My favourite player: Leeds and Republic of Ireland full-back Ian Harte

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  • Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Lionel Messi and Roger Federer are generally most people’s pick of favourite athletes, those magicians who can light it up on any given day.

    These sports stars make the difficult look easy, stay composed in those high-pressure moments, and can see the game a fraction of a second faster than their opposition.

    However, few of those players have had a significant impact on me on a personal level. I’m a keen admirer of these athletes, love seeing them in action, but that pure infatuation for a particular individual has left me, especially as I’m getting older.

    As a football fan, Leeds were my favourite team during my early years. While Manchester United were winning Premier League titles, what hooked me towards Leeds was the vast number of Irish players plying their trade at Elland Road.

    While all my friends sported Manchester United, Arsenal or West Ham jerseys around my home town of Bray, I donned my Leeds shirt with pride, that blue and yellow one with number three on the back. Ian Harte.

    I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Louth man, the black-haired left-back running, moving far more outlandishly than his team-mates in an attempt to liven the game up. I wasn’t used to seeing left-footed defenders at the time, especially Irish players.

    Like that, I had my first sports idol.

    Of course, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, David Beckham and Ronaldo were the marquee names back then, the players most of my friends aspired to me. However, as a left-back, my passion always moved towards my compatriot.

    I spent hours hammering the ball against the wall in my estate, pretending I was Harte. I dreamed of scoring those free-kicks, bending in those inch-perfect corners and unleashing those razor-like passes with my left peg. He was a sensation for me.

    He wore size 6.5 boots, two sizes too small, but the tighter boots allowed him to arrow better passes and threaten goalkeepers with his accurate shooting. Unfortunately, I never tried that trick myself, keeping to my customary size 11s.

    That Leeds squad under David O’Leary at the time was very likeable, from David Batty, Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Alan Smith to the Irish contingent of Gary Kelly, Robbie Keane, Stephen McPhail, Alan Maybury and Harte.

    Although still young, the 2000/01 Champions League season has a lingering memory for me, just around the time, I started to play with my local club Ardmore Rovers.

    There was a 4-0 loss to Barcelona in the group stages, the 1-0 win over AC Milan, and back-to-back draws with Barcelona and Milan. I stayed up late into the night dreaming of the knock-out stages.

    A resounding 3-0 triumph came in the quarter-finals against Deportivo la Coruna, with Harte opening the scoring with an unstoppable free-kick. It was like a dream. A roller coaster ride and my man at the pinnacle of it.

    The Whites fell at the hands of Valencia in the semi-finals, however, Harte was central to their fairytale run, scoring four goals during a glittering campaign.

    As part of my local team, I was lucky enough to see Leeds play during the 2001/02 season against Aston Villa. I saw Harte in the flesh for the first time. I even had my match programme signed by Robbie Keane before the game.

    When your young, it’s easy for one player to capture your imagination. Hours on the training ground spent trying to emulate their playing style. You always believe deep down that you can be as good as your idol. No matter how unrealistic it can be.

    Around the same time of my passion for Leeds and Harte, Ireland were strong on the international front.

    During our successful run through the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, Harte netted penalties against Cyprus and Andorra, before striking that crucial spot-kick against Iran in the play-off. A place in Saipan was secured.

    I remember watching the qualifiers in primary school at the time, and the buzz around the country was magical. It felt like the country had come to a standstill during that World Cup. Reaching the last-16 was a major achievement.

    As a youngster, you just presume you’ll see plenty of special days like this in your life-time. Unfortunately, we have yet to compete at a World Cup since that special 2002 campaign.

    As the years wore on, Harte left Leeds following relegation in 2004. He spent three years with Levante, played for Sunderland under Roy Keane, and joined Carlisle, Blackpool and Reading before finishing his career at Bournemouth.

    Voted back left-back by his peers in the Premier League in 1999/00, he received the same accolade in League One a decade later, as well as back-to-back awards in the Championship.

    All these years on I often think about those days striking the ball in the garden and the happiness I felt. It was as if those days lasted forever. Playing with Harte on the back of my Leeds shirt, I felt like I was in Elland Road, not Ardmore Park in Bray.

    Life can pass by quickly, the years trickle into one, however, memories will always remain.

    In the present day, gifted players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappe, Kevin De Bruyne and Lionel Messi all catch my eye. Unique stars who are a joy to watch every weekend.

    Like any sport, we will always have our preferred players for various different reasons. That particular period when Ireland and Leeds were successful, and being a left-back myself, Harte was the one player that had a huge influence on me.

    For my love of Leeds, it’s been a barren patch in recent years and my passion for football has ebbed and flowed, but nevertheless, it would be fantastic to see them back in the Premier League under Marcelo Bielsa next season.