Marvin Johnson’s switch to centre-back evokes nostalgic memories of former Sheffield Wednesday favourite John Harkes

Languishing in the third tier and struggling to keep a fed-up fanbase on side, Sheffield Wednesday could do with a hero emerging.

Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 5:13 pm

Defensive frailties have been at the heart of the Owls’ struggles this season with just two clean sheets in their last 12 matches, while Darren Moore’s constant rotation has also irked supporters.

The most recent tinkering saw Marvin Johnson, who has played the majority of his career on the wing, deployed as a left-sided centre-half in one of the most eyebrow-raising positional changes seen at Hillsborough for some time.

To his credit, and that of his manager – even if he did leave a fully fit centre back on the bench - the former Middlesbrough man put in a largely solid display.

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Players insist they are happy to play anywhere as long as they are in the team, so no doubt Johnson accepted his manager’s decision without protest, just as a former Owl in a similar position did 31 years ago this week, which marked the beginning of a special journey with the club.

John Harkes had never played at right-back until a knee injury to fan-favourite Roland Nilsson in a 4-2 defeat against Millwall on 27 October 1990 left Sheffield Wednesday’s then-manager Ron Atkinson with little choice but to call upon the American import for his debut in English football.

Until then, Harkes had primarily played in central midfield and even featured as a left-sided midfielder for his country at Italia '90.

John Harkes fires the ball home to give Sheffield Wednesday an eighth-minute lead against Arsenal in the 1993 League Cup final. Photo: PA.

Big Ron saw him as a right-winger, however, an opinion he formulated after seeing the-then 23-year-old produce a ‘great cross’ during a trial game against West Brom.

Harkes had been recommended to Atkinson by the late Liverpool legend Ian St John through his son – also named Ian – who had been working with a club in the US and spotted his potential.

Plucked from the relative obscurity of the pre-MLS America Soccer League system, he auditioned with the Owls along with another American, goalkeeper Tony Meola, who would go on to win 100 caps for the US national team, before signing a three-year deal.

“Usually you take these recommendations with a pinch of salt, but you sit up and take notice when the Saint calls you,” Atkinson remembered in '91: The inside story of Sheffield Wednesday's historic 1990/91 season.

John Harkes and Franz Carr battle for the ball during the 1993 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday.

“He was a good judge of a player. Where Harkesy was different was that his old man was Scottish and, even though football in America was a completely different sport altogether at the time, he used to go to some little Irish bar and watch British football. He was ingrained in our culture and way of playing through his father.

"He wasn’t away with the fairies, running in penalty shoot-outs...He knew what proper football was.”

Harkes’s first-team bow came in a Rumbelows Cup second-round tie against Swindon Town four days after Nilsson’s injury and saw him emerge with credibility after helping the Owls to a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw.

He only got the nod to start at right-back after he lied to his manager, claiming he’d previously played there when asked during a training session.

John Harkes (left) pictured with Nigel Pearson and Mark Bright at Sheffield Wednesday's 150th anniversary dinner in 2017.

On the positional change, he said: “I was a quick learner and watching Roland play there...I always remembered he was a great defender, but also that he was a pioneer of the early days of wing-backs, very cultured in that way.

"That’s how I wanted to go about it.

“One thing that Ron knew he was getting from me was that I had a pride in not letting anybody beat me on the field.”

Harkes never looked back after his debut and featured 82 times for Sheffield Wednesday over the next three years.

The following season he was one of the heroes of the club’s 1991 Rumbelows Cup win.

He also became the first American to play in the Premier League and featured for the Owls during their 1993 League and FA Cup near-misses, as well as in the UEFA Cup.

But he is perhaps best remembered for scoring a thunderbolt against Derby County in 1990, the club he would join from Wednesday three years later.

The 90-cap US international also found the back of the net in the 1993 League Cup final against Arsenal at Wembley while playing in England, which made him the first American to score in a major final at Wembley.

All in, he clocked up 164 appearances in English football for the Owls, the Rams and West Ham before returning to America.

It’s fair to say he remembers his time at Hillsborough most fondly of all.

“It was the best time of my life, to be honest,” he told The Athletic last year.

“When I look back, it helped me grow on the field, working under Ron Atkinson. He believed in me, he was a great mentor, he had a great balance.

“Enjoying the hard work that you put into it, having fun and growing from there — I wanted to stay at Wednesday for ten years if I could.”

Harkes has since gone on to lead South Carolina outfit Greenville Triumph to the USL League One title, having previously worked as assistant manager for the New York Red Bulls.

Speaking to The Star earlier this year, he said: “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.”

Sometimes, as Harkes proved, change can be a good thing.

You never know what it might bring.