John Harkes, Roy Wegerle and Cobi Jones on playing in England

Nobody thought we would cut it. We were vagabonds! As England gear up for World Cup showdown with USA, three American pioneers – John Harkes, Cobi Jones and Roy Wegerle – recall the prejudice and scepticism that greeted their arrival

  • John Harkes was a trailblazer for the USA and broke into the Premier League
  • He won the League Cup, scored in a Wembley final and played in an FA Cup final 
  • Wednesday fans adored Harkes, especially after his goal against Peter Shilton
  • Before Harkes, Roy Wegerle flew the Stars and Stripes flag in English football 
  • Cobi Jones is another player who excelled for the USA while playing in England 

The American influence in English football has never been greater. Four of the big six Premier League clubs are US-owned. So are Fulham and most of Crystal Palace, part of Aston Villa and almost half of Leeds.

At Elland Road, where Wisconsin-born Jesse Marsch is in charge, they spent £25million on Brenden Aaronson, a 22-year-old from New Jersey hailed as the ‘Medford Messi’.

Christian Pulisic, the most expensive American player, has won the Champions League and Club World Cup since joining Chelsea for £58m.

Brenden Aaronson, a 22-year-old from New Jersey, has been hailed as the ‘Medford Messi’

Major League Soccer (MLS) is thriving, the USA will co-host the next World Cup in 2026 and, after their shock failure to qualify four years ago, they returned to the biggest stage with a 1-1 draw against Wales on Monday. Next up, it’s England.

The scene is far removed from the one encountered by John Harkes, an early trailblazer who broke into the Premier League, won the League Cup, scored in a major Wembley final and appeared in an FA Cup final.

‘We were vagabonds,’ grins Harkes as he recalls first crossing the Atlantic to backpack with his friend, goalkeeper Tony Meola, from trial to trial. ‘It was almost unheard of. Who really thinks they can go from America to make it at the highest level in English football? But you go for it. It takes guts but what is there to lose?’

Christian Pulisic (left), the most expensive American player, has won the Champions League and Club World Cup since joining Chelsea for £58million

Major League Soccer (MLS) is thriving under Commissioner Don Garber (pictured above) and the USA will co-host the next World Cup in 2026

This was January before they both played at Italia ’90. Meola would go on to win 100 USA caps but struggled for a work permit at the time. Harkes, with Scottish parents, was eligible for dual citizenship. His father Jim came from Dundee where Harkes’ son Ian has spent three years, impressing in midfield for Dundee United.

‘I had a conversation with my mum and dad after the World Cup in Italy,’ says Harkes. ‘They were saying, ‘Wow, we’re so proud of you, you didn’t win any games but that was brilliant, what are you going to do’ and I was like, ‘I wanna play pro’. My dad said, ‘Well, I think you’re good enough’ and that was it. OK, let’s do it.’

There was a contract on the table from Sheffield Wednesday, but Harkes was convinced by Ian St John and his son Ian junior, acting as agents, that he could earn more elsewhere.

‘The offer was so low they told me not to accept it,’ he says. ‘I was naive. I should have taken it regardless of the salary just to get my foot in the door, but I went to Blackburn where I played a couple of games, did well, scored a couple of goals and they offered me exactly the same money.

‘They all talk. Ron Atkinson was the manager of Sheffield Wednesday, I’m sure he knew everybody.’

When a trial at Celtic proved unsuccessful, Harkes made a sheepish call to Owls boss Atkinson. ‘He said, ‘Hopefully you’ve learned your lesson, you should have stayed here’ and made me earn it again. I eventually convinced him and signed.’

The USA failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia four years ago but have returned in Qatar

They got their World Cup campaign underway on Monday night by facing Wales in Group B

John Harkes (left), an early trailblazer for the USA, broke into the Premier League, won the League Cup, scored in a major Wembley final and appeared in an FA Cup final

Harkes went into digs with a local family, the Walkers, in a council block in Hillsborough, and embraced Sheffield, with its industrial heritage and blue-collar values similar to his home in New Jersey.

The Wednesday fans adored him in return, especially after his screamer past Peter Shilton from 40 yards in a League Cup tie at Derby, as the Owls went on to win their first major trophy for 56 years and clinched promotion with Harkes featuring in midfield and at right back.

‘The best goal I scored,’ admits the 55-year-old, now head coach of Greenville Triumph, a professional team from South Carolina playing in USL1, the third tier of US football.

‘Maybe there was scepticism and, at times, I did feel a profiled prejudice. You know, what’s an American doing here playing the old English game? I had to prove myself. But after that goal there was respect.

‘I was lucky to go into a dressing room where there was experience and quality players. No-one more so than Viv Anderson, who went through his own adversity as one of the early black players.

‘What a guy to learn from. I really leaned on him a lot and, looking back, a lot of things came together at the right time.’

Tim Weah scored the opening goal of the game in the 36th minute to see the USA go 1-0 up

However, Bale scored a penalty in the 82nd minute of the game to see Wales claim a 1-1 draw

Before Harkes, Roy Wegerle flew the Stars and Stripes in English football. Born and raised in South Africa, Wegerle arrived via university in Florida and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where former England international Rodney Marsh was coaching.

Marsh stepped in to act as his agent when the original North American Soccer League collapsed in 1984, securing him trials and ultimately a contract at Chelsea. Wegerle was a gifted striker, though his creative spirit and flair were not always welcome at a club fighting relegation.

‘It wasn’t the Premier League of today with perfectly manicured pitches,’ says the 58-year-old from his home in Florida. ‘It could be a mudbath in winter — even at Old Trafford and Anfield — so a player like me wasn’t first on the team sheet.

‘Often, it was more of a scrap and a fight, an elbow and a punch, a pull and a spit, when you were fighting relegation.’

Wegerle keeps a keen eye on the Premier League. He admires Manchester City and the impact of Pep Guardiola upon English football, and must be tempted to think the modern game is more suited to his style.

‘Where I grew up in South Africa, you were frowned upon if you didn’t have the basic technical skill to do a trick and deceive someone,’ he says.

‘When I got to Chelsea it seemed like you were frowned upon if you could do that. They wanted one and two-touch, play it the way you’re facing, don’t do this and don’t do that. It kills your spirit as a creative player.

‘Those first two years at Chelsea were very difficult but I wasn’t going to let the dream I’d had since I was 10 be destroyed.

Sheffield Wednesday fans adored Harkes, especially after his screamer past Peter Shilton (pictured playing England above) from 40 yards in a League Cup tie at Derby

‘What was I going to do? Go back to Tampa and play in the sunshine? I had to be in England to get the best out of me so I toughed it out, and I’m glad I did.

‘I moved to Luton where manager Ray Harford let me express myself within the boundaries of the team and it worked out nicely. I tasted the good and the bad and it shaped my character.’

Queen’s Park Rangers paid £1m to Luton for Wegerle. As Harkes was launching his Owls career in the second tier, Wegerle was decorating the top flight with goals such as the mesmerising slalom at Elland Road against Leeds, available on YouTube and well worth Googling.

‘Just instinctive,’ shrugs Wegerle. ‘Tackles are flying and you have to get out of the way, keep moving forward and take the ball with you, that’s what I did and I got through a bunch of them and finished it with a good strike.

‘I had two-and-a-half very good years at QPR, playing well, entertaining and wearing the No 10 shirt. I built a great relationship with the fans. I was playing the way I wanted to play in the league I wanted to be in.’

His sparkling form attracted England. QPR boss Don Howe took him aside one day after training to reveal he was to be named in an England B squad. His native South Africa had long been banned from world sport because of their apartheid rule.

Wegerle’s mind, however, was set on representing the United States. He was married to an American and always expected to end his career there.

Indeed, he now works for SportsEdTV in Miami, a company creating expert coaching videos across all sports for underprivileged children, those unable to attend a private academy, to access free online.

Before Harkes, Roy Wegerle (pictured above) flew the Stars and Stripes in English football

‘Don tried to talk me out of it, saying, ‘You’re too good for the USA, you can play for England’ but I knew once I’d played for England B that was the end of my options,’ he says. ‘I thought I owed it to the US and that’s how it turned out.’

The USA was hosting the World Cup in 1994 and Wegerle was their star, but he tore cruciate ligaments playing for Coventry at Newcastle five months before the tournament and agreed to avoid knee surgery in the hope he might be at least 70 per cent fit.

‘I didn’t want to miss it,’ he recalls. ‘And the coaching staff didn’t want me to miss it because most of the team were college kids. So we decided I wouldn’t start games but come on when needed and try to make a difference.’

USA made it through their group before losing by the only goal of the game to Brazil on Independence Day, in front of 85,000 people in California.

‘I couldn’t make a difference,’ says Wegerle. ‘My knee wouldn’t allow it and my confidence wasn’t where it should have been, which was a shame. I was grateful for the opportunity but that unfortunate incident at St James’ Park cost me.’

Wegerle was at Coventry when they signed Cobi Jones after his eye-catching displays at the World Cup and in a friendly against England at Wembley in September 1994.

‘Roy was a big help, thank God he was there,’ smiles Jones as he tells of his move from Los Angeles. ‘I grew up at the beach and it was a bit of a shock.

‘Nowadays they have people to help you figure out where to live, how to set up a bank account, where to go shopping. For me it was like, ‘Here’s the hotel, see you at training’. The cops pulled me over on the first night for driving the wrong way.’

Cobi Jones is another player who excelled for the USA while playing football in England 

Phil Neal’s Coventry spent the season fighting against relegation from the Premier League.

‘We weren’t one of the big clubs who could control the game,’ says Jones. ‘It was difficult for me, trying to wrap my head around this style, extremely fast-paced and very aggressive, 100mph, go, go, go.

‘In midfield, I saw the ball going past me quite a bit. I was tracking up and down, trying to get the second ball. Opponents liked to soften you up and I found that with my own team-mates, too. Fortunately, I was always pretty good at riding tackles.

‘I didn’t get any major injuries but it was trial by fire. I was ‘the American’. You know, what’s ‘the American’ like?’

The American settled after a couple of months and scored in a vital win against Crystal Palace, in the midst of a nine-match unbeaten run which saw off the threat of relegation but did not save Neal from the sack. Ron Atkinson replaced him four days after the victory at Selhurst Park.

‘I’d switched to playing up front, where I was more comfortable,’ says Jones. ‘I scored against Palace and then was going to start again when I got strep throat and was out for two weeks. Next thing I’m heading back to the US. I would have liked more time but I think back on a positive experience and all the people I met on and off the field. I always keep in touch with what’s going on at Coventry.’

The USA will get back underway on Friday when they face England in their second game

England won their opening game of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar 6-2, beating Iran

Jones returned to California via Brazil. He became a legend of LA Galaxy as MLS was born in 1996 and, a quarter of a century on, is an acclaimed TV pundit who has seen the sport he loves take hold in the USA.

‘The ’94 World Cup was the launchpad and those who thought we would win the World Cup by 2010 or have the biggest league in the world have to understand this is not a lot of time for development,’ says Jones.

‘In my time, the coach would be the local American football coach or a parent who came from overseas and played soccer. Now, coaches are from my generation of former players who reached a high level and we’re seeing an explosion of American talent.

‘You’re seeing a generational love for the game, where kids are fans of LA Galaxy because their parents were fans. And, from the business side, there’s greater awareness.

‘Pulisic signs for Chelsea, making an incredible amount of money, and it sparks media attention. Weston McKennie at Juventus and Tyler Adams at Leeds as well.

‘Not making the last World Cup was a tragedy because it stopped the exponential growth.

‘But even so, we’re seeing more attention than ever on the game and an understanding that it’s the world’s sport and in such a diverse and multi-cultural country, everybody talks about it’.

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