As a less-than-familiar footballing August drew to a close, Bath City did have a particularly noteworthy signing to share. Midfielder Ryan Harley’s Somerset switch opens the door to his first time in non-league since 2008. The years since have seen him shine in an Exeter City side that finished in their highest post-War position, earn moves to Swansea City and Brighton & Hove Albion, and win his third career promotion with Milton Keynes Dons only last year.
MK manager Russell Martin praised the 35-year-old’s impact behind the scenes at the League One side, commenting back in June how he hoped to have the budding coach with the club in some capacity for 2020/21. As it transpired, Harley’s native South West is instead his destination for the upcoming season, with playing his primary focus again.
The one-time Bristol City prospect rates the credentials of Bath City boss Jerry Gill extremely highly and was keen to emphasise the importance of the former Birmingham City defender in him joining the Romans. Here’s an in-depth discussion with the man with a pearler or two in his goal collection…
Starting with this move to Bath City, how did the conversations with Jerry go? What were you getting across to each other?
I’ve known Jerry for a while – everyone seems to know everybody in football – and I’ve heard good things, as a coach and a manager. I was keen when he contacted me to see if I was interested. I’d sort of stopped playing full-time football, and it was the opportunity to go part-time at my age, but to a club where I was gonna enjoy it, where things were done properly, and a good coach and manager who’s got some really good ideas. It really appealed to me and when I spoke to him it became clear that we were gonna get something done. I’ve really enjoyed it so far; just been getting my fitness back because I’ve not played for a long, long time.
With the coaching side at MK Dons, was that your introduction to it or had you been getting involved in that previously?
Yeah, it was the first bits I’d done really. Russ (Russell Martin) got the job, and myself and Luke Williams were working with him, and I really enjoyed it. Opportunities were limited because of different reasons at the club, and they were just gonna go with the manager and the assistant manager, and didn’t want another body in there, so I was gonna look to go back playing, and Bath was a really good option.
In terms of the past few months, when the season was suspended and everything ground to a halt, did you have an inkling one way or another about whether you’d be with MK Dons next season?
No, not really. I wasn’t really sure whether I was gonna continue coaching or go back to playing, I was a bit undecided on it. If an opportunity came up, then I was gonna think about it. Bath was the first one that came up, and when I spoke to Jerry, as I said, he came across very well and I’d heard good things, so it was a good fit.
In terms of the kind of managerial approach that you feel gets the best from you as a player, what do you think that’s been over the years? Would (former Exeter City and MK Dons boss) Paul Tisdale be the one who’s understood it best?
I think it’s a lot about trust. If a manager really trusts you, that gives you confidence, and the more confidence you have as a football player, you’re gonna perform to a better level. If you feel he trusts you, and it’s pretty fair, that’s the way you get the best out of a player. I had that with Tis for many years; he trusted me like you wouldn’t believe. Off the back of that, I played good football. If you go onto the pitch with a clear mind and the manager trusts you, there’s not a better feeling. You’re still gonna have bad games, but generally, you’re in a much better frame of mind.
What about the more tactical side with Paul Tisdale? What kind of instructions would he give you personally?
Oh, he used to give me so many instructions! I was probably the player he’d come to a lot of the time and talk to about what he wanted to do tomorrow, and I was often the player he would use to play in a different position to make the shape work or the tactics work. We had a really good understanding and I knew exactly what he wanted from me and that was to help the team; sometimes it wouldn’t, because that’s the way it goes. Often he would come to me with loads of different ideas. He was very tactical and obviously he was a great manager.
— Exeter City FC (@OfficialECFC) January 16, 2020
Would Exeter be the happiest time you’ve had in your career?
I would say so, yeah. I’ve had some big moves, but for whatever reason, they didn’t quite turn out as good as they could have. Playing for Exeter, probably my last year before I got my move to Swansea. We finished 8th in League One; for a club the size of Exeter, it was a massive thing. I think it was the highest finish in the club’s history and I think we finished one point outside the play-offs. There were so many big clubs there and we had a really good team. Obviously a very good manager and a good group of guys, good team spirit, and really talented footballers. That was probably my best season in terms of I was at the peak of my fitness, peak of my game; I think I scored 15 goals from midfield. There’s been other seasons; two play-off campaigns where we lost in two finals. I was a bit older then but I really enjoyed those seasons. We lost in the final to Blackpool and then Coventry. Obviously it finished on defeats but there was more to it than that. The achievement of just getting to the two finals was something, and the group of guys we had for those two years was the best I’ve been involved with really.
What about the opposite of that, was there a most difficult time that stands out?
Probably as a youngster leaving Bristol City. I was 21, I’d played some league games; not enough to really get another League club. I had to sort of do the rounds and play non-league for close to a year to get back in, and thankfully, Tis took me from non-league to give me a chance, and we were great for each other after that. He gave me an opportunity and I’d like to think I rewarded him. So, probably that time at 21 I thought ‘am I gonna go back full-time?’ I knew I had the ability to go back full-time and get back into the League but it’s not always that simple.
Who was the team you grew up supporting?
My dad’s Glaswegian so it was all about Celtic as a kid. That was always the ambition, to play for them, but I never quite managed that one.
When you joined Swansea (January 2011), you were loaned back to Exeter initially to finish the season, then Swansea get into the Premier League the same year, and you join Brighton soon after. How much time did you actually have at Swansea properly before you were moving on?
I was only there a couple of months, because when I officially went there, they had just gone up to the Premier League. It was pre-season and they were obviously bringing a lot of experienced players for that level, which I wasn’t at the time, and I just felt like I had to do something very special in training every day or in the pre-season games I was picked for, because I was really at the back of the queue. To get anywhere near the front I had to perform at such a high level. It’s just not really possible to play your A game every single day, and as soon as I stepped off it a tiny bit, it was always back of the queue again.
When you signed, what were the conversations that you had with (then-Swansea manager) Brendan Rodgers about how you’d fit in? On the face of it, you seemed the sort of player he’d appreciate.
Those conversations didn’t really happen; I think people think they do, but sometimes it’s not the case. The manager signs you and says ‘you’re gonna enjoy it, look forward to working with you,’ and as soon as you get your boots on that’s sort of it really. It wasn’t a case of ‘I want this from you, I want that,’ that didn’t really happen. I think they had so many good players at the time that it was really difficult. Whether I was that level or not, we’ll never know, but I didn’t really get the opportunity.
You did get a decent taste of the Championship with Brighton. You’ve talked before about (teammate and ex-Spain international) Vicente as someone who had some outrageous ability, but what about any opposition players from that time that made you think ‘alright, this is a different level here’?
If you talk about pre-season games where you’re playing against Tottenham, Chelsea, I played against (Eden) Hazard one pre-season when he just signed for Chelsea, and you could see how good he was. Playing against (Luka) Modrić and a few of the guys from Tottenham, David Bentley was a class act, but I don’t always consider the ones you play against where it’s not a competitive game, because it’s a bit different. The one that stood out to me was (Adam) Lallana at Southampton. He was one player that I played against and thought ‘oh, he’s something special.’
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) September 23, 2016
Have there been any teammates in particular that you’ve really felt on the same page as on the pitch? Just an almost effortless understanding.
My good friend at Exeter was David Noble. We’d had a short time together at Bristol City and obviously played in midfield at Exeter together. We just always enjoyed playing together; similar ideas and we just bounced off each other in training and games. He was one I really enjoyed playing with and we understood each other. A bit further down the line was obviously (Ollie) Watkins, who’s just gone to Villa. I remember going to watch him, I think I was playing for Swindon at the time, and I think it was a pre-season game against Reading. I went with my agent and Ollie was playing sort of left of a front three; he was a kid but I could tell he was a talent. Six months later, I went back to Exeter for my second spell and remembered him. It took him a while to get in the team, and then when he did, it was sort of like the rest is history. He had a bit of everything. He was a goalscoring winger, shall we say, and his starting debut was against Plymouth, and he played the right of a midfield three. I remember Tis selecting him in midfield with me and Nobes, and as he finished doing the team talk, I remember us looking at each other thinking ‘how’s he playing Ollie there?’ He was outstanding in that game and he wasn’t even a midfielder really. He was brilliant to play with because he had a good football brain, he was quick, he was strong, he could score goals, left foot, right foot, he could head it. The one thing is he’s desperate to score, either in training or matches. He could score any type of goal, and a really good guy as well, really humble.
I wanna ask about social media. Have you ever been on there publicly, or is that something you’ve always preferred to swerve?
Yeah, it’s not my thing, that. It just never interested me, that side of football. I love football for the right reasons; I love the tactics of it, watching players and teams and learning about the game. I don’t enjoy it for the reasons of Twitter, and footballers prancing around with Gucci washbags and all that. It’s not my cup of tea.
Have you ever had to sing when you joined a club, and if so, which song(s)?
Yeah, I’ve done a few of them. My first ever one was Swansea, and wow…awful. I’d just come as a new signing and come from a smaller club, and they made a big thing of it in pre-season. The chairman’s there, the manager, all the staff, the hotel staff, the players; like a big concert, almost. I always went with ‘Sex On Fire’ (Kings of Leon). I don’t think I was very good at it! But that was my thing, yeah.
Away from the game, what else do you like in your life when it comes to interests, or ambitions/ideas for the future even?
I like spending a lot of time with my little girl; she’s nearly ten, she’s a real daddy’s girl. So that’s really nice, and then I’m really into property, doing houses up; I’ve done quite a few now. That’s something I’ve got my eye on, as well as potentially getting into coaching or staying in the game in some aspect when I fully retire.
Finally, to bring it back round to Bath City, what is your outlook as we speak now, what are you looking forward to?
I’m just looking forward to enjoying my football for Bath. We’ve got a really good team, a really good manager, so hopefully we can be successful and finish as high up the league as we can and hit our ceiling. I’m looking forward to it; I’ve not played in a long time so it’ll be nice to get my boots back on and see where we can go. As I said before, with Jerry Gill, I’d heard good things and now I’ve seen him work closely, he’s a really good coach and it’s sort of a surprise to me that he’s not managed in the League. I’m looking forward to working with him.
Interview by @chris_brookes