Tuesday 23 May 2017

Resurrection man

Ian Harte's career fell away from World Cup and Champions League highs to League One lows, now he's on the verge of a remarkable Premier League return

HE was the top Irish scorer in England last season, and has already reached double figures in the league for this campaign.

In fact, he is one of just three men from these shores who have managed that feat in the top two divisions in this campaign.

He was brought to the Championship in August because of his goals, even though he operates in defence. A freakish talent? You could call Ian Harte that.

Shane Long and Wes Hoolahan are the other Irish duo in prolific league form in the upper echelons, attacking talents who deserve the chance to showcase their talents in the Premier League. Harte, at 33, is in a different bracket.

He visits his alma mater Leeds tonight on the crest of a wave, buoyed by the adulation of the peers who last weekend voted the veteran into his division's PFA team of the year.

turnaround

If the Reading side he joined eight months ago continue their remarkable charge up the table and score the prize of automatic promotion, it would mark a stunning turnaround in his fortunes.

In the helter-skelter world of the Championship, signing a defender because of his prowess going forward is an affordable luxury.

Whether it translates to a higher plain -- where the Drogheda veteran has struggled before -- remains to be seen, but it's a dilemma that Reading boss Brian McDermott would love to face.

Either way, his resurgence has been one of the Irish stories of the season, perhaps only overshadowed by Stephen Carr's second coming at a higher level.

They are of similar vintage, products of the late 90s when a country already rich in full-backs churned out several more who dipped their toes in Premier League waters before they left their teens.

Harte's education was more eventful than most, with the logjam in that department meaning that he was thrust into an unfamiliar centre-half role early in his international development, with the support of Mick McCarthy.

The experiment was relatively short lived, as his star temporarily rose with his participation in Leeds' successive bursts to the final four of the UEFA Cup and Champions League at the turn of the century, with his ability to produce a set-piece goal from the top drawer an instrumental part of that journey.

Harte was 24 when he travelled to the Japan & Korea World Cup with McCarthy in 2002, yet that proved to be a landmark moment for all the wrong reasons. From there began a slippery slide to comparative obscurity.

It initially went in tandem with the decline of a Leeds side ravaged by the excesses of the Peter Ridsdale era.

As they morphed from title outsiders to relegation contenders, the emphasis was increasingly on defending.

Harte's ability to provide a goal threat was overshadowed by frailties in his primary role. Instead, the focus was on his deficiencies in his own half, where a lack of pace was often exposed.

Unfortunately, he suffered a troubled end to his time in Yorkshire, with relegation the last act.

A move to Spanish club Levante, who had just secured promotion to La Liga, was his alternative to dropping down a level.

Alas, his three-year stint in Spain was largely disappointing. Prolonged bouts of injury thwarted his chances of making a real impression.

He did have a brief uninterrupted run in the second tier after the Valencia-based outfit were relegated, but when they made the leap again, Harte was once more sidelined, piling further pain onto his exclusion from the Irish set-up under Brian Kerr.

A brief recall in the summer of 2005 resulted in a trademark dead-ball effort in the 2-2 draw with Israel, but others were considered a more reliable option. The player felt he was excluded due to location, but insisted he had no regrets when his three-year stint in the sun came to a mutually agreed end.

"One of the best experiences I ever had," he said recently, "I was over there with my wife and kids, and it's not bad going to train every day in 28-30 degrees."

His next step was a return to the cold, quite literally, when a call from Roy Keane to join the Irish colony at Sunderland descended into misery. Harte spent the guts of a season in the reserves, and was released.

It was at that point that he embarked on a fruitless tour in search of work. His old mentor, McCarthy gave him a chance at Wolves, and came to the conclusion that he couldn't justify offering a contract.

A week spent in Norway came to nothing either. Blackpool came forward with a month-to-month deal, and it lasted for two. Or five games, to be precise. He agreed to link up with St Mirren and changed his mind.

Willie McKay, his controversial agent, was touting the player's services, but a drop to previously unchartered territory was inevitable.

His uncle Gary Kelly had retired from the game early and, by his own admission, is a real homebird so came back to live in Drogheda at the first opportunity.

Yet friends of the pair say that Harte wasn't that way inclined, with his wife Laura hailing from England and keen on settling there.

She was a media studies student when she met Ian. Ironically, her husband tends to shy away from the media limelight, opting for a low key wedding in comparison to his uncle's lavish bash.

Indeed, over the years, journalists seeking to speak with Harte, even travelling as far as Spain to do so, have learned the hard way about his reticence.

A move to Carlisle, in March of 2009, certainly offered Harte a contrast to the high life. In a rare press foray last month, he spoke of the culture shock. "There's a man and his dog there, a couple of thousand people watching you," he reflected.

So he knuckled down and earned his way back to a different lifestyle, scoring 18 goals in all competitions last season to remind people of his ability.

A few weeks into this term, before the close of the transfer window, McDermott capitalised on Harte's uncertain contract situation to land him for a snip.

"We bought him from for £70,000, and what a fantastic bargain," said McDermott, after last week's triumph over Scunthorpe, where his left back was on the scoresheet again. "He's got 10 goals now, and is a real top guy."

The only disappointment for Harte is that his attempts to catch the eye of Giovanni Trapattoni have failed. Ironically enough, he was joined in the Championship XI by Paddy Kenny and Hoolahan, with all three off the radar of the Italian management team.

Assistant Marco Tardelli did say last week that he'd been to watch the Royals 10 times, before politely indicating that, with respect to Harte, they are looking at options for the future.

Supporters of the player would argue that the incumbent left-back, Kevin Kilbane, is older and now operating at a lower level, but it appears that ship has sailed. For now, he's got enough positive vibes to occupy his mind anyway.

Reading head to Elland Road today searching for a ninth consecutive win, a run that has brought them within touching distance of automatic promotion.

Around Berkshire, they're now wondering how Harte ever managed to end up in League One in the first place.

Pretty soon, they could be pondering the unlikely prospect of his career turning full circle.

Leeds United v Reading, live, Sky Sports 1, 7.45

Irish Independent

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