Jamie Harney on leaving Cliftonville, sunny Oz and being nutmegged by Messi

Jamie Harney celebrates winning the Co Antrim Shield Final with Cliftonville
Brendan Crossan

JAMIE Harney feels like he’s retiring from football at 26. And, in many ways, he is. Before the summer’s end, the now former Cliftonville player and his partner Megan will leave for sunny Melbourne, Australia to begin a new life together.

The bombshell of the Tyrone man’s departure landed on social media outlets last week. One of the most popular players to wear the famous Red jersey over the last five years, the central defender thought long and hard about leaving football behind and moving to Australia.

“I’ve played football professionally since I was 15 or 16. That’s 10 years,” said Harney, who spent five years in English football.

“It’s not been easy because people make these decisions close to their retirement age in their mid-30s and I’ve just had to realise this is me making my decision a bit earlier. I’ve got my head around the decision. I’m at peace with it.

“It’s definitely getting a bit real but we’re looking forward to it…My partner Megan was definitely the driving force behind it. We were maybe planning it pre-COVID but everything was put on the back burner.”

Harney admitted his decision to leave his football career behind was made easier by the lack of game-time at Solitude last season.

Given the exceptional form of Jonny Addis and Luke Turner at the heart of the Reds defence, the former West Ham and Colchester player’s opportunities to play were few and far between.

“The hardest thing is obviously walking away from the football but not playing as much as I wanted to made it a bit easier."

Last season, Paddy McLaughlin’s men pushed eventual league champions Linfield all the way, they won the League Cup in dramatic circumstances and reached the last four of the Irish Cup.

For virtually an entire season, Harney and other established members of the panel couldn’t break into a winning team.

“I haven’t really been on the bench in my career,” said Harney.

“You’re in the energy-giver or energy-sapper scenario. I think at the start when I was on the bench I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, if I’m being honest, and I probably wasn’t the nicest person to be around because I wasn’t used to it and I wanted to play.

“But when I got my head around it I started giving everything I could to the other players, and having a lot of conversations with the manager.

“I’ve a great relationship with Paddy; people take the piss out of us. It’s like a father and son relationship. We slabber at each other and we say we love each other all in the same five minutes of a conversation.

“I always preach about the ‘no d***heads policy in the changing room, so I had to leave my ego at the door and when I look back on the season, although I didn’t play a lot, I found out a lot about myself.”

He briefly toyed with the idea of continuing to football in Australia but wants to concentrate on finding employment and “living a little” Down Under.

“Do you go for the same lifestyle out there? 70 or 80 hours per week, playing football, working as well or do I go out there and just work a job and maybe take a year off from football?

“Football is 24/7. Everything revolved around it,” he said.

“You were thinking about it during work, you were thinking about what you were eating. It’s a tough profession but I’m realistic to know there are much tougher professions.

“If you’re committed and you play at a high enough level it’s not just two or three sessions a week and a match on a Saturday - it is every single day.

“It’s the marginal gains. I’ve learned a lot from the likes of Ryan and Chris Curran and players gone by, ‘Cats’ [Ryan Catney] and ‘Janty’ [Barry Johnston] and Paddy himself.

“At Cliftonville, it was a lot easier to make those sacrifices because you wanted to play for the jersey, you weren’t doing it for the money. I don’t think any of us would be boasting about what we earn at Cliftonville – but it’s a lot easier when you’ve got the passion to play for the club and the supporters.”

Harney, however, has kept the door ajar should the couple ever decide to return home.

“We’re going to the other side of the world and we’ll initially look at it for a year. If everything’s going well at that stage, we wouldn’t mind staying longer. We’re both pretty easy-going in terms of planning that far ahead. But we’re not precious; we’re not going out there to make loads of money, we’re going out to live a little.”

While playing Irish League football Harney enjoyed a very successful career in recruitment with west Belfast-based company Necto Search and Selection. He’s a job offer on the table in Melbourne and has other job interviews lined up before they depart.

“Moving to Melbourne is a lifestyle decision. We’ve a couple of family members out there and the way they’ve spoken about it, it does fit in quite well with how we want to live our lives for the next while.”

At just 26, Jamie Harney has packed so much into his football career. Also a keen Gaelic footballer with Tyrone club Glenelly GFC in his teenage years, he was scouted by a host cross-channel clubs, including Celtic and Rangers.

In fact, he’d signed a three-year pre-contract with Rangers – “The way they went about things was first class” – but the Scottish giants went bust and within a couple of weeks Harney was snapped up by West Ham United.

One of his claims to fame was playing against a star-studded Argentina and Lionel Messi in a training game while at the Hammers in 2014.

“Basically we were told we were coming in that evening for a training game against Argentina,” Harney explained.

“Argentina were due to play Croatia in a friendly at Upton Park. We were sitting in the changing rooms and didn’t know who we’d be playing against.

“We thought there might be one or two well-known players among them.

“So we did our warm-up, went over to the pitch and lo and behold their starting XI came out and their front three was Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi.

“In the first five minutes Aguero felt his hamstring so I was absolutely delighted when he went off because he was so strong. Then [Gonzalo] Higuaín and [Carlos] Tevez came off the bench!

“It is something will always stay with me. Because I trained quite often with West Ham’s first team you knew what that level was like. And then you come up against the Argentina players there was another level above that.

“You never thought some of the things they were doing were possible. It was how quick and how sharp they did things. I remember I took the ball off Messi in the first 30 seconds and thought I was on for winning the Ballon d’or!

“In the next couple of minutes, he nut-megged me three times in the one move, and I just lightly jogged back into position.”

With a memory bank full of great times and moments in football, Jamie Harney is looking forward to the next chapter.

For now, Irish Premiership strikers can breathe a sigh of relief...

Jamie Harney recalls playing against the great Lionel Messi while at West Ham in his younger days