Saturday, 10 December 2011

Ian Harte

El Toro Irlandés

2004 - 2007 : Levante UD (Spain)

In 2004, newly promoted Levante of Spain's La Liga, signed Irish international Ian Harte. The left-back would be the first Irish player to grace Spain since John Aldridge and Ashley Grimes left the country in 1991. Although spending two happy years in Spain, Harte would be back in England by 2007 after he lost his place in the Levante team. Once regarded as one of the finest Irish players of his generation, Harte's failure in Spain would end his reputation as a top-class footballer and condemn him to the lower leagues for the rest of his career.

Born in Drogheda, Harte signed for English outfit Leeds United in 1996, joining his uncle, right-back Gary Kelly at the club. Over the next 8 years he would become a staple part of the Leeds side, as the club became one of the biggest in England in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reaching some marvellous European milestones along the way. The distinctly Irish Leeds team, managed by David O'Leary from 1998 and featuring among others Alan Maybury and Robbie Keane, reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 2000 and the Champions League semi-finals the next year. Harte was an important member of this team, scoring memorable goals against Arsenal and Deportivo la Coruna. Throughout his Leeds career, and in particular during their amazing Champions' League run in 2000-01, Harte had been consistently linked with moves to Europe's biggest clubs. Indeed, by 2002, Harte was regarded as one of the best defenders in Europe.

He made his Ireland debut in 1996 at the age of 19 and would cement his place in the side after the retirement of Denis Irwin. He played in the 2002 World Cup and gained 64 caps in total, scoring 11 goals for his country. Following Leeds United's financial meltdown in the summer of 2004, Harte finally made his long awaited move to the continent, to sunny Valencia. Unfortunately, it wasn't the city's main club who signed him, but rather the relatively obscure Levante. 

Levante UD were founded in 1909 by a perfume company and took their name from a famous beach close to the city. Rivals Valencia would not be founded for another ten years, and during that time Levante would pioneer football in the city and the region. The club's trophy cabinet isn't well stocked, but they did win the Copa de la Espana Libre in 1937. By the time Harte arrived, Levante had only recently been promoted to the La Liga, making their appearance in Spain's top flight for the first time in 41 years. 

"I am joining an ambitious club and I want to make my mark and remain here for several years," said Harte soon after signing. He cut a popular figure in his maiden season at the Ciutat de Valencia, scoring the club's first top-flight goal in four decades, and was nick-named the Irish Bull. He played well in his first six months and by November they were lying in 3rd place. January 2005 would see him suffer a serious groin injury however, and he remained on the injury table for most of the season's remainder. His absence appeared to affect Levante badly, and the club had slid down to the relegation zone by May. Returning at the season's end, Harte's experience wasn't enough to save the club from relegation, after a last day defeat against Villarreal. 

Harte scores Levante's first top-flight goal since 1965

In his second season, Levante were playing in the Segunda Division. Harte had a fine season though, and was the club's first choice left-back for the whole year. He managed nine goals in all competitions, mainly from direct free-kicks. Levante finished in 3rd place and were promoted back to La Liga in their first attempt. 

Harte scores a free-kick against Xerex

His third season at the club, would be an unhappy one, as Harte suffered an injury in August which kept him out for five months. In spite of the club's fairly poor performance all season, Harte was still unable to regain his place in the first team. Levante finished in 15th and avoided relegation, but Harte's time with the club had clearly come to and end. His last game for Levante was against the same as his first, Real Sociedad, seeing a 0-1 defeat. In the summer, he left Levante by mutual consent. Harte's time in Spain had come to an end, after making over 60 appearances for the Frogs, and scoring 10 goals. 

He was signed by Roy Keane's Sunderland in 2007 but failed to settle, and the following season he began his exile in lower leagues first with Blackpool and then Carlisle, before signing for Reading in the NPower Championship. He is as of May 2013 unattached. Harte's Ireland career appears to have ended after being consistently overlooked by Giovanni Trapattoni, and his most recent outburst against the Italian makes a recall even more unlikely.

Harte's prospects in Spain took a knock after his injuries ruined his third season at Levante, had they not, he might have seen bigger success in Valencia, and perhaps even bagged a move to a bigger club in Iberia. Potential moves to AC Milan and Barcelona back in 2001 add to the notion that Ian Harte's career could well have been far more notorious.

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