Morison's quantum leap
When Steve Morison walks out before 42,000 fans at Stamford Bridge at the end of August, to take on £50 million worth of talent in Fernando Torres and Chelsea's array of the most famous footballers on the planet, his career will surely flash before his eyes.
As the 27-year-old Norwich City striker contemplates a full-blooded battle with John Terry, he'll be reminded of what he was doing just three years before - preparing for a trip to Barrow's tiny Holker Street stadium in the colours of Stevenage Borough.
Exactly 1,764 people turned up for that one. Morison had recently returned from suspension, after an alleged "off-the-ball headbutt" in a 5-0 loss to Wrexham on opening day, and he played his part in a 3-1 victory that bought Stevenage their first win of the season, six games in.
It proved a turning point. By the end of the campaign, the club's captain had scored 31 goals at a rate better than one every two matches, and propelled his team to the Football League play-offs and an FA Trophy win at Wembley - the second in three years that Morison had been a part of.
But when Stevenage fell short in their quest for promotion, their best player decided he couldn't afford to spend another season taking on the likes of Histon, Lewes and Kettering Town in the Blue Square Premier. Morison was already 25, and when League One Millwall made an offer of £130,000 to take him home to London, he looked upon it as his last chance to prove himself at a higher level.
Indeed, the striker pounced on it as ravenously as he's known to attack a loose ball in the six-yard ball. He scored 20 League One goals at his first attempt and, after helping Millwall to promotion via the play-offs, did almost as well in the Championship last season. Morison had climbed three leagues in the space of 12 months, but he still wasn't out of his depth.
He'd earned international recognition with Wales and was attracting the interest of a host of clubs up and down the country. Morison resisted their advances in the January window, but when Norwich came calling in early June, the temptation was too great and he completed a remarkable rise from non-League football to the Premier League, in the space of two years.
"I've played in seven leagues, from the Ryman Premier to hopefully, if I get a game next year, in the Premier League," he said. "It's down to a bit of hard work, it's had its ups and downs but it's the best league in the world and where every single football player in the world wants to be."
Morison's steep climb, achieved so late in his career, is a rare thing in the modern game. Premier League clubs have such wide scouting nets these days that promising players in the non-league ranks are usually snaffled up long before they reach their 20s. But there have been notable exceptions, and Morison will join a star-studded collective if makes his top-flight debut as expected at Wigan on August 13th.
Ian Wright is the most famous example. The former Arsenal and England striker was a 21-year-old playing for Dulwich Hamlet when a Crystal Palace scout spotted his talent and offered him a trial. He subsequently impressed their manager Steve Coppell enough to earn a full deal, and went onto become one the most prolific goalscorers in English top-flight history.
England Under-21s manager Stuart Pearce is another who made the leap in his 20s. The uncompromising full-back was playing for Wealdstone and supplementing his income as a plumber and electrician when Coventry City came calling in 1983. The 21-year-old left for a fee of £30,000 and would go on to become a household name at Nottingham Forest and pick up 78 caps for his country.
Pearce's rapid rise is particularly unusual in the sense he was a defender. Steve Finnan (Welling) and Chris Smalling (Maidstone United) are others who've done it, but generally speaking the best way to get noticed is to score goals - and a lot of them.
That's how Wright, Les Ferdinand (Hayes), Kerry Dixon (Dunstable), Stan Collymore (Stafford Rangers), Kevin Phillips (Baldock Town) and Iain Dowie (Hendon) got their break. Each of them ultimately proved they could repeat the trick against players of considerably more talent, and in a league played at almost unrecognisable pace to the one they'd made their name in.
Morison is hoping to do the same. Seven years ago he was having to supplement his pay at non-league Bishop's Stortford with a job at a paper-shredding factory, and now he's preparing for a season that will see him take on the best defences in the country - in the biggest league in the world.
"Obviously it's exciting times for me and I didn't expect to get to that level in such a short space of time, but that is how it has panned out and I'm just really looking forward to it now," he said. "It is something that you aspire to do and playing against some of the best players in the world can only bring out the best in yourself."
From Histon, Lewes and Kettering, to Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, and all in the space of two remarkable years.
It's already quite a script, and if Morison delivers in the Premier League, perhaps even firing the goals that keep Norwich afloat on their return to the big time, who'd put it past him to go higher again. Top-four club? The Champions League? Don't rule it out.