Liverpool have a rising midfield star signed from Manchester United blessed with the 'X-factor'

Even now, Andy Waterworth has little trouble recalling when he was first made aware of Kieran Morrison's outstanding talent.

It had the hallmarks of a typical afternoon for the 38-year-old, who sought to sift through a heap of unread correspondences as the Irish Football Association's Head of Elite Player Development. Only this time, one email in particular caught his attention.

"Our scout at the time Conor Marlin, who now works for FIFA, had sent me a couple of reports on Kieran," recalls Waterworth. "Basically that he was flying. He went from Manchester United to Liverpool and he was really, really well thought of."

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Usually, when an emerging talent is eligible for Northern Ireland and has been identified, Waterworth and his team will devise a plan on how best to follow their progress before potentially inviting them to a camp. Such a lengthy process wasn't needed for Morrison though, who after swapping Old Trafford for Anfield at under-14s level, was hitting all the right notes during his early days on Merseyside.

That was confirmed after representatives of Northern Ireland headed to Liverpool's Kirkby Academy in October 2021 for further assessments of the midfielder in an under-15s fixture against Norwich City. In fact, so impressive was his performance against the Canaries that the feedback to Waterworth was unprecedented.

"Normally I’d go over to try and watch a game but his [scouting] report was so good that we decided to just invite him to an under-15s camp in Belfast," says Waterworth, a former forward who enjoyed an 18-year career in Northern Ireland. "He was courageous on the ball and took players on. It was off-the-seat sort of stuff to watch.

"He was getting the ball, linking up, dropping the shoulder and taking players on. You just always felt when he was on the ball something was going to happen. He carried it so well."

Even though Morrison originates from Manchester, he is part of an emerging group of talent that are eligible to represent Northern Ireland through their family heritage, along with the likes of Shea Charles of Southampton and former Everton midfielder Isaac Price.

"We want these players who have come through the eligibility route to feel our values and experience what we’re about," notes Waterworth. "I do think we work really hard with our environment and our staff - and every nation will say the same thing - we know exactly what we are and who we are.

"A lot of players are eligible to play for Northern Ireland but it’s important that we get the right person too. And Kieran has certainly been that. His family are fully invested."

Until now, Morrison's international career has left little time for reflection as he has been fast-tracked from the under-16s to the under-19s, where he is now managed by former Premier League defender Gareth McAuley and set to feature in this summer's Under-19 European Championship in Belfast.

"He came in and was really good, hit the ground running," recalls Waterworth. "He had a real personality that we felt matched what we have in Northern Ireland. We brought him into the 2021 Victory Shield and he was our best player. He scored against Scotland. We were just thinking, ‘what a player we have on our hands here'.

"You wouldn’t have had to be a qualified scout to look at him and think, ‘that lad’s a good player’. He was really bright and bubbly around the camps. You could tell that he backed himself. Kieran certainly had that X-factor, and the boys loved him."

If Northern Ireland is beginning to feel like a home away from home for Morrison then the same can be said about Merseyside after he signed his first professional contract with the Reds last week. It was a timely reward for an exceptional season at Anfield that last month earned him a call-up to train with the first team.

It was little surprise that Morrison was the latest teen sensation to catch the eye of Elite Development Coach Vitor Matos after 16 goal contributions in 27 games in all competitions this season. The 17-year-old is also the second-highest-scoring midfielder in the Under-18s Premier League, with 11 goals in 19 appearances for Marc Bridge-Wilkinson's side.

"The game’s so fluid and interchangeable nowadays that you can’t really nail down a position," adds Waterworth. "But there’s no doubt about it, he’s an attacking player. He’s a player who can adapt, he can go on the outside as a winger but he’s also clever enough to come on the inside and play as a No.8 or No.10. He’s probably your typical, modern attacking hybrid player."

Next season should see Morrison promoted to Liverpool's under-21s side, managed by Barry Lewtas, on a full-time basis after making two appearances in the Premier League 2 this term. He should also have the opportunity to test himself against Europe's best with Liverpool primed for a return to the UEFA Youth League after failing to qualify for this season's edition.

Before that, he will finish the season with Liverpool's under-18s, expecting to star against Derby County to cement his place in Northern Ireland's squad for this summer's Euros. It is hoped that it will be the first of many major international tournaments representing the Green and Whites for the teenager, who could be courted by the English Football Association if he continues his remarkable trajectory.

"Gareth McAuley said to me if a young player was to make a tackle and hear the roar of a full Windsor Park, they’d know that they want to play for Northern Ireland," replies Waterworth when asked about potentially losing future stars, like Morrison, who hold dual nationality.

"That’s what we try and sell to the players and we understand that there’s a potential pitfall [players being poached by other nations] for us, but we won’t lose too much sleep over it. We have to make sure our own house is in order."

For Liverpool, though, there are no such pitfalls at present and after signing a first professional deal at Anfield this week, it's fair to say that Manchester United's loss has certainly been Liverpool's gain.