Vital Reading looks at defender Ian Harte and whether he can cope with the demands of Premier League football…..
After signing a one-year contract extension last month, Ian Harte is set to embark on another Premier League journey, but this time in very different circumstances to what he did over ten years ago.
Harte joined Leeds in 1996 and broke into the team in the 1997/98 season, surrounded by defenders the likes of Gary Kelly, Lucas Radebe and soon Jonathan Woodgate. He went onto play alongside one of the best English defenders the Premier League has ever seen in Rio Ferdinand and even stared in a Champions League semi-final in 2001.
However, it is now all change for the 34-year old who is just two months short of his 35th birthday. Harte now walks into the Premier League with a side that many are predicting to go straight back down, with his fellow defenders only managing a handful of top division games all combined. Many may question the Royals` ability to cope in the Premier League but whether Reading`s Mr. Experience can cope with demands at the age of 35 certainly remains to be seen.
The former Republic of Ireland international has never been blessed with extortionate amounts of pace during his playing career but does the Premier League require a full back to possess a certain amount of speed to survive in comparison to what it did ten years ago? I believe so. For the majority of teams, wingers have tended to become more a vocal point in recent years. From Cristiano Ronaldo for Manchester United to Scott Sinclair for Swansea, they certainly have become more prominent in the last five years. By no means did Harte have an easy task during his Leeds days, but he isn`t surrounded by European-standard defenders this time round but is going to face the same European-standard of wingers.
Steve McClaren once said “a defender does not need pace, if they have a good reading of the game”. This is correct in some aspects, but there is a fine line between not needing this pace and not having enough. So poses the question again, can Harte cope with the demands of the Premier League with his lack of pace? Had you have asked myself and every Reading fan the question in October time when he was replaced in the team by Joseph Mills, you would have got a bundle of laughter and a dose of ‘are you living in the past?`. Harte looked as if he was very much a spent article, far from preparing to be a Premier League defender.
Harte`s form in the second-half of the season certainly changed that mind-set of many fans. Albeit the entire team made enormous strides in terms of improvement but the defensive capabilities Harte portrayed was fantastic by anyone`s terms. His ariel ability to win countless amounts of headers and a renewed knack of ‘getting a foot in` optimised this, rather than being beaten by a simple foot roll that a five-year old could do. Despite his record in front of goal drying up a little, Ian proved to his doubters that he could do what his job description originally entailed. Defend.
I feel that Harte still certainly has a part to play in our Premier League campaign, even though I highly doubt he will start every game. The gulf between Premier League and Championship standard wingers is very noticeable. The only time he is going to get awfully exposed is when team`s hit us on the break or when we play a high defensive line, which may become a rarity consider we play a cautious system under McDermott. Pearce and Gorkss` lack of pace would also certainly not do Harte any favours, when Sonko could often bail out the likes of Murty and Shorey back in the Coppell era.
It is highly likely that Brian McDermott is going to bring in another left-back in the summer transfer window, with the inexperienced Joseph Mills the only other recognised left-sided defender. Former Reading defender Nicky Shorey is a name being linked with a Royal return after his release from West Brom, but I`m not incredibly sure what he brings to the table that Harte doesn`t. Admittedly, in the Coppell era, Shorey used to run the left-flank with what Graeme Murty believed ‘was the best left foot he has ever seen`, when Harte very rarely goes beyond the winger infront of him.
We certainly are a club that has been blessed with left backs in recent years, especially Ryan Bertrand who has gone on to be the first former Reading player to play and win in a Champions League final this May in Munich. The Chelsea left back has also been linked with a Reading return, but is more than likely to stay with the Blues to provide good cover for Ashley Cole, who is starting to show signs of injury-proneness. I would very much encourage a deal for a promising young full-back, possibly Tottenham`s Danny Rose despite only recently being converted from a winger. If that fails, David Murphy or George Elokobi would be viable signings, not just because of Elokobi`s high resemblance to a tank.
Overall, I refer back to my original question on whether Harte can cope with the Premier League? My answer is yes. He may not possess the greatest amount of pace but with a left-foot that would grace any league on the planet and a player with such experience that has proven he can still defend capably, Premier League football is still within Hartey`s comfort zone. Good luck to him, he deserves it.