The head-turning transformation of Cardiff City's other young hope, from non-League pain to rising Welsh star

By Glen Williams

It seems almost unthinkable now that in January 2020 Mark Harris was recalled from his loan at non-League Wrexham after finding himself out of the side up at the Racecourse Ground.

Because, for many, Harris proved a shining bright light off the bench in his first two appearances in a senior Wales side this week.

Cardiff fans have been blown away by the meteoric rise of Rubin Colwill over the last seven months or so, therefore Harris' progress has perhaps slipped under the radar.

But the striker's growth has been marked and he deserves all the praise he has received over the last few days following his efforts against Belarus and Estonia.

Out in Kazan, Harris made his senior debut for Wales, a dream come true for any kid starting out in the game in this proudest of footballing nations.

He provided a real spark, in-keeping with his nickname 'Sparky', and was a driving factor in engineering that turnaround victory – with a little help from Gareth Bale, of course.

He did not look overawed by the occasion and that is the mark of the man, really. Those who watch him week in, week out for Cardiff City adore his dogged tenacity. He is a confident young lad and is often seen sniping at the assistants for flagging him offside or snarling at an opposition player for going down too easily.

Those sorts of personality traits helped him take to international football like a duck to water this week. He believes in his ability and backs himself to produce, he said as much himself when talking about his debut after the Belarus clash.

"It wasn't really nerves, it was more just 'Get me on the pitch! I am buzzing for this now, I've waited a long time and now it's finally here'," a bullish Harris said of his debut.

"It was a great moment for me. I'm sure my family were watching at home and they were proud as well.

"The lads were great. To have the likes of Gareth Bale encouraging me was great.

"This week I have come in, they have been brilliant. They have welcomed me brilliantly and I can't thank them enough.

"I feel like I've adapted to international football and now, making my appearance for the first team, hopefully there are many more (caps) to come.

"As soon as you get your first cap, you want to get to 10, then you want to get to 20 and keep going. The more caps the better. Hopefully I can chip in with a few goals and assists."

His impact was also notable against the Estonians at his home ground of Cardiff City Stadium, too. He made smart runs down the channels, pulled the visitors' defence, chased lost causes and produced a number of deft touches to link-up play in and around the box.

READ MORE: Wales left frustrated as Estonia hold them to a draw in Cardiff

But it has by no means been a straight upwards trajectory on Harris' career graph.

Rewind just over a year ago and the forward's future was in limbo.

Following a bright start to his time at Wrexham, where he netted three goals in his first four games, Dean Keates then took over as manager and the youngster found himself on the periphery. He was recalled and consigned to Cardiff's under-23s team for the remainder of the season before the pandemic hit.

His contract with the Bluebirds was up that summer and it was by no means a certainty he would sign on again.

But then manager Neil Harris decided to give him a one-year deal, almost a final chance to break his way into the Cardiff team.

Bigger-name forwards were let go in Danny Ward, Omar Bogle and Callum Paterson, while Harris was entrusted to pick up the slack when Cardiff's form had hit rock bottom.

It spoke volumes that when the manager's job first came under threat at the end of November, he plumped for Harris to lead the line alongside Kieffer Moore, ahead of £5.5m signing Robert Glatzel.

Harris had not played for Cardiff since he was thrown in for two games at the end of the 2016/17 season by Neil Warnock amid a raft of injuries.

So his second debut, of sorts, when it really mattered in the crux of the season, came against Luton Town last year, with the Bluebirds in desperate need of a win.

As a testament to his character, he popped up with the second goal of the match in a 4-0 drubbing of the Hatters and struck up a nice partnership with Moore thereafter.

Mick McCarthy's arrival in January brought a change of system and Harris' time was reduced again, but whenever he was given the chance he generally did well.

Make no mistake, though, that he, along with Colwill, has benefitted from the Bluebirds' new stance of placing faith in youth.

Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Jonny Williams, Junior Hoilett and Glatzel all left the Welsh capital this summer. Max Watters was signed for a sizeable transfer fee back in January, too, but McCarthy saw fit to send him out on loan.

The Bluebirds boss also pondered the idea of signing Marley Watkins and sending Harris out on loan. But there was a nagging feeling that this Cardiff academy product had something to offer this term and it was decided that he would stay put.

It was time for Harris to really step up.

And he has started the campaign brightly for the Bluebirds, when he has been afforded the opportunity.

He will know that his Wales opportunity came about owing to injuries, visa issues and Covid protocols, but that will not bother him in the slightest. Because he grabbed his chance with both hands.

It's remarkable to think that not so long ago, he was struggling to make it into a starting lineup in the National League. Now, through his own hard graft and commendable character traits, he has forged an incredibly bright-looking future ahead of him.

The youngster will have a spring in his step now as he returns to his club for the next stretch of games and will be buoyed by his recent displays in the red shirt.

And that can only bode well both for the Welsh national team and for Cardiff City.

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