to tales of goals scored on the biggest stages and taking every gem he can from the former Tottenham poacher.
Morelos has also managed to break into the Colombia national team, making his debut with a 13-minute cameo against Venezuela in September 2018. So as well as working with Defoe on a daily basis, he’ll have attacking talents such as Falcao, James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado to give him insight on how to reach the top while he’s away on international duty.
The first step up of Morelos’ career came in February 2016 when he left his native Colombia for Finland, in a loan move from Independiente Medellín to HJK. At the age of 19 he had been plucked from his homeland and dropped into a new environment with a completely different climate and culture and was asked to prove himself.
He did just that. He scored 27 goals in 37 games across the Veikkausliiga, Suomen Cup and Liigacup as HJK came second and reached the Liigacup final, which they lost on penalties. For Finland’s most successful club to finish a campaign with no silverware wasn’t good enough, but Morelos had impressed during his loan spell in Helsinki.
HJK managed to bring him back on a permanent basis on the first day of the 2017 January window, for a sum of around €500,000. This made him the record signing in Veikkausliiga history, almost doubling the next highest transfer fee paid by a Finnish club.
The move paid dividends for both the player and club. He was back in the goals again domestically and was now being given the opportunity to display his talents on the European stage, with HJK playing in the Europa League qualifying rounds. They faced Lithuanian side FK Atlantas, Bulgarians Beroe Stara Zagora and IFK Göteborg from Sweden. Morelos scored against each of them.
It wasn’t just his goals that earned plaudits in the competition, though. With the first leg ending 1-1 against Beroe, everything was to play for. It was the kind of tight tie that the competition is so well known for. Morelos didn’t score or assist the game’s only goal, but he certainly played his part in helping his side to victory.
He worked incredibly hard for his side; even in the dying seconds he was making a clearance in his own corner before racing up the pitch to put the defender under pressure to prevent him getting a good ball into the box. But Morelos wasn’t the type of player who was happy to settle for doing well in one of Europe’s smaller leagues; he wanted to make his mark on a bigger stage.
Just six months after signing a permanent contract with HJK he got the chance to show he could compete at a higher level. In July 2017 he signed for Rangers for a fee in the £1m region, making him the second most expensive Veikkausliiga export behind Teemu Pukki. If there was ever the need for a last-minute reminder that he was ready for another step up, the Colombian provided it in his penultimate match in the blue and white of HJK. He assisted three of his side’s first four goals and scored the last two in a 6-0 win over SJK.
Morelos’ record that season shows how worthy he was of the move. He was leaving HJK -who went on to win the league – halfway through the Veikkausliiga season, but his 11 league goals left him seventh in the scoring charts at the end of the campaign, just five behind the eventual winner. The Colombian had also won player of the month in the first two months of the season.
His first start for Rangers won’t be remembered so fondly, though. Having won 1-0 in Glasgow, Rangers only needed a draw against Progrès Niederkorn from Luxembourg to secure their place in the Europa League second qualifying round. Morelos was brought off at half time with the score still at 0-0. It ended 2-0 to the Luxembourgers with Morelos and his side dumped out of the tournament. Rangers were ridiculed in the media for a performance and result that was labelled embarrassing.
Rangers’ number 20 would have been keen to make an impression in his first league start. He got his chance against Hibernian and took it just three minutes into his debut as he attacked a ball into the box, heading home at the back post. He showed the predatory instincts that HJK supporters had previously become so accustomed to. However, the game was to end in frustration for him again; yellow carded in the 45th minute and brought off in the 65th, with Rangers eventually losing 3-2.
He was to end the season with 14 goals in 31 league matches. However, if a yellow card picked up on debut seemed a small matter, it was repeated with more regularity than would have been hoped, as he ended the season with 12 in 43 games across all competitions.
Discipline is a side of his game which has left him open for criticism, but the fire with which he plays is a central component of his game. The Premier League has seen strikers such as Wayne Rooney and Diego Costa who’ve utilised their fiery nature on the pitch to propel them to the top of the game, rather than allowing it to block their progression, something he’s continuing to learn to do.
Morelos has walked the tightrope of being competitive and ill-disciplined on numerous occasions throughout his career. This season he’s come off on the wrong side a few times. He was bizarrely given two yellow cards at one time in a Europa League qualifier against FC Ufa after committing a foul, kicking the ball away and arguing with both the linesman and referee.
Domestically he was sent off for two silly fouls in a 1-0 loss against Aberdeen. He’d also been given his marching orders against them just 12 minutes into the first SPFL game of the season for what the referee deemed to be an illegal off the ball incident, but that was later overturned.
There is a clear case to show when his antics can help his side out – that is in the most recent edition of Scotland’s biggest match, the Old Firm derby. The striker may not have scored but he troubled the Celtic defence in just about every way possible, as Ryan Jack’s side-footed effort gave Rangers a 1-0 victory. While Celtic’s lone striker Michael Johnston was banished to the game’s periphery, Morelos was excelling in that same role. His intelligent runs, physical presence and innate desire to succeed meant he became a central figure in the game.
Even in this match, he arguably overstepped the mark and likely would have been punished in pretty much any other game. Cameras found him kicking Scott Brown in the crotch, seemingly scraping his studs down a grounded Anthony Ralston’s back, and slapping Ryan Christie between the legs. The last of the three incidents was more reactionary after he’d been thrown to the ground, but there was definitely the feeling (particularly among Celtic supporters) that the Colombian had got away with it.
Morelos revelled in this. It was Rangers’ first Old Firm win since 2016. Morelos’ first at the club, Rangers had now drawn level on points with Celtic and he’d been an integral part of the match. He posted a photo to Instagram of himself during the game with Ralston writhing in pain on the floor behind him. It’s safe to say he isn’t a favourite at Parkhead.
That match was his last before the winter break. While that meant he wasn’t on the pitch, he was still making the headlines. During the January transfer window, he’s been touted by clubs across the world. Rangers have already turned down a bid from Chinese side Beijing Renhe, with Nice also moving in with an £8m offer, which Gerrard dismissed as “disrespectful”.
While Morelos’ current manager is eager to see his star striker stay in Glasgow, the Colombian’s former one, HJK’s Mika Lehkosuo, feels Morelos is ready to take the next step in his career. Lehkosuo was quoted in The Herald after the Rangers friendly as saying: “Alfredo is ready for bigger things if he wants them. He could play in England.”
Every move Morelos has made in his career so far has taken him closer to his promised land of the Premier League. That is both geographically and in shaping his game into a package which can be deemed worthy of the bright lights of England’s top flight. At just 22, with over 20 goals in all competitions this season already and a growing reputation, he is now knocking on the door of the goal he’s been working towards.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95