Home and Away: Jon Harley
feature Sun 4 Feb 2018
With the Blues playing away at Watford on Monday, Jon Harley talks us through some personal highlights from games he played on the road during his time at the club, as well as looking back on his spell at Vicarage Road...
As a player who came through the ranks at Chelsea before going on to make 42 appearances for the club, Jon Harley knows exactly how Callum Hudson-Odoi will be feeling right now having made his debut last weekend.
Harley, who now is part of the development process for young players in the club’s Academy, broke into a hugely talented side, which included the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Wise, Roberto Di Matteo and Gustavo Poyet, in the late 1990s and slotted in seamlessly.
His Blues bow arrived in April 1998, in a Premier League away game against Derby County (pictured right), just three days after the first leg of our European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in Vicenza.
It was an enjoyable debut for the youngster as he recorded an assist for what proved to be the winning goal, scored by Mark Hughes. Harley takes up the story.
‘Ruud Gullit had left and the first team were progressing in Europe, so the way it was structured was that the league games were an opportunity for players like myself to be given an opportunity and when it happened, away at Derby, I had no clue,’ he tells the official Chelsea website.
‘I found out quite late on that I was involved. Even in the hotel beforehand nobody had actually said anything to me, only my mum and dad knew because Ted Dale, the youth team coach, had told them.
‘We went into the meeting room and the flip-chart went back. We played 3-5-2 and I saw ‘JH’ written in the left wing-back position, but there was such a high turnover of players I didn’t realise it was me at first. I found out so late there was no time for me to get nervous, although it came in a period where I was really confident anyway because I was having a good spell.
‘The goal came about because the ball came out to me, I took a touch and hit a big looping cross to the far post and fortunately Mark Hughes got up above everyone and headed it in. Obviously it was a real highlight of my career making my Chelsea debut and it was a great experience.
‘It was fortunate we used to play 3-5-2 in the youth team so I knew the position inside out and one of the things I remember was the amount of time I had on the ball. I expected it to be 100 miles per hour but I actually found it easier than I expected it to be.’
It was during the 1999/2000 campaign, our first in the Champions League, that Harley enjoyed a sustained run in the side, and in a game against Watford, a team he would go on to play for later in his career, the boyhood Chelsea fan fulfilled a childhood dream by scoring his first goal for the club. The fact it proved to be the winner merely added to his sense of pride.
‘I think it was the only header of my career, it was against Alex Chamberlain and when I ended up signing for Watford he was the goalkeeping coach so I reminded him he was the only person to let one of my headers in,’ Harley laughs.
‘It was a tough game and Marcel Desailly scored for us. I think my goal came from their corner, we broke away and Dan Petrescu got in down the right. He delivered it onto my head and rather than power it, I just guided the ball in, it was a good header and it’s difficult to explain the feeling when it went in. For a young lad who came through the ranks, to score at the Bridge was unbelievable.’
Just over a month later the Blues travelled to Elland Road to face Leeds United, one of our direct challengers for the European places.
At a ground where we had traditionally struggled, we edged a tight encounter 1-0. Harley, playing in an unfamiliar role, scored the winner.
‘It was a funny game from my point of view because I was playing as a left midfielder, and I’d been playing predominantly as a left wing-back for two or three years,’ he says. ‘I actually struggled in the game, I was getting up and down but my quality on the ball wasn’t perhaps what it should have been.
‘I remember the goal quite clearly. I intercepted the ball, Chris Sutton then got it and flicked it over and I just managed to get in front of Gary Kelly, I caught the ball quite sweetly and it went under Nigel Martyn. It was my first goal away from home and because the crowd went silent I was wondering if it had been disallowed, so I didn’t really know what to do.
‘But as time went on I realised what an important goal that was. When I was out on the pitch I didn’t think too much about rivalries because I just wanted to win the game, whereas for the fans it obviously meant a lot to them due to the long-standing rivalry.'
Harley was named in the team which started our FA Cup semi-final against Newcastle at Wembley a week later and the youngster would play a significant part in the goal which secured our place in the final, although it’s an afternoon he looks back on with mixed feelings, as he explains.
‘People always ask me who was the toughest opponent I faced and I always think back to that day, because it was Nobby Solano,’ he says. ‘I was left-back, he was playing on the right wing and in terms of our one-against-one duels, I don’t think I got the better of him. I actually got booked for bringing him down with my hands.
‘Rob Lee equalised for them and then the ball came to me, I hit it into an area and Gus Poyet, who was arguably the difference between the teams on the day, did the rest. It’s great because everybody remembers that moment rather than the performance.’
That same season, for a Boxing Day trip to Southampton, both Harley and Jody Morris were the only two English players to feature for Vialli’s side, with the duo coming off the bench to add a more domestic feel to what had been an all-foreign starting line-up.
‘I just remember getting home and watching Match of the Day and they were talking about it, but Vialli had said after the game he didn’t want to see passports when he was picking a team,’ Harley says.
‘Within the club there was no issue, and on the bench we had myself, Jody and Mark Nicholls, all homegrown players.’
He goes on to speak about Vialli, and the role the Italian played in his development.
‘From a personal level, I loved him,’ he says. ‘He was a really good person who was always interested in you. As a coach, I know that getting to know someone on a personal level is of huge importance. He built up a relationship with the players where we wanted to do well for him and he was really popular.
‘There was a heavy emphasis on diet and a healthy lifestyle but I’m forever grateful to him because he’s the one who gave me a chance. Prior to him getting the job I was nowhere near the first team, I’d join in the sessions sometimes but I was just a number, even though it was great for me.’
Harley was an unused substitute in the victorious 2000 FA Cup final before leaving the club the following year to join Fulham. He went on to play for the likes of Sheffield United, Burnley and Watford, who we face on Monday night, and the two-year period he spent with the Hornets is one he looks back on with fondness.
‘In my second season there I think I was the most used sub in the Championship, which isn’t really a record you want to have,’ Harley recalls. ‘There were frustrating times, probably when Brendan Rodgers was there and I was out of the team a little bit, but I really enjoyed my whole experience on and off the pitch.
‘I loved going into training, the fans were great and it was a bit of a difficult period for the club because they’d been relegated, and then missed out on going up through the play-offs. We thought we were going to challenge again and we were near the bottom of the table, but overall they were two enjoyable years and I was playing in midfield, which at that stage of my career I was happy to do.’
Harley, who now coaches our Under-16s, has come full circle. Back at the club where it all started, he is delighted to be in a position where his knowledge and experience can help some of the young players who are part of the Chelsea Academy.
‘I’ve been here for five years, I’ve been working predominantly with the Under-15s and now with the Under-16s and I’m really enjoying it,’ he says.
‘It was a pathway I never thought I’d go down when I was a player, the coaching side never really appealed to me, but as I was getting to the last year of my career I was thinking about some of the coaches I’d had, good things I’d learnt and things that weren’t so good, and I felt I’d be good at it.
‘I’ve been fortunate to get the opportunity here and I’m just enjoying being out on the training pitch with good players who want to learn. The goal is to develop and improve them.
‘It’s great to see these players come through the Academy into the first team and look very settled when they do get on. It’s good for us to be able use them as role models for the others coming through because the likes of Callum (pictured above) and Dujon Sterling, who have both made their debuts this season, have had to work very hard.’