Ryan Harley, cockey rebel

Alex Cooke looks closely at Swindon’s middling midfielder to understand why the former Brighton man has become loathed by some fans.

I wasn’t at Orient. Remember those four words because they are going to be important. I didn’t go to Brisbane Road but I did hear the comments and read the tweets, messages and match reports of those who were. After that game, Ryan Harley was referred by a number as everything from a ‘passenger’ to a ‘waste of space’. Along with a Twitter conversation about Harley’s decline after he signed for Swansea, it made me want to watch Harley specifically, and that happened against Crawley. Obviously, it turned out to be his best performance in a Town shirt.

In the Crawley match, Harley displayed the qualities that inspired his former boss Paul Tisdale to once say of him, “He is not just a talented, passing players, he is a real team player. He’s incredibly fit, makes selfless runs and good decisions and scores goals”. Okay, so the goal had to wait until Crewe but everything else came in this home game: movement, energy, ball retention, creation and yes, even effort.

In the first half, Harley won a tackle and made two interceptions. He also showed energy, for example in being the quickest player on the counter, tearing from 18-yard-box to go beyond the strikers, when Town regained possession at the back. He also filled in Yaser Kasim’s position when the Iraqi international moved up to push on an attack.

Most noticeable though was his linking play with Nathan Byrne on the left flank. The weighting of his passing was excellent. Harley fed Byrne numerous times with precise balls into the path of his timed runs, including Harley making one lovely slaloming dart through the Crawley midfield, passing two before again giving Byrne the chance to attack the back four. He also played one of the best balls of the game in the second half, opening a huge gap for Jacob Murphy to go through – although nothing came of the attack.

Only once in the first half did Harley lose the ball cheaply. Town had become boxed-in on the left flank, near the halfway line, and when Harley attempted to assist, he too became encircled. His lobbed pass forward was easily intercepted and set Crawley on the attack from deep. An error, but an understandable one.

While Harley didn’t always move the ball quickly, he did keep possession and gave others the option to do so. He remained on the move, often offering very short passes, which someone with less technique, and confidence in their technique, might not always seek to take. Michael Smith in particular, was too slow to get the ball under control to play a simple pass to Harley who had broken beyond the forward line.

If there were two trademarks of his game – one was his availability to receive and give a pass, the other was his desire to run into space. If those at Orient said he hid, in this game he was always visible, except perhaps to Town’s forwards, who on the night were heavy of touch and slow of thought.

Harley has been in and out of form since joining Town a two-year deal, sometimes through injury, sometimes through playing deeper in the midfield trio. In this game it is possible that the slightly advanced position afforded to him helped, particularly as Alex Pritchard who also likes to play somewhat on the left of centre, wasn’t competing for space or room to run into.

Ryan Harley clearly won’t ever please those who believe that a midfielder leaves his mark on a game only by leaving his mark on his man. The irritation he generates could be attributed to this, his Bristol connections, or more likely as he embodiment of the short-passing style, which some seem to so dislike.

He clearly isn’t a natural leader but some overlook that despite being 29, Harley has only 156 league starts to his name – hardly vastly more than Troy Archibald-Henville or Wes Foderingham.

However, in this game this gracile midfielder was one of the best players on the pitch. He injected pace and movement, he delivered good set pieces and offered a outlet in a game that was often slow and played in straight lines.

Is this the start of a return to the form which saw Gus Poyet and Brendan Rodgers sign him? It is hard to say without a lot more evidence, but then I wasn’t at Orient.

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