Stoke City do a nice line in homegrown widemen. It’s been a while since the great Sir Stanley Matthews played his final game for the Potters in 1965 but, some 53 years on, Jack Harrison might be about to restore that tradition.
Matthews, born in Hanley, made more than 300 appearances in red in white across two spells, also achieving legend status at Blackpool in between. Harrison, also a Stoke native but raised in Bolton, does not quite have the same body of work.
While the Potters slumped in 2017, Harrison enjoyed the biggest year of his career to date, scoring ten and assisting a further three for NYCFC while winning his first England Under-21 call-up in October, making his debut from the bench against Scotland.
New Potters boss Paul Lambert has immediately lifted spirits at the Bet365 Stadium, masterminding a 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town in his first game in charge.
But Stoke and their supporters aren’t getting carried away. They know they are in a relegation battle and reinforcements are needed if Lambert is to maintain the club’s unbroken run of ten yeas in the Premier League.
One such player could be Harrison who, according to reports, is a Stoke transfer target and subject of a £3.25million bid from the Potters.
The Englishman was arguably the breakthrough star of New York City FC’s 2016 season, making himself a first team starter with 23 appearances (19 of which were starts) over the course of the campaign. Spanish legend David Villa might have finished up as the league’s MVP, with Lampard finally justifying his hype, but Harrison was the understated superstar of the team. He has gone from strength-to-strength since.
In fact, the 21-year-old might be the most undervalued player in MLS. Harrison is a player frequently hailed by the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Villa as among NYC FC’s most important figures, with the former Manchester United youth product exceptional at creating for others. Without Harrison on the wing Villa probably wouldn’t have scored the 24 goals he did last season. Harrison was NYCFC’s second-highest scorer with ten.
Of course, things might have turned out very differently for Harrison had he stayed in England. At the age of 13 the fledgling winger chose to make the move to Massachusetts, leaving behind Manchester United’s academy to take a different route. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I stayed [at Man Utd’,” he admitted in an interview in 2016. “But I’m very grateful for the situation I am in now.
“I played with Marcus [Rashford] a couple of times, he’s a year younger than me. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was in my age group, James Wilson was in the year above. There’s a bunch of others who have yet to make their first-team debut. But I am in contact with them and it’s nice to hear from them. Getting to get to know the guys and see some of them make their first-team appearances, I’m really happy and proud of them… [but] I’m happy I made this decision to come to America.”
As he should be. Harrison has played alongside the likes of Pirlo and Villa for a club that has its sight set on becoming North American soccer’s predominant force, not to mention that he gets to live in the most vibrant and exciting city on earth.
While Harrison made the move across the Atlantic at a young age, his success sets a compelling precedent for English youngsters struggling to make an impression at Premier League level. There is a world outside the self-proclaimed greatest league in the world and Harrison found it. Others may follow him in broadening their horizons and viewing MLS as a legitimate destination.
Not that Harrison couldn’t be tempted back home. The Premier League still holds a certain allure and, with scouts now looking closely at MLS, that could be where he ends up. “It would be great to go back,” he said in 2016. “Ever since I was little that was something I always wanted to do. But this is a great starting point for me now being around such great players and such a great coaching staff. I’ve learned a lot already and hopefully I’ll be able to make that jump some day.”
That day could be soon. Until then New York City FC have one of the most exciting, promising young players in MLS. Under the auspices of former Arsenal and Manchester City midfielder Patrick Vieira, Harrison has matured into the kind of character who can be relied on to deliver when it matters most as the left-sided prong of NYC FC’s attacking trident. He might not be a household name in England, but Harrison is carving out quite the career for himself Stateside.