Leeds United nostalgia: Set-piece specialist Harte still being missed

Ian Harte.
Ian Harte.
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Leeds United have existed for several years without the influence of a set-piece specialist.

Eddie Lewis had a knack with free-kicks and Alan Thompson struck dead balls with aplomb, lacking only the fitness to strike them often enough. But compared to the multitude of players who have passed through Elland Road since the turn of the century, Ian Harte was in a different league – a threat with anything around the 18-yard line and a useful penalty taker too.

David O’Leary, United’s manager for four of Harte’s nine seasons at Leeds, saw him as a rare breed of full-back who combined his defensive role with an inspirational streak. Harte’s strengths and technique are a reason why, at 36 years of age, he is heavily involved with an increasingly established Championship club.

Bournemouth are the latest – and potentially the last – stop in Harte’s long career, a career which began in 1996 when Leeds took him from Home Farm in the Republic of Ireland.

Four years earlier, United had raided the same club for right-back Gary Kelly – coincidentally Harte’s uncle – and for the best part of the decade, the pair were team-mates and fixtures on either side of Leeds’ defence; an attack-minded pair who suited O’Leary’s style and philosophy. Some dwelt on Harte’s lack of pace but most appreciated the power of his left foot.

Harte’s finishing was apparent from an early stage and certain goals were timed to perfection. Different managers would use the word “inspirational” to describe him – O’Leary after a crucial free-kick against Anderlecht in the Champions League in early 2001, and again when Harte tore apart Deportivo La Coruna by crashing one goal in off the crossbar and teeing up two more for Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand. Peter Reid also lauded him for the strike helped to stave off relegation away to Arsenal towards the end of the 2002-03 season.

The game as a whole took notice of him too. In 1999-2000 he was named as the Premiership’s best left-back but amid Leeds’ first financial crisis in 2004, he left for Levante in Spain and stumbled into a nomadic period of his career. A move to Sunderland followed and Blackpool took him for a short time in 2008. By that stage, the former Republic of Ireland international was so far off the radar that he was looking and asking for trials.

Speaking after leaving Elland Road, Harte said: “I thought I was going to end my career at Leeds. I loved it there. I joined them at 15 and quickly settled into Yorkshire life.

“But it was hard as we saw so many top players leave. It was also depressing thinking that only a few years ago we were in the semi-finals of the Champions League.”

When Carlisle United signed Harte in 2009, it felt like a last chance. In fact it was the beginning of a renaissance. Harte scored 18 goals for Carlisle and was included in League One’s team of the year. Soon after he moved unexpectedly to Reading and, aged 34, was part of Brian McDermott’s Championship-winning squad. He returned to the Premier League after two consecutive appearances in the Championship’s team of the year. A career which threatened to burn out quietly instead found a fitting conclusion.

Leeds and McDermott had the chance to re-sign him last summer but were overloaded with left-backs and short of money. “Ian’s one of the hungriest players I’ve ever worked with,” McDermott said. “But we’re well covered in that area. He’ll make a terrific signing for someone.”

Bournemouth thought so and have not been disappointed.