John Harkes took the long flight from suburban Washington, D.C., to Glasgow in mid-November to offer his take on the ever-evolving United States men’s national team for an American television audience.
The occasion was a pre-World Cup friendly at Hampden Park against Scotland, which eventually finished 1-1. The medium was Fox Soccer Channel, which has established itself on the USA’s satellite-TV airwaves as a reliable arbiter of the pulse of international football.
The world’s game is finding a solid niche in the U.S., and it’s only fitting that the 38-year-old Harkes is at the forefront. The ultimate American soccer nomad, Harkes found his journey winding its way through East London back in the 1995-96 English Premier League season.
Harkes – the midfielder/right back who found unprecedented glory for a Yank by leading Sheffield Wednesday in the early 1990s and thus shattered the stigma that American-born players had little to offer on the game’s highest stage – joined West Ham for a brief loan stint before joining up with D.C. United for Major League Soccer’s inaugural 1996 campaign.
“Harkesy” started nine games and came on as a substitute on four occasions for the Hammers, totaling 13 appearances in all. Harkes, who also played for Derby County while plying his trade in the UK, did not score while with West Ham.
Speaking recently by telephone from his office at D.C. United, where he serves as youth development officer, Harkes fondly recounted his brief spell wearing the claret and blue.
“I only wish my spell with West Ham could have been longer,” Harkes said with genuine regard in his voice. “Those were some very special times for me. I have great memories of playing for (manager) Harry Redknapp and (assistant manager) Frank Lampard, both of whom made me feel welcome from the first day I arrived at the club. It was a great place to play football, and a really good time to play at the club.”
Harkes, a native of the soccer hotbed of Kearny, New Jersey, quickly bonded with some of the Hammers’ English lads who formed the foundation of a squad that seemed to assume a heavier foreign identity with every passing week. He reserves particular praise for a set of names many Hammers supporters still hold near and dear.
“The Ian Bishops, John Moncurs and Iain Dowies … they were the heartbeat of that squad,” Harkes recalls. “Here were a bunch of lads who could really play football, but they knew how to keep things light and enjoyable on the training ground.”
It was that sense of camaraderie among the English speakers in the team that illuminated the typically grey winter days and gave everyone a sense of proper perspective that football is still very much just a game.
“I don’t know what kind of poles they had laying around the training ground at Chadwell Heath,” Harkes said, “but every day I trained, I would find my clothes hung up higher than I could ever hope to reach. And, I would look over at ‘Moncs,’ ‘Bish’ and Iain, and they would just be snickering and barely trying to hide their guilt. But the thing is, they were relentless. They would do this to me every single day. They turned it into an art form.”
Harkes, who was part of a swashbuckling, Redknapp-led Hammers side that often left the details of careful pregame planning for another day, remembers being slightly puzzled by the lack of preparation in the dressing room ahead of matchdays.
“I distinctly recall one Friday night, going out to dinner as a team, and I asked the lads if Harry ever showed us film of an opponent or mapped out what sort of shape we were meant to keep on the Saturday,” Harkes said. “They all just looked at me for a minute and just burst out laughing. One thing was for sure, Harry liked (the team) to just go out and play football.”
And it was that torpedoes-be-damned attitude that quickly found its way into Harkes’ psyche as he sussed out what being a Hammer was all about.
“The Hammers supporters liked to see a positive approach to the game due to the tradition at the club, and Harry definitely gave that to them,” Harkes said. “One of the best aspects of playing for West Ham was realizing how knowledgeable the crowd was. The fact that they would applaud you for something that was geared toward getting the ball forward – while still maintaining a high work rate – would give you an extra bounce in your step.”
Harkes’ time at West Ham was a small blip in a career filled with pioneering achievements. He played in two World Cups (1990 and ’94) for the USA and was controversially dropped from the squad ahead of France ’98. The title of his autobiography is “Captain For Life (And Other Temporary Assignments),” which comments on the transitory nature of a footballer’s place in the sporting pantheon.
More recently, the photogenic Harkes appeared in the film “The Game Of Their Lives,” which chronicles the USA’s 1-0 upset win over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. Harkes was also inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame this past summer.
Harkes’ short tenure with the Hammers will never leave his consciousness, and he is one Jersey guy who is keen to pass the East End mindset on to his children.
“My son, Ian, and my daughter, Lauren, have Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and West Ham jerseys,” said Harkes, who keeps tabs on Alan Pardew’s current crop of Hammers via satellite TV and the Internet. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
(James Clark is the USA-based correspondent for EX.)