An Englishman in New York

Former Man Utd academy prospect Jack Harrison is lighting up MLS

By Steve Brenner / Photography by Spencer Kohn

November 4, 2016

Bleacher Report

The Manchester United dream factory is an unforgiving place. For every David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Marcus Rashford, there are countless players forced to look elsewhere for football nirvana.

Some drop down the Leagues. Others drop out completely.

As 19-year-old Jack Harrison tears into MLS defences for New York City FC and prepares for their playoff second leg against Toronto on Sunday, it'd be natural to think the Premier League's grandest club let a gem slip through their fingers. But making it at United is never a guarantee, as Harrison learned from an early age.

"One day at Carrington [United's training ground], I pulled Jack to one side, and we looked at all the pictures on the wall of the youth teams down the years," the midfielder's mother, Debbie, tells Bleacher Report. "I said, 'Do [you] recognize any of these players?' The answer was no. I tried to explain to him that just because you're in the academy, it won't take you anywhere."

And therein lies the rub. Playing for Manchester United from the age of eight—he had previously trained with Liverpool from age six—is an achievement in itself. Yet what are the chances of making it all the way to the big time?

Rashford was a year below him. Jesse Lingard was four years ahead. For the Harrisons, however, the risk of losing everything was too real.Image title

Schoolboy Jack in his Manchester United academy tracksuit. Photo courtesy of Debbie Harrison.

So instead of having her son cling by his fingertips for casting at the theatre of dreams, Debbie plotted a path to help Jack live a football life less ordinary in the United States. Neither had crossed the Atlantic before. No matter.

Then just 14, Harrison flew to Massachusetts, where his mother managed to get her son, with the help of grants, a place at the $50,000-a-year Berkshire School. The coaches at the football-playing boarding school were blown away.

The seeds were sown, as the path to MLS—and adulthood—had begun. It wasn't just a huge sporting call. This was a massive life decision.

"Jack has always been very independent," Debbie says. "Moving to Berkshire was a massive move, but he rang on the first night and said, 'Mum, I love it here. The squirrels are massive!' I knew he'd be OK."

Mixing education and sport (he excelled at squash and mountain biking as well as football), the boy from Bolton flourished at his new home.

There aren't many players down the years who turn their backs on Manchester United, never mind quit for the United States. Looking back, however, Harrison's bold decision—made with the help of his mother—helped Patrick Vieira's team unearth one of the rookies of the season.

The only way is up.

"I am so grateful to be in this position, and without my mum, I wouldn't be here," Harrison says. "I would never have thought about taking that path as a kid. She has done so much, and I am so appreciative for the support she has given me.

"She was thinking if I was injured what would I do, so the education in the U.S. was the backup plan. People recommended U.S. scholarships—it was very creative on her part because not many parents are thinking like that in the academies. They just want the kids to turn pro, and that's all they think about.

"There was a risk. It could have gone wrong. But, thankfully, it didn't."

With NYCFC reaching the playoffs under Vieira—they're 2-0 down after the first leg—attention on Harrison is burgeoning.

"Moving to Berkshire was a massive move, but he rang on the first night and said, 'Mum, I love it here. The squirrels are massive!' I knew he'd be OK."

Debbie Harrison

But one question looms large: Could Harrison have been lining up for Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford instead of Vieira at Yankee Stadium if he'd stayed the course?

"I'm not sure," he says. "I never built my confidence until I got to the U.S., where I was helped by the coaches and teammates here. I was just doing what they asked of me at the [Manchester United] academy. It is very structured—you have all the technique and skills, but at the end of the day, if you're not doing what they ask of you, they will move you on somewhere else.

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"At Berkshire, I was allowed to express myself and be more creative, so I was able to utilize the skills I learned at United. It all came together nicely."

Harrison says he wasn't enjoying football as much as he should have at United. He was letting the pressure get to him, and the strain became too much to bear.

"Some would finish training sessions in tears; their parents would be upset with them. It does get very pressurised," he says. "It's a shame for young kids who should be just enjoying it.

"You do need the discipline and development of skills in order to be as good as the top guys. It can hold you back and definitely affect you mentally. So much of it is mental—being mentally strong—and once you're used to having all this pressure, it can be a good or a bad thing."

Harrison says he was given "much more freedom" when he arrived in America. He's not looked back since.

In today's cut-throat, results-driven, money-mad game, it's arguably never been tougher to make it as a professional footballer.

Prominent UK-based soccer agent Craig Honeyman, director of HSH Sports and a former managing director of the SEM Group that boasted clients like Thierry Henry and Rio Ferdinand, winces when asked about future generations.

"Managers are under such pressure these days that bringing through kids simply isn't a priority," Honeyman says. "I've seen so many players fall by the wayside, and it will only get worse. Young players need games. Look at [20-year-old] Dele Alli. He played first-team football for a few years at MK Dons, and that gave him the experience to take it on to Tottenham and then England.

"Some would finish training sessions in tears; their parents would be upset with them. It does get very pressurised. It's a shame for young kids who should be just enjoying it."

Harrison on his time with Manchester United's academy.

"But for someone like James Wilson at United, it's been different. He keeps getting loaned out and put in different places. It's bad for his development. Those type of lads are better off at smaller teams where the chances of regular action are far greater."

Honeyman has been thrilled with the progress of Harrison since the latter left United.

"Kudos to his mother," he says. "It was a brave, brilliant move."

The United experience wasn't all bad for Harrison, of course. The schooling he received, led by renowned Dutch coach Rene Meulensteen, helped him become the player he is today.

"He was so excited to be at United and was on a scheme which was devised by Rene," Debbie says. "It was all about the skills which they had to master, how many touches you need to have in a session, etc. It was superb, and Jack loved it. There was one coach per three or four boys."

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Jack Harrison's high school graduation picture. Photo courtesy of Debbie Harrison.

The fear of failure and its repercussions, though, were difficult to shake.

"There are so many children who go through the academies who simply don't make it," Debbie says. "The groups get smaller as they get older, and the percentage is very small. At the forefront of my mind was his education. Playing pro is like a bonus, but you need to put that to one side and look at his schooling being a priority."

Harrison's mother is adamant her son made the right choice. She's been criticised for the decision, and one of the United coaches said they'd regret moving on, but there are no lingering doubts.

"Jack was only the second boy ever to be pulled out of United. There was another one who went to play tennis, so you can say it's a rare thing to happen," she says. "Jack went with a smile on his face, and his happiness has always been my happiness. United gave him a fantastic foundation and taught him the skill set which he's using right now. It was a very intensive program and did him the world of good."

Harrison keeps in touch with his former United team-mates and still holds the club dear to his heart. Looking back, he remembers how exciting it was to come into contact with the A-list first-team players.

"We used to see the first-teamers coming into training sometimes," he says. "When it got cold and their cars were all frosted up, we used to write our names on them in the ice.

"It was Wayne Rooney's car most of the time. One time before we went on a trip to Milan, Alex Ferguson came in and told us to bring him back some pizza. He just gave us some motivation before we left.

"I never got him the pizza."

Harrison's successful spell at Berkshire School saw him scoop the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year award and fired him onto NYCFC's radar.

Harrison spent time in the Big Apple and played for the Manhattan Soccer Club, which is affiliated with the city's MLS team, and that was enough to get NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna interested. He squeezed in one semester at Wake Forest University before the big time began to call.

Chicago Fire recruited Harrison as their top draft pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, yet City pushed through what will surely go down as one of the most astute trades of recent times—trading their fourth pick and paying allocation money to bring Harrison to New York instead.

Being coached by a legend like Vieira is one thing. Lining up alongside David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, however, is something else for a youngster aiming to make his mark in the game.

Fellow Englishman Lampard has taken Harrison under his experienced wing. They hung out in the Hamptons together this summer, taking in the ignominy of England's wretched Euro campaign.

"Having someone of [Vieira's] pedigree coach me is amazing, as is having players like David, Andrea and Frank to give me advice and support me," Harrison says. "Everyone is really coming together, and they have been a massive help. I just try and absorb as much as possible, and just by watching them you pick up things. It's great to have them about.

"They are down-to-earth and don't think they are better than anyone else."

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Harrison and Lampard celebrate in July. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Playing against boyhood hero Steven Gerrard, of L.A. Galaxy, this season provided another "I can't believe this" moment for Harrison.

"I was a big Liverpool and Steven Gerrard fan, so to see Frank play against him was great, but now I am on the same team as him, playing against Gerrard," he says. "It's fantastic.

"When I was at the Liverpool academy, I met Steven with my mum. We had players' lounge tickets, he was on crutches, I asked for his photo and a signature. I don't think he will remember."

Harrison has blazed such an unlikely trail in choosing New York over Manchester, and the future looks intriguing and full of options.

Winning silverware in the Bronx would be special. Playing in the Premier League remains a goal, as does international football, whether it be for England or his adopted country.

"I definitely look forward to an opportunity and to see what possibilities there are in Europe," Harrison says. "Right now, I am focussed on New York. I would love to represent England, but if the interest isn't there, playing for the U.S. could be an option.

"But that's all for the future. I'm in a good place right now."

Coach Ray Selvadurai, who worked with Harrison at Manhattan Soccer Club, sees bigger things to come.

"What sets him apart is the ability to do anything at top speed with precision and accuracy," he says. "That's why he is different, and we are beginning to see that at the professional level.

"I have been involved in youth teams for 20 years, and he's easily the best I have ever seen. We won the national championships with him. He played against an under-20 team when he was just 15 and scored four goals. He earned instant respect. When they found out his age, they were like, 'Oh my God.'

"Everything Jack Harrison touches turns to gold. He's very special."

Harrison's golden touch could be precisely what New York City FC need to overturn their first-leg deficit against Toronto on Sunday. It wouldn't surprise anybody who knows him if Harrison played a starring role and led the comeback effort.

All quotes gathered firsthand.