Ravel's Redemption: How Östersunds FK gave England's lost talents new hope

David Webb, the Swedish club's technical director, speaks to JOE

Ravel Morrison is a Premier League footballer again - something few would have envisaged at the turn of the year. 

Over four years on from his last appearance in England’s top flight, he was still a Lazio player in January, despite not playing for the Italian club since returning from a loan spell with Mexican side Atlas last summer. Once tipped for stardom in his youth with Manchester United, a career that promised so much appeared to be sliding to a disappointing end.

His pathway back to the Premier League, where he will play for newly promoted Sheffield United next season after a successful trial spell, began in central Sweden in February.

Östersund, known as the Winter City, is situated on the shores of Lake Storsjön, a seven-hour drive north from Stockholm. The mercury rarely rises above freezing point for five months of the year there, and though the town is more commonly associated with cross country skiing, its football side, Östersunds FK, have helped mark it out on an entirely different sporting map in recent years. 

Playing in the fourth tier of Swedish football only eight years ago, three promotions saw them reach the top flight in 2015. They have remained there ever since, even securing Europa League football in the 2017/18 season campaign, where they were eventually eliminated by Arsenal in the knockout rounds. Recently appointed Brighton manager Graham Potter oversaw the club's rise to the Allsvenskan and the club has maintained an English contingent since his departure to Swansea last year. Potter's successor as manager, Ian Burchnall, is also an Englishman, as are several of Östersunds' squad and staff. This includes David Webb, the club's technical director.

Webb, along with Burchnall, had no doubts that a move to the club would suit Morrison.

“We knew him, his situation and his character,” Webb says. “We knew he’d fit into the environment at Östersunds and it’s fantastic he’s now got an opportunity with Sheffield United.”

“Ravel's a good lad,” he adds. “Initially, he joined us in Marbella for a preseason camp. He had a bit of a reality check when he came back over here and it was minus 12!

“He came off a not-so-good time at Lazio where he’d not played many games but he's very professional and ignored the bitter cold and adapted quite easily, just as we expected him to. He wanted to come, get fit and train so he ignored those conditions and got on with it.”

Webb was appointed by Östersunds last October. After holding high-profile positions with Bournemouth and Tottenham, a move to a small club in Sweden, one that played in front of an average home crowd of just 6,000 last season, could have been seen as a strange move - perhaps even a backward step. Webb, however, sees it differently, explaining he was excited by the opportunity to apply some of the knowledge he acquired in England in a different environment.

"Part of the attraction was that I had a similar role under Eddie Howe at Bournemouth," he says. 

"I wasn’t a technical director there; I was their head of recruitment in 2013. They'd been promoted from League One, had a small budget and didn’t have much in place in terms of recruitment structure. We managed to find players like Callum Wilson, Dan Gosling and Junior Stanislas - all players that are still there now.

"This job - similarly to my role at Bournemouth - means I can work closely with the manager, chairman or CEO and really put a stamp on things in terms of what the club needs."

This is Webb's first technical director role, a position which is becoming increasingly prominent across European football. Speaking in the same week that Arsenal announced their former midfielder Edu as their first ever technical director, Webb says he is able to lean on his extensive experience of player recruitment for the majority of his work.

"Primarily, my role here is around 70% the recruitment of players, but it's about more than that. It's the negotiation of contracts and building a methodology, a DNA in line with the club’s structure. Signing players - signing the right players - is the biggest part of my job, though."

Morrison was one of several British players at Östersunds during his four-and-a-half months there. They currently have Blair Turgott and Charlie Colkett in their ranks, both promising youngsters who failed to break into the first teams at West Ham and Chelsea respectively. Both players' careers have failed to reach the heights many might have expected, but Webb believes a move to Östersunds has its advantages for British players, even though he openly admits it can be used as a stepping stone.

"We can offer them the chance to play in a respected European league with the chance to get into European football but we’re under no illusions here. We know we’re a trading club and they know if they perform well here, they can showcase themselves to clubs in the bigger leagues in Europe and in England. 

"That’s our aim, as well. We're not the biggest club in Sweden so we know the retention of these kind of players is not going to be long term.

"We've designed our coaching environment to develop and improve players and increase their chance of future progression."

Webb's previous job had been at Tottenham, where Mauricio Pochettino appointed him as Head of Elite Potential Identification, working as an understudy to the club's then-technical director, Paul Mitchell (now with RB Leipzig), to identify the best 17-21 year-old players from across the world.

"I’d worked with Mauricio and Paul at Southampton in more of a scouting role," he says. "That helped as I didn’t have to find my feet too much and I knew what kind of profile of players they were looking for."

Working closely with Mitchell, Webb was able to have input on the signings of Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min, as well as facilitating the pathway from academy to first team for Spurs' young players. Webb departed the London club in 2017, but believes Harry Winks’ emergence as a regular starter in the time since has been aided by this work.

Webb's keen eye for emerging talent was evident as far back as his time as an academy coach with Crystal Palace in 2003, where he spotted a young Wilfried Zaha in action for Croydon junior side, Whitehorse Wanderers. Impressed by what he had seen, he invited him for a trial at Palace, where he subsequently joined the club's academy and went on to sign professional terms. Although he ranks the discovery of Zaha as one of his greatest achievements in the game, he stresses that he derives just as much satisfaction from helping a player relaunch a career after losing their way.

"Some players may not be a good fit for a certain club," he says. "It happens at all levels of the game. Look at Kevin De Bruyne, for example. He perhaps had a lack of opportunity at Chelsea but that didn't make him a bad player. He went away to Germany, developed and came to Manchester City to become one of the best players in the world.

"Recruitment is a huge part of being a technical director, and a huge part of recruitment is matching a player to an environment where they will flourish and develop again. 

"You’re looking beyond the footballing talent element; it’s more the human aspect. You want the players you know have the desire to come back from the set-backs in their career and give their all at a different club.”

As he prepares for his first season back in the Premier League, Ravel Morrison may yet prove to be a shining example of this.

“He's got Premier League quality, there's no doubt about it,” Webb says. “He just needed that platform to get his confidence up, get fit and show what he could do. 

"At Östersunds, we gave him that."