“It’s surreal because just over a year ago I didn’t think I would be in this position,” the words of Greenock Morton forward Jai Quitongo after being named to Scotland’s Under-21 side. Now linked with moves to both Premier League and Championship teams, including West Ham United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, it has been a massive 12 months for the son of Hearts and St. Mirren legend, Jose Quitongo.
“I didn’t even have a team and I was thinking, ‘am I going to quit, what am I going to do?”
Initially going through the youth systems at Aberdeen and Hamilton Accies, he was released in 2015 and it seems his career had come to a crossroads.
“It was just over a year ago I was considering quitting but everything has changed,” admitted Quitongo. “I’m scoring and have been called up by the Under-21s – it’s the stuff you dream of.”
The forward would make his international debut on November 9th, as Scotland lost 4-0 to Slovakia, but that won’t have hampered the feeling for the 19-year-old born in Wishaw. There is talk that Portugal are interested and paying attention to his development, with the youngster eligible through his father, but that’s not why his son was selected by his home nation.
Morton are riding high in the Scottish Championship, currently third. Just six points behind Hibs in first and Quitongo has been a huge part of their form, led by manager Jim Duffy. Early in the season, with the boss struggling for options, he picked the young forward to start against Premiership side Kilmarnock in the League Cup. Playing on the wing, Quitongo set up Gary Oliver for the opener after seven minutes, then scored the crucial second just before the hour mark.
Picking the ball up outside the box, he launched a rocket to beat Jamie MacDonald. That sparked Killie manager and former Newcastle United midfielder Lee Clark to admit he was interested in signing the youngster. He’ll now have to join the queue.
Quitongo would then score against Berwick Rangers, his old club Hamilton and Dundee United to send Morton all the way to Hampden and a semi-final against Aberdeen, the club that released him.
They may have lost the game 2-0, but Quitongo impressed everyone in attendance. “He impressed in League Cup against the Premiership side,” Scott Johnston, presenter of the Scottish Football Show told Football Whispers. “He showed that he wasn't scared of the occasion and caused Aberdeen a lot of problems on the day. All good signs from a promising teenager.”
Able to play as a centre-forward and out wide, he is surprisingly strong when asked to take the ball into feet. However, he then has he the pace to knock the ball long and beat the cumbersome centre-backs in behind.
Quitongo has the speed and ability on the ball you’d want from a winger, echoing memories of his Dad, Jose, terrorising Scottish defences with his baggy maroon shirt and dreadlocks.
The teenager almost invites the larger defenders to play at his back, then when they get too tight he’ll spin and use his footwork to get passed and run into space.
Out wide he is capable of winning a lot of lost causes, often, when faced in a test of strength with a larger defender he can lose the physical battle, but he never gives up. Even when possession is lost deep in the opposition half, he fights back and does what he can to rectify his mistake. It shows amazing attitude and a constant fight, the sort of resilience that he taken him from a reject at Pittodrie to an Under-21 international.
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“He’s been playing in the same Morton team as [Celtic loanee] Aidan Nesbitt and I’ve been going to watch them both,” Under-21 boss Scott Gemill told the Daily Mail. “Jai did well against Aberdeen in the semi-final and, on another day, he could have scored some important goals for his team. But he was making a step up and he handled it very well. It’s all counted towards him being given this opportunity. His call-up is a reminder that there are no closed doors and that we are willing to give people a chance.”
The step up from the Scottish Championship to the English Premier League is perhaps too big a jump for anyone, regardless of talent and desire. “He is probably better suited to the English Championship at the moment as he might get lost in the top division,” Johnston continued. “Morton are very protective of him, so hopefully they'll only deal with the right kind of suitors who can get Jai game time.”
Quitongo is at his most dangerous when he gets turned facing the goal in a little bit of space. His speed needs to be respected and he has the skill to run at defenders. The 19-year-old doesn’t just rely on fancy tricks, he always tries to keep his head up to find team-mates and simply, but effective passes. That sort of game intelligence is key to making the step up.
The forward has added two league goals from his four in the cup and Morton have only lost once since Quitongo scored in the 2-1 win over Dunfermline in September. Doncaster Rovers had a £100,000 bid rejected in the summer and Brighton, Preston and Wigan were known to be interested then. Now, Premier League clubs are known to have been alerted to his potential and have turned up at Cappielow to watch the Under-21 international.
Regardless of where Greenock Morton finish this season, it will be hard to hold on to the exciting forward next summer, but the next step is up to Quitongo and it will be his attitude and ability that guides his future.