Football: Premiership - Forest look to their cyberman

Faced with his greatest football challenge, Ron Atkinson turned to old favourite John Harkes
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The Independent Online
ONE WEEK John Harkes was soaking up the sun in Hawaii. The next he was feeling the heat of a relegation struggle in an East Midlands winter. Just another twist in a story which, as well as providing rich material for the first autobiography by an American soccer player, may well be football's first cyberspace odyssey.

Harkes was on the Pacific island last month, taking a vacation after leading Washington DC United to an historic triumph over the Brazilians of Vasco da Gama in the InterAmerican Cup, when he received an intriguing e-mail from a friend. It informed him that his former manager at Sheffield Wednesday, Ron Atkinson, was setting up his Red Adair operation at Nottingham Forest, and suggested light-heartedly that the 31-year-old midfielder might follow suit.

Forty-eight hours after returning to Washington, Harkes learned that Forest actually did want him on loan. It was Friday and Big Ron needed him there by Monday. One hastily arranged flight later, he was the most- capped player in the Premiership. By the end of the next week, having not kicked a ball competitively for nearly two months, he was "thrown in at the deep end" as emergency right-back at Everton.

Forest duly gained their first win in 20 games, only for three ensuing defeats, including an 8-1 mauling by Manchester United, to leave them adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. Relegation looks a formality unless today's visit to a resurgent Charlton Athletic delivers the first in a string of victories, but experience has taught Harkes to expect the unexpected.

It could hardly be otherwise for the son of Scottish migrants to New Jersey, after he grew up observing Pele at close quarters as a ball-boy for the New York Cosmos. From the University of Virginia he graduated to the school of hard knocks that is the English game. Then, after becoming the first American to play (and score) in a major Wembley final with Wednesday, he served Derby and West Ham before going home to the new Major League Soccer.

As a veteran of 90 internationals, and arguably the most accomplished player the United States has ever produced, Harkes had reason to look forward to his third World Cup finals last summer. Yet in the spring, the coach, Steve Sampson, suddenly and controversially cut him from the squad.

"It was a disgrace the way he did it," Harkes recalled. "We sat down and he said: `I'm not sure about taking you'. I said: `Where did this come from? I just captained your side in Belgium'. His final decision came out via the media. He didn't handle it like a man."

Sampson alleged indiscipline off the pitch and positional inflexibility on it. "He tried to make up any story he could," Harkes said, "but the real reason was his insecurity as a coach. He changed six players before the finals, which is why we did so miserably. He destroyed the chemistry that got us to France.

"I took no satisfaction from the fact that we lost all three matches. I watched at home, in pain. Putting it in perspective, I know worse things happen to people, but the way the media questioned me and my character was annoying. It was a power trip for Steve Sampson. He focused all the hype on me."

Harkes' website received 500 hits a day as the arguments raged, almost all backing him. The episode also provided the ironic title of his forthcoming book, Captain For Life and Other Temporary Assignments, the first part being an epithet which Sampson lavished on him in 1996.

His latest assignment could yet become more permanent if he finishes the season strongly, or Forest defy gravity. Either way, he will be back in MLS this summer, with a new team, New England Revolution, under a new coach, the former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga.

The Boston franchise have taken over his contract from DC United, whom Harkes led to the first two MLS titles and defeat by Chicago Fire in the third final. "The league's doing well," he said. "Crowds average around 19,000 and the investors have committed themselves to a further five years.

"At DC the atmosphere was like a party at every game. And the technique of the players is good. They just aren't steeped in a soccer culture like kids here, where they develop through the system of schools, youth and reserve teams. Soccer's now the biggest participation sport. We have to start academies like the Premiership clubs and work on the 10-year-olds."

MLS is still waiting for its first indigenous star, its Michael Jordan. Eddie Pope, a Sol Campbell clone from North Carolina, has a World Cup behind him at 25, but Harkes fears he missed a chance to learn how to read the game better by opting for the "comfort zone" of DC United rather than Ajax or one of two English clubs who coveted him.

Harkes, with Alexi Lalas and Carlos Valderrama, remains the best-known face of MLS and co-hosts a weekly soccer show on television. "I can go to cities around the US and be recognised on the street. That's partly a result of USA 94, but also because the league gets exposure on two major networks, ESPN and ABC. It's like any product: you need to spend the money, invest in it early on, even if you're going to have losses. In time you're going to gain that money back."

Warming to his theme, Harkes talked about buying Forest and restoring past glories. While his tongue was firmly in his cheek, his assessment of how English football has changed since he first arrived nine years ago reveals surprisingly traditional views. Not that he is against the influx of foreigners, which he believes has led to more teams trusting in skill and possession rather than speed and power.

The downside? "The money in the game is ruining it. The high payments to players mean there's no loyalty to clubs any more. The Bosman ruling means the clubs have no power. My team-mates will say: `Hold on a minute, Harksey, you're full of crap', but I'm not blaming them. If someone's getting pounds 30,000 a week and the club increase it to pounds 40,000, they're not going to say `no'. It just means it's hard to get stability within a team like we had at Wednesday."

Forest's plight demanded fresh impetus rather than stability; hence the arrival of Harkes, Carlton Palmer and Atkinson. "Ron's still bubbly and lively, still enjoying his five-a-sides. But he has come into a situation where his back's against the wall. It would be difficult for any manager.

"It's hard for the guys who've been here all season to be positive. They've got used to struggling. After Everton the feeling was: `We can do this!' The pity was having to play United the next week, with all their quality. We couldn't build on the win. We felt embarrassed by the way we ducked our heads that day, but anything's possible, even now."

Today's six-pointer may see Harkes in direct opposition to the division's second most-capped man, John Barnes, who was flying at Liverpool and on the way to 79 appearances for England when he last faced him. "I had tea with John once. I was in awe of him. He's a nice man as well as a top- class player. You don't lose that quality on the ball."

Reassuringly for Harkes, such wisdom is shared by Sampson's successor, Bruce Arena. They worked together at Virginia and DC United, so he may yet be recalled to the national set-up. Should the US coach want to get in touch, he is on-line most nights, answering messages that vary from requests for tips about improving skills to marriage proposals.

"I enjoy it because it's a way for the fans to get in touch with the players," said Harkes, highlighting a chasm in attitudes between the American and the British footballer. Maybe some time on the Net would help Forest hit the net in the critical weeks ahead. It is said, after all, that the e-mail of the species is more deadly.

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