Zizou, Ronaldo, Figo – I marked them all
By Jamie Holt IRISH STAR MIXED IT WITH WORLD BEST
ONE MINUTE he was mixing it with Real Madrid’s Galacticos the next he was ostracised by Levante’s president and almost found himself on the scrapheap. Yes, Bournemouth new boy Ian Harte has seen it all since his Leeds heyday.
His nine years at Elland Road were lively enough, but amid the financial chaos that engulfed the club in 2004 Harte made his escape to Spain, although he maintains he was forced out by the club he helped reach the Champions League semi-final just three years earlier.
It wasn’t a bad end result for the Republic of Ireland international leftback, though. He owned a holiday villa in Marbella and watched with admiration the great El Clasico contests between Madrid and Barcelona.
“I always watched Spanish football and my agent (Robert Segal) was in Spain at the time,” said Harte, whose distinctive Irish twang makes a mockery of national boss Giovanni Trapattoni’s assumption he wasn’t from the Emerald Isle.
“Robert said ‘would you be interested in playing in Spain?’ We ended up flying from Malaga to Valencia, and we had a look around the Levante ground and I made my mind up straight away.
“I then went back to Leeds to train, and was told by manager Kevin Blackwell I was going to be third-choice left-back. They were trying to get everyone off the wage bill.
It was a gloomy end to Harte’s spell in Yorkshire. Overspending during the Peter Ridsdale era overshadowed their sensational run to the last four in Europe where they were eventually beaten by Valencia.
Back then Leeds, under the stewardship of David O’Leary, were also genuine title contenders and Harte was steadily building his reputation as one of the continent’s most dangerous fullbacks – especially from the set-piece.
His free-kick against Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter-final of the Champions League in 2001 is still revered in the Revie Stand.
But Harte watched on from the east coast of Spain as Leeds fell dramatically from grace after their relegation to the Championship in 2004.
While he was plating for Levante and marking Luis Figo, keeping tabs on Zinedine Zidane and trying to stop Brazil’s Ronaldo, his former club were travelling to Luton in League One.
“I was in Spain when they were in League One and there were still about 30,000 fans going every week – it goes to show the support Leeds have,” added Harte, who this summer signed for Championship newcomers Bournemouth on a one-year deal.
“There were some amazing times at Leeds.We had special nights in Europe and pushing on in the league as well.
“I always get a decent reception when I go back, we had a fantastic team then and it’s just a shame the club went into financial difficulties and everybody moved on.
“It’s a massive club. It’s important they get back into the Premier League as soon as possible because they have the stadium and the training facilities. It’s all built for the Premier League.”
Of his time at Levante, he says:“It was playing against the likes of Real Madrid and the Galacticos – Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Zizou.
“I played against all of them. When they had the Ronaldo, he was at the peak of his form so it was a great experience for me.”
But, as at Leeds, things turned sour for Harte. In his third and final season with Levante he required surgery on a troublesome cyst on his knee and president Pedro Villarroel refused to pay for the surgery..
In the end, having recruited the same solicitor that aided Carlos Tevez’ s move from West Ham to Manchester United, Harte received the treatment but he knew his time was up.
“It wasn’t even a big operation but the club just ended up being awkward,” he said. “The president said I would never kick a ball again, but obviously he was proved wrong wasn’t he?”
A year under Roy Keane at Sunderland ended with him being shipped out of the Stadium of Light and travelling the country to prove his worth on trial.
Chances at Blackpool, Wolves and even St Mirren all came and went and he found himself helping Carlisle avoid the League One drop in 2009.
“I helped the team stay in League One and the following season I got 18 goals so thankfully I then got a move to Reading.”
It was a switch Harte describes as a ‘punt’ by then Reading boss Brian McDermott – ironically now in charge at Elland Road – but it couldn’t have turned out better.
He helped the Royals to promotion from the Championship in 2012 and last season was rolling back the years in the Premier League.
“Never in a million years did I think I would be back playing in the top flight,” added Harte. “It’s moved on now a hell of a lot from when I was in it. But it was a great experience for the club and the fans.
“We fought so hard in the Championship to get promoted. It was just disappointing that we let it come and go, and I’m sure we all learned a lot from that experience.”
Eddie Howe will be looking to tap into the 35-year-old’s experience in a Bournemouth side full of youthful exuberance.
“I’m enjoying it,” Harte said.“I knew before I signed of the ability they had with Eddie.They had a great squad and obviously the ambition to push forward.
“The club have fought hard to get into the Championship so it’s important that we fight hard to stay there.
“A lot of people have written us off. Wigan came here the other day and probably thought they’d turn us over, but it just goes to show the strength and depth within the squad that we won 1-0.”
DEADLY: Ian Harte scores from the spot for Leeds against Portsmouth in 2004