Leaders, hotels and who he's rooting for: Former Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County man John Harkes looks ahead to Saturday's survival clash

At 7:30am on Saturday morning, in a quiet hotel room in North Carolina some 3,797 miles from Derby County’s Pride Park, a television set will click into action.

By Alex Miller
Thursday, 6th May 2021, 11:13 am

That’s 7:30 over there, of course. In the UK it will be 12:30 and Sheffield Wednesday’s do-or-die Championship survival clash with the Rams will have just about kicked off.

The hotel room belongs to former Owls midfielder John Harkes one of the heroes of their 1991 Rumbelows Cup win, their double cup near-miss of 1993 and their journey into European football the year after.

He’ll be uniquely placed, of course, having represented both sides in a trailblazing playing career.

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Former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder John Harkes was the first American to play in the Premier League.

“I try to watch both teams as much as I can,” he told The Star fresh off the training ground with the club he is now manager of, Greenvile Triumph SC.

“It’s hard sometimes with timing, where we’re travelling, preparing and stuff and it’s difficult to get games on iFollow here, but sometimes the games are on ESPN+ and I watch highlights of games back on YouTube.”

Saturday’s clash comes on the morning of Greenville’s trip to North Carolina FC as Harkes’ players look to extend a two-from-two winning start to their attempt to defend their USL League One title.

But there will be two hours or so Harkes will spend wandering memory lane watching two clubs he played a combined 149 league matches for in the best years of his career, leaving Hillsborough for Derby in 1995.

John Harkes left Wednesday for Derby in 1993.

His achievements at two huge clubs – he latterly spent time on loan at West Ham and Nottingham Forest – blazed a trail for the likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to play in the Premier League. Harkes was the first American to do so.

Big clubs though they are, the 90-cap US international knows there is no excuse for this weekend’s predicament, which will see at least one of them relegated.

Wednesday can only avoid the drop if they win and Rotherham fail to win at Cardiff.

“There is no divine right,” he said on two clubs that have had widely-reported struggles off the field in recent months.

“You have to earn everything and there are always times that are difficult, changes in style, stresses at clubs, anxiety from results and things change.

“But no matter all that, the leadership has to be constant. That’s a thing that has to be a priority, a consistent communication, transparency and leadership. Sometimes clubs lose their way and they have to reset.

“Coming back down is sometimes the best thing to do. You look at Norwich and Watford and what they did, they committed to their plan and it worked.

“There’s no given right for any club no matter how big they are. It’s anyone’s game and it’ll be an interesting challenge.”

Harkes played with Wednesday first team coach Paul Williams among others at Derby and in two Second Division seasons was unlucky not to be promoted to the top flight, losing out to Leicester in a tightly-contested 1994 playoff final.

Now in a leadership role himself of course, he suggested change was needed at both clubs for them to achieve their undoubted potential.

And whatever happens on Saturday, honest conversations will need to be had both in the changing room and at boardroom level, he believes.

In the case of Wednesday a raft of senior players are out of contract at the end of the season and there is an opportunity to clear the decks with a new playing staff after years of disappointment.

But Harkes said the change has to come much higher than the make-up of the names on the back of the shirt.

“Self reflection is important for anyone to grow,” he said. “You’d like to think the players and management are doing that on a constant basis, but also the ownership groups, the guys owning the clubs need to do that also.

“They have to look at where the club is, where they want to go and how the want to achieve things. There has to be a plan in place, a clear transparent and authentic style of leadership. It’s never just as easy of changing nine of 10 players in an off-season.

“The mindset of the club itself needs to take a look at itself, ask how this happened. Not to point fingers, but to come together and be a club.

“The fans of both clubs will be disappointed at how they’ve arrived at this situation and it is very difficult, in a Covid year even more difficult.”

So fast forward to that North Carolina hotel room, to John Harkes sat up watching the match with his early morning coffee. Who is he – to use an Americanism – ‘rooting for’ as his two sides go to battle in what could be a straight shootout for survival?

“It’s hard for me, it really is,” he said with an audible grimace. “Those clubs gave me an opportunity to put on their jersey and I am so grateful for that.

“Wednesday was my first open door. I have conversations with Sir Alex now and then and he once told me how special it is to be the first manager to give someone an opportunity. That for me was Ron Atkinson who gave me such an opportunity to come in as a Yank.

“Wednesday is so dear to my heart because of what we achieved; Wembley, beating Sheffield United in a semi-final, as an American representing a club like that in Europe? Wow.

“So it’s almost like Wednesday gets the nod there, but at the same time I had so many special moments there with Derby. They’re both special in different ways.”

Wednesday it is, John. We heard you.

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