Jermaine Jenas Exclusive: Wes Morgan has taken the tough route to the top but now is key to Leicester's title hopes

Jermaine Jenas
Jermaine Jenas Exclusive: Wes Morgan has taken the tough route to the top but now is key to Leicester's title hopes
Jermaine Jenas Exclusive: Wes Morgan has taken the tough route to the top but now is key to Leicester's title hopes

Wes Morgan has come a long way since I first met him. I've known the Leicester City defender since we were kids growing up in Nottingham. He's from an area called The Meadows and I'm from Clifton, a few miles down the road. We're about the same age, with lots of mutual friends, and we'd come up against each other in our local teams.

Our career paths haven't converged too much since then. Whereas I was playing in the Premier League by the time I was 18, Wes had to wait until he was 30 before making his top flight debut. Now he's captaining the side sitting at the top of the league - and he's a big reason why they are there.

Wes has been one of the country's outstanding centre-backs this season, but when I first came across him he was a central midfielder. He always had good ability, but he also had "distractions" in his life, so to speak. The Meadows is a tough area with a strong gang culture. I watched a lot of my own friends from similar backgrounds have promising careers fade away because of that environment.

That probably held Wes back initially. For example, when I was in the youth set-up at Forest, he was still playing Sunday league. I was training at the Forest academy twice a week from the age of seven, while Wes's education was playing for a team called Clumber, which was run by my mate's dad.

Then one day at Forest - I was 17 and just breaking into the first team at the time - he just walked into the changing room. I was like, "What are you doing here?", a bit surprised to see him.

Wes Morgan playing for Nottingham Forest against Coventry City in the Championship in 2011. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)
Wes Morgan playing for Nottingham Forest against Coventry City in the Championship in 2011. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

He was at the club for a trial. The manager Paul Hart liked him, but thought he was overweight. That was a big test for Wes. I remember after training I'd go down to see which of the YTS lads were knocking about, because they were my mates even though I was training with the first team, and I'd find Wes sitting there on his own in the corner.

"They've all left. I've got to stay here and do a run," he told me. Hart was basically making him do extra work every day after training. I'd watch him running around the City Ground pitch on his own as part of a fat-burner programme they had him on.

It seemed harsh to me, and some players would have sulked over it, but Wes stuck it out. Thankfully, and crucially, I think the group that surrounded Wes off the pitch actually wanted him to make it. A lot of "friends" can hold your back in those situations, but when he was at Forest they didn't. Maybe that was because Jermaine Pennant, who was also from The Meadows, had already got a move to Arsenal from Notts County. In a way Pennant was flying the flag for the area and showing what was possible.

So despite getting picked up very late by Forest, Wes eventually broke into the first team and in the next decade he established himself as a very good Championship player. That education at Clumber, when he was playing men's football as a 13 or 14-year-old, probably helped him.

But what he has achieved over the past 12 months has been remarkable.

Last season, when he was captain of a Foxes side that looked doomed to relegation, there were a few question marks over his ability to perform at the highest level. But I think those tough beginnings have given him the strength to not be affected by criticism and get on with it.

I always knew he was a good player but, I can't lie, he has massively surprised me with the level he has reached. He's always had strength and ability on the ball, so he's never struggled with the physical or technical side of the game, but defensively his positional play has improved. Some defenders get better as they get older, and he's one of those.

Now he's flourishing as a leader. The player I'd compare him to most is Ledley King - not in terms of ability because Ledley is one of the greats - but in terms of his captaincy style. Ledley was very quiet when we were at Tottenham. He would very rarely scream and shout at people; instead he would lead by his performances. That can be a good style of captaincy, and Wes handles himself in the same way.

The continuity in Leicester's back four helps him too. A couple of players in that defence were almost outcasts at their previous clubs. I played with Danny Simpson at QPR when they accepted a bid for him. It was made pretty clear to him that it was OK for him to leave, so he did. Similarly, Robert Huth's career at Stoke was dwindling a bit and he was in and out of the team.

Everyone talks about Leicester's counter-attack style and their forward players, but it's impossible to play that way unless you've got a sound defensive base. Against Manchester City at the weekend, the Foxes' backline didn't look in trouble at any stage. Huth got the headlines because he scored twice, but Wes was so impressive in marshalling Sergio Aguero, who has been playing very well of late. True, Aguero grabbed a consolation goal, but in general play he wasn't given a yard to move.

Leicester's Robert Huth and Wes Morgan celebrate after the game
Mandatory Credit: Action Images / John Sibley
Livepic
Leicester's Robert Huth and Wes Morgan celebrate after the game Mandatory Credit: Action Images / John Sibley Livepic

Arsenal have been my picks to win the league since the start of the season. In truth I thought they'd be about five points clear by now, but it's other way around. The Gunners have stumbled and it could cost them.

But even then, I still don't make Leicester favourites. They have performed out of their skins but they still have a lot of work to do, and I feel they may fall short. As it stands, I think it will be either Arsenal or Tottenham that win the title. But for Midlands football, even for a Nottingham boy like myself, it would be fantastic it was Leicester. And for Wes Morgan especially, it would cap an incredible rise.