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It Seems To Me . . .

With Gulati gone, Harkes’ MLS return could become a more complex matter.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Monday, March 1, 1999) -- There are some very mixed signals coming out of Nottingham Forest concerning their intentions about John Harkes. Additionally, the sacking of Major League Soccer deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati may have an unexpected impact on Harkes future in England.

Harkes has been lent by MLS to bottom dwelling Forest which is coached by Ron Atkinson, Harkes’ old coach at Sheffield Wednesday. Under its agreement with MLS, Forest has until March 15 to exercise an option to buy out Harkes’ MLS contract, for about $400,000. If it does not exercise the option, Harkes will return to play with the New England Revolution in their opening match March 20.

Forest is currently in last place in the Premier League, "nine points adrift from salvation" as one British paper put it after Forest lost a critical home match to Chelsea 3-1 a week ago.

When Forest negotiated the loan of Harkes, it gave MLS the clear indication that if it thought it would be relegated it would not exercise its option. The club is also very cash poor. Now after managing only an away 0-0 tie against fellow regulation prospect Charlton, relegation seems almost a certainty for Forest. Yet it is possible the team will reverse course and try to keep Harkes.

To start with, Atkinson is saying that if Forest is relegated he is willing to remain at the helm to insure its stay in the First Division will only be for a year. In fact, he appears to be making some deals with an eye on the future, and two of these deals might end up making Harkes all but indispensable.

Forest is desperate for scoring. So they are making deals for Hearts’ Stephane Adam and for British First Division scoring sensation Dean Windass. In doing so they are giving up two key defenders Des Lyttle and Craig Armstrong. This leaves Forest very short of experienced men at defense.

Two weeks ago Harkes came out of Forest’s match against West Ham in the 67th minute not because he was playing poorly, but because of a calf injury. Because of the injury he did not play against either Chelsea or last Saturday against Charlton. In his place Atkinson started young Frenchman Mathieu Louis-Jean. Let’s say the young man has not had a stellar Premiership debut.

Clouding the situation even more is the announcement this week that midfielder Steve Stone, possibly Forest’s best player, will move on if the club is relegated. Reportedly Stone’s contract allows him to move to any club that offers at least a $8 million transfer fee if Forest is relegated. Several clubs are reportedly interested and willing to pay the price.

If Stone is dealt then Forest will need experienced hands even more. And the $8 million will give them cash to deal.

Which brings us to the topic of Sunil Gulati. Forest was ready to take Harkes’ long-term on a free transfer. But Gulati said no. He was strongly of the opinion that players under contract to MLS should not be given away if the League is to gain credibility as a seller of talent. Both Frankie Hejduk and Tony Sanneh went to the Bundesliga as free transfers only because their MLS contracts had expired. But Gulati refused to let Eric Wynalda go to Charlton either as a long-term loan or a free transfer. Faced with paying at least a $500,000 fee for Waynalda, Charlton said no thank you.

But with Gulati now out of the picture, it’s not clear what MLS’ response will be if Forest comes back and offers to acquire Harkes’ contract on a free transfer, or for an amount less than $400,000. What it may well come down to is how badly Harkes is wanted at New England. If New England feels it would rather use the cap room elsewhere, and Forest says we want John but not at the price, MLS might deal and Harkes may end up staying in England.

So it will be interesting to see what Atkinson decides about John Harkes. Nothing is sure at this point.

Likewise, just as Harkes future is unsure, so too is Claudio Reyna’s. Before the Bundesliga’s winter break Reyna was far down on Wolfsburg’s bench, deep in coach Wolfgang Wolf’s dog house. The assumption was, by everyone including Reyna, that this would be his last season at Wolfsburg and his last in the Bundesliga. His contract is actually owned by Bayer Leverkusen, which has lent him to Wolfsburg, and if he is sent back the working assumption is that Leverkusen will let him out of the remaining years of the contract.

I understand that Reyna’s representatives are shopping him around Europe and have gotten definite expressions of interest from clubs in both Holland and Portugal and are working hard to drum up interest in Italy.

But suddenly Reyna is back in Wolf’s good graces at Wolfsburg. Following his strong match in the United States 3-0 victory over the German national team in Jacksonville, Reyna went back to Germany and Wolf was almost forced to put him back into the lineup. Now Reyna has started in Wolfsburg’s last two matches, and has played very well in both. So maybe Reyna’s Bundesliga career is not over.

Robert Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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