Harley seeks development

Monday 13 August 2001

This time last year Jon Harley had much in common with Ashley Cole. Both were promising, young English left-backs who had served apprenticeships at their London clubs and were dreaming of playing a starring role in a Premiership season. Yet both still had to convince foreign managers of their talent and, more pertinently, both had to dislodge foreign players.

Chelsea's Harley, however, would have been the bookmakers' favourite to make more of an impression than Arsenal's Cole last season after his promising 1999-2000 when he made 26 appearances under Gianluca Vialli. He scored a blistering goal at Leeds towards the end of the season that won the game and had fans and pundits alike speculating over his international future. Cole, who at 19 was a year younger than Harley, had only a run-out at Newcastle on the last day of the season and had been on loan at Crystal Palace earlier in that year. If he was to secure a first-team berth at Highbury, he would also have to oust the Brazilian international Silvinho.

Harley can no longer relate to Cole, who was given a chance in Wenger's first team last season and blossomed, as has been well documented. He has already won three England caps and appears even to have forced Silvinho to seek employment away from Highbury. Not so well-documented was Harley's miserable year at Stamford Bridge where he made only eight starts and slipped out of the limelight under Claudio Ranieri, who accepted a £3.5 million bid for him from West London rivals, Fulham, last week.

The 21-year-old said he realised his Chelsea career had reached its nadir when he was loaned to Wimbledon last October. "It had got to the stage where I wasn't involved at all," he said.

"The manager said he liked me but I got pushed back to third choice behind Celestine Babayaro and Graeme Le Saux."

Harley's transfer has given critics of Chelsea's foreign policy more ammunition but also prompted questions over Claudio Ranieri's selection criteria. The argument against filling a squad with talent from abroad because it holds back youth scheme products is nowhere more striking than in Harley's case. But Harley felt he was also being held back because of an Englishman.

While Le Saux is a proven England international he has suffered with injuries in recent years and is soon to be 33. Some critics have expressed surprise that it was not Le Saux making a move away from the Bridge.

A diplomatic Harley defended both Le Saux and his former manager but he could not hide his disappointment at being denied the opportunity afforded Cole last term. "I would not say that Graeme (Le Saux) is past his best, he has just had a few injuries. But obviously I am confident in my own ability and maybe I could have proved something at Chelsea. But I didn't play there and didn't get the chance to show that," he said.

Fulham manager Jean Tigana - Harley has only ever known foreign management - should give him a chance to revive his England ambitions by putting him in the first team regularly and up against some of the best right-sided players in the world. David Beckham is his first challenge on Sunday.

Harley said the move was likely to restore some of the confidence he had lost under Ranieri at Chelsea.

"I am not thinking about England at the moment; that would be a dream. But I am glad I've come to Fulham to prove that I'm still a good player and hopefully do well for them in the Premiership."

The smattering of interviews that Tigana undertook last season proved his English to be a few leagues beyond Ranieri's and, although he has now added over £17 million worth of talent to his squad this summer, the feeling is that the Frenchman has a settled squad where everyone knows their place.

The same could not be said of Chelsea last season whose formation was as changeable as an English summer's day. "Ranieri changed things around a lot last season," Harley conceded. "We needed an interpreter to understand what he was saying but he was always very honest with me and he made it clear that I was not 100 per cent part of his plans."

Harley's `defection' to Chelsea's closest rivals (geographically) is unlikely to be greeted with the same derision and hate as Sol Campbell's north London move from Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal this summer, although the reasons for his move are similar: ambition. Campbell wanted Champions League football and knew that if he got it, Sven-Goran Eriksson would see more of him. Harley wanted first-team football and, again, Eriksson may now be reintroduced to his talents.

This time next year the World Cup in Japan and Korea will have come and gone. Ashley Cole, it seems, is already halfway to fulfilling his eastern promise. Harley is promising to get back on level terms.