Some players are made to wait an entire career for their first taste of Premier League football. For others, the chance comes altogether too soon. Kadeem Harris had only just turned 18 when top-flight Fulham offered Wycombe £50,000 for his services in July 2011.
“We want to bring the young players through,” Wanderers manager Gary Waddock said at the time. “Whether he breaks through is up to him but he’s working very hard at the moment.”
It was not a straightforward decision. With Chelsea also lurking, it would have been impossible for a teenager not to have his head turned, for him to maintain concentration in the face of bright lights and grand promises. Football’s path is littered with talented youngsters who made the wrong decision, took a bad turn and were left abandoned by the wayside.
Harris was different. When Premier League interest intensified, so too did his resolve. He stayed at Wycombe not because he felt he couldn’t make it to the top of the mountain, but because he was confident enough to do so of his own accord. He did not want a leg-up or a push. He turned down the obvious shortcut primarily because he had self-belief, not because he lacked it.
By January 2012, the circumstances had changed. A more desirable avenue opened up, and Cardiff came calling. It was a promotion, but only a slight one. The step up from League One to the Championship is not quite the same as the leap from the third tier to the Premier League.
No-one would argue that it has gone exactly to plan. Harris has played just 69 times for Cardiff in seven-and-a-half years, and made his league debut almost three years after signing. A combination of injuries, loans and competition stalled a development that once seemed irrepressible. One of the country’s most promising teenagers was consigned to the scrapheap by the age of 25.
But there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Harris shone on his full Premier League debut on Saturday, building on his goal against Fulham with an assist against Brighton. No player created more chances (3) as the visitors eventually ran out of answers for his constant questions.
That Sol Bamba scored the deserved winner against Brighton’s ten men should not overshadow Harris’s performance. After initial struggles on the right, he and Josh Murphy swapped wings to great effect as the Seagulls sunk deeper and deeper into their shell. It was Harris’ burst of skill and speed that dragged Cardiff level through Callum Paterson’s header, shocking both sides from their respective slumbers.
By the second half, Harris almost put Cardiff ahead when his 20-yard effort struck the crossbar. Had it been two inches lower, it would have been just reward.
The 25-year-old, along with the tireless Aron Gunnarsson, was by far the best player on the pitch. It was not a flawless performance, but Harris offered something no other player could: a spark, an unpredictable, unquantifiable brilliance. Most treated this Saturday lunchtime kick-off as a stroll; Harris made light work of sprinting straight past them.
He was never even meant to be in Neil Warnock’s 25-man Premier League squad, eventually chosen just ahead of Lee Tomlin. “Six weeks ago, he wanted to leave because he wasn’t getting a game,” the manager admitted last month. He is now one of the Bluebirds’ biggest assets, a talent good enough to separate wheat from the Premier League’s considerable chaff on his day.
Warnock does deserve great credit for his part in Harris’ journey. “I think he’s the first manager that’s come to the club that’s actually shown real belief in me,” the player said last February. Such loyalty can be a powerful and potent weapon when harnessed properly.
For the first time, that balance seems to have been struck. Harris has finally started more league games for Cardiff (27) than for his other three clubs combined (26). He has scratched and clawed his way to the Premier League, and is not about to let that opportunity pass him by. He might be Cardiff’s secret weapon in their bid for survival.
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