His time has arrived

2013-10-10 00:00

MARK Harrison may have been born in Derby, but he is as South African as they come. Settled in Umhlanga, he is now ready to tackle what is the latest addition to his comprehensive string of managerial assignments.

A former English Premier League goalkeeper with Southampton and Stoke City, Harrison’s professional playing career was cut short at the age of just 25 by an injury that ultimately resulted in a knee replacement. That was in 1985, and after being sidelined for six months, Harrison eyed a return to football.

It was then, in quite bizarre circumstances, that his love affair with South Africa began.

Harrison had been put in contact with Jomo Sono through Roy Bailey — the father of former Manchester United goalkeeper Gary. Sono had expressed a keen interest in getting Harrison to come across to South Africa to play for Jomo Cosmos. With his future in England not looking too bright thanks to his knee, Harrison was interested.

Sono flew Harrison to Johannesburg, and while he was staying in his hotel, Harrison bumped into a man named Ian Towers — the then coach of former South African powerhouse Hellenic. Upon seeing Cape Town, Harrison jokes that he didn’t want to go back to Johannesburg, and what appeared to be a set-in-stone deal with Cosmos turned into a largely unplanned deal with Hellenic.

“Jomo [Sono] wasn’t very happy with me at the time,” laughed Harrison when recalling that decision. “But we’re fine now. I saw him last week at a [NFD] game and we laughed about it.”

Harrison then spent around 18 months at Hellenic before heading back to England for three years where he played in the country’s lower leagues. There was still one more trip to Hellenic for another season before “the knees just couldn’t do it any more”.

What has followed has been a coaching career that has taken Harrison to Bristol City, Everton, Oxford United and even a short stint on the international scene as the head coach of Bangladesh in 2000. He was back in South Africa in 2001 where he took over at NFD club FC Fortune. The years that followed took him to the Maldives and back to England where he lent his services to various clubs as a goalkeeper coach.

A permanent resident in South Africa, Harrison was back in the country with Mpumalanga Black Aces in 2010.

It wasn’t until last season, however, that the PSL was properly introduced to the 52-year-old. With Cape Town club Chippa United changing coaches for fun and stuck in the dreaded relegation/promotion play-off zone, Harrison was called upon with six fixtures remaining to perform a miracle and save the club from the drop. As it turns out, there was no way back for Chippa, and their fate was sealed after Aces won the play-offs to send Chippa back to the NFD.

“A lot of people would look at that job and question why I took it,” said Harrison. “But I don’t mind those kinds of jobs. I believe in what I can do and I trust myself.”

Harrison lost just once in his 14 matches in charge of Chippa — a track record that caught the attention of Arrows following the resignation of Manqoba Mngqithi.

“It is actually crazy to think that I have played and coached at the highest level and still it has taken me so long to get a real opportunity with some time on my side at a PSL club,” he said.

His time has finally arrived, and Harrison’s hope is that he is given just that — time.

“The clubs outside the big three [Pirates, Chiefs, Sundowns] don’t have the money to compete,” he said. “But if we bring a sense of stability to the club and start building for the future then why can we not compete in three, four or five years time?”

On the current standard of the PSL, Harrison said there was a long way to go before it could be spoken about in the same breath as the Premier League.

“There are massive improvements that need to happen in terms of club infrastructure, and the NFD needs to be given a lot more attention,” he said.

“Having said that, the refereeing in the PSL has improved in the last few years.”

Harrison’s first game in charge will be at Moses Mabhida Stadium on October 22, when Arrows host Kaizer Chiefs.

HARRISON FACTS

• His son, Ryan Harrison, plays at Chippa United as a goalkeeper

• His daughter (22) was born in SA and studies in Europe

• Harrison has a Uefa A coaching licence

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