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It's long gone, that Eager Eagle Scout look he shared with his teammates on the U.S. soccer team at the World Cup last summer in Italy. Instead, there's a professional intensity in the dark brown eyes, and a look that's lean and hungry, honed by a season of play in the sleet and cold of northern England. Even his name, as it's commonly used, has changed. He's plain John Harkes no longer. The soccer fans of the hard, knowing steelworkers' city of Sheffield, a sort of English Pittsburgh, have bestowed on him their ultimate symbol of acceptance. He's Harksey now—with affection.
Harkes, 24, never expected that to happen. "I thought it was going to be really mean and tough," he says. "I thought I might even get hounded. People yelling at me, 'Go home, Yank.' All that stuff. But it never happened. This city might be cold, and it's a long way from London. But the people are so friendly, so accepting. The guys on the team were great too. I was warned, 'You're going over there, taking somebody's job.' But I experienced no hint of that. Once I proved to them I could play the game, I had no problems."
Actually, it was a tad more complex than that. He became known as Harksey with such speed chiefly because of two strokes of fate. One was a piece of pure luck: an injury to a teammate that opened up a spot for him on the first team of his club, Sheffield Wednesday. The other stroke—and this time luck was not involved—was a spectacular play by Harkes just before Christmas, a play that caused one English paper to proclaim: HARKES THE HERALD ANGEL SINGS!
Such a turn of events seemed unlikely back in September, when Harkes went to England on loan from the U.S. Soccer Federation to play midfielder for Sheffield Wednesday's reserve squad. Following last season, the club had been unexpectedly pushed out of the English first division, and it was battling at the top of the second division to move back up. So when its regular right back, Roland Nillson, a player on the Swedish national team, suffered torn ligaments in his right leg in late October, Sheffield Wednesday manager Ron Atkinson called Harkes up to replace Nillson.
Harkes was more than a little shaken. First of all, he had never played right back before. Second, Nillson was one of Harkes's friends. They had met at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and according to Harkes, "Roland used to give me a lot of advice." Now Harkes was taking over Nillson's number 2 shirt. Harkes had some misgivings, but his agent, Ian St. John, persuaded him to put them aside. Though playing an unfamiliar position might be a gamble, it meant, after all, a spot on the first team.
"So I started against Swindon, and the crowd took to me right away," Harkes recalls. "Everything was O.K. in my second game too, against Oldham.... Then came Derby."
It was a cold night for the sudden-death match, a replay of a League Cup game that had ended in a 1-1 draw two weeks earlier. Derby is a first-division club, and the last time Sheffield Wednesday had won on Derby's home turf was in 1956. The big moment, which would be played repeatedly on British TV over the next two months, came in the 32nd minute of the game, with the score 0-0. Here's how Harkes tells the story: "The ball got switched over to me from the left mid-field, and I pushed it ahead. Now, usually, in this league, somebody will cut you up, stop you somehow. But suddenly nobody was near me and I told myself, I'm gonna put my head down and crack it. And that ball just took off, 35 yards into the far corner of the net. Then there were all these guys chasing me down the field yelling, 'Jeez, what a peach that was! Brilliant!' It meant so much to me. And who was the goalie but Peter Shilton, of the English national team!"
More soberly, Atkinson says, "To do that against one of the great keepers is marvelous. There was no element of fluke to it. The shot was unstoppable. And it was his first goal for the team!"
The shot was broadcast nationally on the day's highlights show—"jammy," Harksey describes it with mock self-deprecation, using English slang for lucky—and is a top candidate for the ITV network's Goal of the Season Award. But Harkes, who also set up the game-winning goal that day with a cross to striker Paul Williams that put Sheffield Wednesday ahead 2-1, reckons he has already received a bigger accolade. "The next home game," he says, "we ran out to warm up, and usually, you know, they just clap. But this time the whole stadium started chanting my name: 'Johnny Harkes, Johnny Harkes! Give us a wave, Harksey!' I've never felt so warm."
Harkes's first encounter with Sheffield occurred in January 1990, when he and U.S. team goalie Tony Meola ventured there for a three-week tryout. Neither made the team, although Atkinson came away impressed. Both Harkes and Meola were more interested in getting back to the U.S. team anyway. "I was thinking World Cup then, that it would be better for me to train with the U.S. team," Harkes recalls. "But after being here for a while and seeing how I've improved as a player, seeing the speed of the real game, the one-touch passing, I'm sorry I didn't stay. If you make it here, you can play anywhere in the world. It toughens you mentally, it makes you a pro."