Ian Harkes’ move to Dundee United in the winter transfer window of 2019 allowed the American baller to reconcile a number of other aspects from his past and present. At first, he was reunited with the city of his grandfather’s birth. He was then reunited with British football once more, following on from his trailblazing father John Harkes’ success south of the border. Lastly, and more crucially, he was reunited with his footballing-fiancé Sarah in Scotland having played in different leagues and countries for years. A match made in heaven. But more on that later.
With all that now in place, however, it is the future that the midfielder is looking to. Having won promotion to Scotland’s top tier with The Terrors under the unfamiliar circumstances of a national lockdown, Harkes is looking to continue his upward trajectory and follow in the footsteps of his father.
He doesn’t shy away from the accomplishments of Harkes Snr. He uses the pressure applied from his family tree as a carrot; a springboard in allowing himself the best chance of success both domestically and internationally.
He’s certainly made a good start. Here’s what we had to say under the cover of Dundee’s V&A museum from the lashing rain over the weekend.
Let’s start with Dundee United; you guys recently won promotion back to the Scottish Premiership after a four year absence via the SPFL vote. Did you get the chance to celebrate winning the title? Not really! I was able to celebrate with my fiancé, Sarah, in the house. With the boys, we had a Zoom call which everyone jumped on and had a drink to celebrate - but it wasn’t really a full thing, which is annoying!
Have you received your medal for the title win? No we haven’t had that either! I’m not sure what we are going to receive; if we will get a medal or if we will get to lift the trophy at some point. Hopefully we can do it before the next season starts or we will all be thinking about it…. and be relegated before you know it! (Laughs)
When you first signed from D.C United, did Scottish football take you by surprise in any way? It definitely is different, for sure. It hasn’t surprised me too much, but there are certain components of it that are different from the US: the physicality, the tempo - the tempo is quicker; it’s a lot more end-to-end over here, so that took some adjusting to when i first arrived.
What are the main cultural differences between playing for D.C. United and Dundee United? I think, for me, the focus on the Scottish football would be the big one. And the passion the fan’s have. Back home, there are so many sports and football is probably the most up and coming one. So club’s don’t necessarily have the history behind them that applies pressure to the players at certain clubs. Over here, for example, Dundee United and Aberdeen have such rich histories and it really adds a weight of expectation. There are also proper rivalries over here which are steeped in history. It creates a real passion for football in Scotland and propels you in to the limelight, which isn’t necessarily the case back home.
Despite growing up in the USA, you are a second-generation American, with your grandparents on your fathers side being Scottish - did you grow up watching British football? Yeah, it was always on in the house! With my dad having played in England and the English Premier League being the spectacle that it is, it meant that it was always on.
Your grandfather was born in Dundee. Did that have any impact on your move to Tannadice? Honestly, not too much! He never really spoke too much about his upbringing in Dundee. But once the opportunity arose for me to come over here, he was delighted; over the moon. He started telling me stories about Dundee at that point!
You were born in Derby when your father was playing for Derby County - was it always your intention to return to the UK to play football? Yeah, 100%. It was always a goal of mine. I wasn’t sure where my career was going to take me after university. I signed for D.C. United which was great for me, as it allowed me to play for my hometown club - that was really exciting. But I definitely wanted to progress over to the UK and test myself here.
How did your move to Dundee United come about then? It was through the Sporting Director at the club - Tony Asghar. He got in touch with the American owners who were looking to bring in some players from overseas. Thereafter, they got in touch with my agent. My agent brought Perry Kitchen over to Hearts, so he has a bit of a portfolio there! Dundee United were looking for a midfielder and my contract was coming to end at D.C. United, so it all fell in to place really.
Your fiancé also recently signed for Celtic. Having played in different leagues throughout both of your careers, how good has it been playing in the same country? It’s been massive for me. We were effectively in a long distance relationship for a long time! So, when the chance came up for her to sign for Celtic, it was great on both a personal and professional level. She’s really enjoyed it and so have I.
Is there any footballing rivalry between you guys? (Laughs) Nah there’s not. I don’t think so anyway!
Just on your family, both your parents were also footballers. Did they drill football in to you when you were growing up in the States or were you allowed to play any other sports? It was always football from the beginning but I did try my hand at a couple of others sports as that is the culture in America. I played a little bit of basketball. I actually played rugby in high school.. but I quit that before everyone got too big!
Your dad played at a very high level in his career, playing in the English Premier League and at two World Cups. How big an inspiration has your father been in your career? When I was younger I didn’t really grasp the heights he had reached in his career: playing in FA Cup Finals, playing at Wembley, the World Cups as you mentioned. But, as I got older, he was a great influence on me. He just let me enjoy the game and find my own path. My mom was the same, as she played as well. I can always go to him to talk about experiences and he can give me advice which has been good for me.
What are you earliest memories of football? I think it was when I was really young and my dad was playing for New England Revolution, Columbus Crew… teams like that, later in his career back in the US.
One of the club’s that your dad played for was D.C United, which is where you came through as a youngster. When I think of D.C. United, I immediately think of Freddy Adu. Are the club very focused on their academy? Growing up in the academy was big as American players are referred to as “Home Grown” so it’s a big deal when you make the jump from the academy to the first team. But D.C. United for sure put a lot of emphasis on their youth set-up. Freddy Adu made it famous with how young he was. But it’s probably one of the more historic clubs in the MLS on the American side, especially with winning Championships almost right away after the inauguration of the league.
Explain to us why you took the University route as opposed to continuing your career with D.C. United. So you can go straight through the academy and make the jump to the first team. But it essentially comes down to whether you value your University education. My parents were big on it; they wanted to me to go to University and continue my football development there whilst getting a degree. The level of football at university is still high. Once I had finished my time there, the opportunity to go back in to D.C. United was still there so it was perfect for me.
Whilst at University, you won the Hermann Trophy which is awarded to the best college soccer player in the nation. Does winning that award give you the confidence to go on and have a career in football? It does help, for sure. Seeing other guys win it in the past who have gone on to have a career in football gives you a belief that you can follow suit.
You then received international recognition with a call-up to the USA National Squad in January 2018. Tell us more about that. It was my first national team camp. Whilst I wasn’t able to get a cap, it was a great experience for me. It showed me the level I needed to reach to break in to the team - there were a lot of talented players in that camp.
Does being the son of a former USA International apply extra pressure to yourself? I think there is a little bit of that, but I don’t think it’s negative pressure. It’s good for me to aspire to and work towards reaching that target. But he had such an amazing career and both myself and my dad don’t apply any expectations on me to reach that. I just need to take it one step at a time. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself!
There is a new wave of US ballers emerging at the moment - namely Weston McKennie at Schalke, Timo Weah, formerly of Celtic, and Deandre Yedlin, who we all know from the Premier League. Those guys are changing the landscape of soccer - both on and off the park - do you look to those guys for inspiration both professionally and creatively? For sure. I am always trying to watch the guys who have gone overseas. Christian Pulisic as well at Chelsea has done amazing. There’s also Giovanni Reyna at Dortmund. There’s a lot of young talent coming through, which can only be good for US football.
On a creative front, when you mentioned to me about doing the feature, I was thinking “I don’t have that much style!” (Laughs)
Not at all! What about when you’re buying clothes, do you have a particular image in your head? Yeah, for sure. I like the street style from California where my fiancé is from. I like that whole vibe. It’s hard to explain. It’s not so much skater or surfer, somewhere in between! I also love Nike. You can really do a mix-and-match between athletic-wear and streetwear with Nike.
A big feature of your look is your flowing locks! Tell us about your inspiration behind the long hair. It was honestly just because I hadn’t done it before and fancied a change! I stuck with it because it was something different and it made me stand out a little. Everyone has been telling me to get it cut! But I’ll see how long I can get to before the new season starts!
There a couple of cool barber joints in Dundee. Are you a regular at any? I really like Hard Grind. I’ve been in there a couple of times. There’s a lot of cool people in there from all over the UK which I really like.
There are a some sick clothing shops in Dundee as well. Have you managed to check them out? I came across CARTOCON. The style of clothes in there are cool, for sure.
One area where there is a cross-Atlantic connection is in music. Having been in Scotland now for 18 months, have you had a chance to listen to any British based music? I have! Although probably not as much as I should. I listen to guys like Dave and Stormzy - mainstream I know! But I really like the vibe from those guys so I want to dig deeper.
Who are your go-to artists? My main scene is hip-hop. So it would be Kendrick, J.Cole, Chance The Rapper, guys like that. But I listen to a lot stuff. Well, maybe with the exception of American Country! But I’m a big fan of Hozier, Leon Bridges, guys like that.
What about a pre-match playlist? I don’t have a set one, but it’s usually the same sort of vibe: get the adrenalin going and get up for the match. So it’s usually some sort of rap.
Do you ever get the chance to attend gigs? We actually saw Hozier down in Glasgow which was cool. There was another music festival on which had Fatboy Scoop, Salt-N-Pepa, Blu Cantrell - that was a great one to take in with some of my teammates who like the old-school hip-hop vibe!
Going back to America for a second, you returned home during the COVID-19 pandemic as your grandfather successfully battled the virus; how difficult a period was that? It came out of nowhere for us at the beginning of March. He went in to the hospital and went on to the ventilators before being put in an induced comma, which he was in for around 30 days. So that was really tough for us - we were scared we were going to lose him. But thankfully, the hospital, doctors and nurses were great and helped him get through it and he’s now on the road to recovery.
Has that experience changed your perspective on both the virus and life itself? Yeah, definitely. I think for some people who haven’t seen the affects of the virus, the situation doesn’t feel real for them. Coming back over to Dundee, it’s good to see how serious Scotland is taking it. Back home, there’s spikes everywhere and people are still going about their normal day in certain cities. But it definitely has changed our outlook on both of those things.
You then returned to Dundee in the weeks that followed the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Firstly, how did that incident make you feel as an American? I think seeing a man literally murdered on camera is disgusting. It shouldn’t be happening. But the sad fact is that it has been happening for generations in America. It has taken different forms of oppression and called different things but it is the same pattern. But it’s so good seeing the calls to action right now and the movement continuing throughout the world and on social media - social media has really allowed a mobilisation of all the generations to come together and support the movement.
There were then protests which were happening in the USA which you mentioned you wanted to be a part of. How difficult was it having to watch that from afar? It was great to see the protests across the country and the major cities across the world that followed. My family were all involved in those protests and I was really proud of them for doing so - as much as it was hard for me not to be there with them and offer my support to the BLM movement. But they shared their experiences with me how they were peacefully protesting before Trump used military police to move them out of the way. It’s just crazy. He was totally opposing what was going on and it was so out of touch.
Lastly, what would you like to see football do to continue the movement? I agree with people when they say it can’t just be a trend, it needs to continue. Taking a knee pre-match has been great in showing the solidarity and I hope our league does it as well. But I think, when cases do come up in the UK where players or officials are racially targeted, there needs to be a stricter punishment. There needs to be something more serious than a slap on the wrists which allows for repeat offences. It needs to be eradicated from the game.
Words: Scott Kelly
Photography: Connor Stewart
Location: V&A Museum, Dundee