It was April 2019 and Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta, then Manchester City’s managerial master and apprentice, took their seats in the stands at the club’s Academy Stadium.
With the kick-off of an FA Youth Cup semi-final against West Bromwich Albion nearing, Guardiola and Arteta were keen observers of their Premier League champions’ next generation.
Morgan Rogers was operating on the right wing for Albion that Monday evening. City scouts remarked how he harried with vigour when his team were out of possession and provided their chief threat on the counter-attack, enabling them to break up City’s long spells of ball dominance. “His pace on transition caught my eye,” one scout who was there told The Athletic, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Villa agree deal for Middlesbrough’s Rogers
Rogers, then 16, possessed directness and a certain confidence and was adept at beating his full-back both ways and at drifting inside into central pockets of space. This was illustrated in his role for Jamie Soule’s equaliser midway through the first half, laying off the ball after finding space between the posts and inside the 18-yard box. City went on to win 4-2, but Rogers’ poise and ability with both feet were viewed as precocious and purposeful.
Four months later and five days after turning 17, he was back at the Academy Stadium, this time dressed in City blue.
After a lengthy extraction process, they finalised a £4million ($5.1m at the current exchange rate) compensation fee for the England youth international. Academy coaches back at West Brom expressed their disappointment within the club, yet accepted such a fee was a lot of money for someone just out of school.
For Rogers, it meant leaving the club he supported. Having been born locally, he joined Albion at the age of eight and was regularly a ball boy at their matches. He was popular and sociable, often loudly launching into ‘Boing-boing!’ in the playground — an infamous West Brom chant — sending classmates into laughter, or singing (invariably off-key) Albion fans’ songs.
Rogers is the middle son of three brothers and his senior debut for West Brom in February 2019 —as an 82nd-minute substitute against Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup — was understandably a huge source of pride for his friends and family, with his parents, Deborah and Howard, watching.
Yet within months, the allure of potentially working with Guardiola and Arteta, despite expecting to be initially schooled within City’s elite development squad (EDS), effectively their under-23s, was decisive.
Born in Halesowen, a market town in the West Midlands eight miles from Albion’s home stadium The Hawthorns, the now 21-year-old’s preadolescent years were spent at local junior school Colley Lane Primary before attending Sandwell Academy secondary, a literal stone’s throw away from the ground; he only needed to cross one street to get there.
“We both shared one obvious passion, our affection for Albion,” says Matthew Smith, a childhood friend. “One memory that still brings a smile to my face is the celebrations during West Brom’s first win (over Manchester United) at Old Trafford since 1978 — in 2013.
“We were playing cricket on a patch of grass at the bottom of my estate when the game was going on. When we heard we had scored, he sprinted up the steps towards my house in disbelief and rang his dad to tell him, only for United to equalise. You can imagine the bedlam when we scored another.”
By that stage, an 11-year-old Rogers was regarded as the jewel in Albion’s academy. Coaches spoke about how he would one day play in the Champions League. Only older fellow prospects Tyler Roberts and Saido Berahino (who scored the winner in that match at Old Trafford) were furnished with similar praise, yet Rogers was held in a higher level of esteem.
Among his influences at youth level were academy manager Mark Harrison and head of junior recruitment Steve Hopcroft, who each played a part in Rogers signing for Albion. Intriguingly, they both now work at Aston Villa in similar roles, with Harrison key in Villa’s move to sign Rogers.
“We first realised Morgan’s talent around the time he signed for the Baggies (West Brom’s unofficial nickname),” says Smith. “Every Thursday afternoon, to the envy of his class-mates, he would miss lessons to train. When he did manage to play for the school, he would be playing with boys two or three years older.
“Without being arrogant, we were a decent side that should have been winning most games, yet Morgan transformed us into being essentially unbeatable. It all came to a head in a cup final in 2013 — the last competitive game I played with Morgan. We won 4-0 and he scored all four.”
Smith recounts occasions when Rogers would take greater responsibility in the closing stages of matches, keeping the ball for longer. In one instance, Rogers — sensing it was time not to be quite so selfless — dribbled from the halfway line, taking on and beating four or five defenders on the way to winning a last-minute penalty.
“I was somehow captain and took penalties,” says Smith. “But I had to let Morgan take it because I knew 100 per cent he would score and win the game for us, which he did. It makes me chuckle to this day that I almost took it when I was nowhere near fit to lace his boots.”
After signing for City, Rogers spent the next 18 months adapting to life in Manchester, training and playing with the EDS squad with occasional call-ups to train with Guardiola’s title-winning senior side. He would excitedly tell friends about playing with Riyad Mahrez, Ruben Dias and a fellow West Midlands native, Jack Grealish. “It just always blew my mind,” Smith says.
In January 2021, Rogers was sent to Lincoln City of League One on loan for the remainder of that season. His technical learning at City was on course and in keeping with absorbing the nuances of a Guardiola winger, hugging the touchline and occasionally, towards the end of his first full season, spearheading the attack.
The loan to Lincoln, in the third tier of the English game, was intended to aid his physical development. He was 18 but tall and slender — he is 6ft 3in (191cm) now — and needed bulking up.
Rogers’ City education meant he was effective in structured attacking systems. Under manager Michael Appleton at Lincoln, he worked on fashioning attacks from the left wing, combining with his overlapping full-back and the closest midfielders.
He made 28 League One appearances in that loan spell and finished with six goals and four assists, including a run of scoring three times in seven games in the March, which saw him voted the division’s young player of the month. The award underlined how crucial Rogers had become in injecting momentum to the end of Lincoln’s campaign. They made it to the play-off final at Wembley but lost 2-1 to Blackpool. Rogers played the full 90 minutes.
For 2021-22, City wanted Rogers to make the next step up in level after impressing in League One. He joined Championship promotion favourites Bournemouth on a season-long loan in the August in a deal incorporating a £9million option to buy plus various buy-back and sell-on clauses.
It did not go well.
He started one league match among 17 Bournemouth appearances, a goalless draw away to Peterborough United in the September where he missed the game’s best chance.
Rogers could never fully win over head coach Scott Parker and Bournemouth pushed for City to cut his stay short. Increasingly, his substitute cameos proved sporadic and on the occasions he was used, Bournemouth would often be in need of a goal and change to a back three, which meant Rogers playing in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable wing-back position.
Aside from an instinctive finish away to Luton Town in the middle of January, meaningful contributions were minimal and he returned to training with City’s EDS after a brief final cameo in the next match against Hull City. “He has probably tried a little bit too hard in certain moments,” said Parker. “He’s had limited time and he’s feeling that — it probably has had a negative effect on him.”
Even though Rogers toiled for form and minutes, staff at Bournemouth remember him fondly. He is described as quiet but polite, more comfortable with younger team-mates such as Jordan Zemura and Jaidon Anthony but generally well-liked. After Bournemouth secured promotion with Rogers by then back at City, players made a concerted effort for him to be part of their final-day celebrations.
“I didn’t need to let my standards drop,” Rogers said of that loan in a recent interview with The Athletic. “I had to demand more from myself. It’s hard to take a step back, but when I did, I looked at what I hope will be a massive career in football. I’ll be the first to admit I let the frustration get to me at Bournemouth.”
With Rogers back in City’s EDS squad for the beginning of 2022-23, his career trajectory had been checked and he acknowledged he needed to find a middle ground.
Then, last January, a loan to Blackpool, then of the Championship, presented the perfect fit in theory; they had been keen to sign him a year before and Appleton, his old Lincoln boss, was the manager. Playing there proved tough — Appleton was sacked two weeks after Rogers’ arrival and they ended up getting relegated — yet hardened his learning and gave him greater responsibility as he was playing regularly.
Blackpool won three of their final five fixtures, with Rogers starting the last 10. He banked invaluable experience playing across the front line, including at centre-forward. He scored only once in 20 league appearances, the winner in the season finale away to Norwich City, for a side who finished second-bottom of the division, but he felt his progress would benefit in the long run.
Underlying numbers supported the notion; over the past 12 months, Morgan ranks in the top 12 per cent of attackers playing below the big five European domestic leagues, the Champions League and the Europa League for expected assists (xAG) per 90 minutes (0.30), and in the top 16 per cent for successful take-ons that lead to a shot (0.58 per 90).
“Blackpool were playing teams better than us every week,” said Rogers. “So you’ve got to adapt and still try to be effective in a game where you have minimal chances. It pushed me in a way I’d not had before. You notice how much it means; every point is massive.”
Rogers joined his sixth club last summer when Middlesbrough, who had lost in the Championship play-off semi-finals weeks earlier, signed him in a deal worth around £2million, with City retaining the hope of making a profit later down the line by including a sell-on clause.
Manager Michael Carrick noted his versatility and felt that if Rogers trusted himself, he would flourish. The task facing him on Teesside was potentially daunting given he was yet to translate his youthful promise into concrete evidence he could make it at senior level and he was among the attacking recruits set to replace Boro’s 28-goal 2022-23 top scorer Chuba Akpom, who joined Ajax last summer, and 11-goal Villa academy graduate Cameron Archer, who returned to his parent club before a permanent transfer to Sheffield United.
Aaron Danks, Carrick’s right-hand man, knew Rogers from their time together at West Brom, which eased his bedding-in process. The newcomer quickly grew in confidence, even if seven goals (five of them in the Carabao Cup, as Middlesbrough got to the semi-finals) in 33 appearances was a solid rather than spectacular return for his six months.
But Villa head coach Unai Emery, in part thanks to his customary and notorious lengthy analysis sessions, looked beyond surface-level data. Even before Villa’s FA Cup third-round tie at the Riverside on January 6, where Rogers would play as a No 10, Emery had become aware of his talent.
Emery’s analysis sessions are as extensive as they are detailed, with every opposition player deeply scrutinised. The Spaniard felt Rogers stood out in Villa’s 1-0 win and pressed the Premier League club’s ‘triangle of power’ to pursue a deal.
Villa had been considering another young Championship forward, Norwich City’s 20-year-old Jonathan Rowe, among their top targets internally and had sent scouts to watch him.
This remained the case into the final week of the winter window, until Villa eventually prevailed in their pursuit of Rogers with an overall package worth £15million and a five-and-a-half-year deal.
Emery views Rogers as a player who can be sculpted and refined within his system.
“We analysed him and follow him with a scout then as well when we played against Middlesbrough,” said the Spaniard. “He is a young player with potential and he can start his new chapter here. Hopefully he can progress here like we think he will do.”
The hope now is that, now back in the West Midlands, he can build on the potential that first emerged on that early April evening in Manchester four years ago.
(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)