The former Hibs striker recalls a career forged from the toughest of beginnings
Kevin Harper is describing a typical day in his young life that will resonate with any parent wondering why people keep talking about football losing its grip on the nation. “I’d rush to school early so I could play,” he says, “then play at morning break, lunchtime, back at home after a jam piece – then after my dinner which would be wolfed down in three minutes flat I’d be back out there for one more game. Football was everything to me.”
You kind of understand why when the ex-Hibs striker and veteran of some lusty Edinburgh derbies reveals the in-home leisure options capable of distracting him from football. “We had a Betamax video-player, given to us by Aunt Roseanne when she got VHS. But the Betamax shelf down the local shop had only two movies: ET and The Ten Commandments. When Aunt Roseanne upgraded to a better VHS we got her old machine.”
He’s telling his story over a skinny latte. It’s a sign of progress, I suppose, that Gartcosh, North Lanarkshire where he now lives has a Costa Coffee. Back in the 1980s, Glasgow’s Possilpark couldn’t quite provide a safe place to play. “It was the toughest estate in Scotland, lots of drugs, junkies staggering about, needles on the ground. There was a piece of grass we called the Bowling Green which must have been ironic because it was all these wee mounds but that wasn’t close. The Pitch was nearer but that was just a square of concrete. So mostly we played in the road.”
Now 37, Harper looks fit enough to still be playing and wouldn’t say no if asked, but his main concern right now is the football academy he’s trying to build, hence the reminiscing about his own highly unpromising beginnings in the game. The hope is that the Kevin Harper Football School of Excellence will benefit disadvantaged kids. He wants, he says, to “give something back”. This sounds a bit strange because, at first, football gave him nothing. The facilities locally were obviously shocking. And there was the fact he was black which even more shockingly was an issue for some. Racist abuse happened in almost every boys’ club game and, sadly, continued sporadically at professional level.
But he did encounter good people in football who tried to help him. He had opportunities, took some, but knows he could have achieved greater things in his career. He got angry, sometimes of course with very good cause. But there was a marriage which ended badly and a business venture which went wrong. Looking back – and Harper has been doing a lot of soul-searching recently – he’s grateful to football. Very possibly there’s some guilt involved in his desire to make a positive contribution. “I’m Kevin Harper, warts and all,” he says more than once.
“You had to watch out for the man, for cars and for wee wifies – and for funny bounces.” This was Stonyhurst Street where he lived, since pulled down. Street-football is sometimes over-romanticised, but he admits the hazards improved his skills. There was only one other black kid on the estate: “Scott Rose, my friend to this day, he became a joiner.” Others weren’t so friendly. “I got called a ‘wee black bastard’ a lot. There were fisticuffs right through my younger days.” But, despite all of this he defends Possilpark. “It had a really bad rep. Folk would say: ‘No way would I drive my car there. If I had to stop I’d get my wheels taken off.’ But it could still show itself to be a close-knit place and it made me streetwise and taught me about life. No, I wouldn’t change where I grew up.”
Racism has hit football again with Yaya Toure warning of a black-player boycott of the 2018 Russia World Cup following Manchester City’s match in Moscow this week where he alleges he was subjected to monkey chants. Harper, when he graduated to red-ash pitches and juvenile matches, says the taunts he suffered were “constant; they beat me down”. His coach at the West Park club in Bishopbriggs, Bert Rowan, was one of those who helped him. “He changed me from being an angry wee boy, got me to stop reacting with my fists, beat the bullies with football.”
Playing for Hibs in a 1996 derby when he was Scotland’s leading black footballer, Harper claimed he was racially abused by Gary Mackay. Then the Jambos’ captain, Mackay has always denied the allegation; Harper says that even now he could find YouTube footage on his phone to support it.
The pair have never discussed the incident, he says, but whatever happened that afternoon, there was no official investigation, which only added to his sense of grievance. He accepts that racism is treated more seriously now, that efforts are being made to combat it, but two decades on from his breakthrough is surprised and not a little dismayed that the greater ethnic mix on Scotland’s streets isn’t matched by more homegrown black and Asian players featuring with our top clubs.
Harper’s talent – explosive pace and shooting, and not bad in the air for one who only ever grew to “5ft 6ins ... and a bit” – was spotted at 12 by Alex Miller while the Hibs manager’s sons were playing on a neighbouring Paisley pitch. “Bert Rowan told me; I was thrilled. I know that Alex wasn’t to everyone’s liking but I’ll never forget that he gave me my chance. And Bert was great for me too. He knew money was tight for my family but he made sure I didn’t miss any tournaments and gave me a lift to every game.”
Back when he was playing, Harper’s mother Kathleen and his Catholic faith were invariably mentioned; he’d been an altar boy at St Theresa’s church. What of his father? You can find stories about the dad being an alcoholic, and how when Harper turned professional at 16, the lad and his mum had to ask him to leave the house. Actually, it was a bit more dramatic than that. “His drinking just brought misery. He wasn’t an angry drunk but my mother couldn’t cope anymore. My big brother and sister had left so it fell to me. Most boys I guess will have had to do this at some stage: I asked my dad out the back. We had a scrap and I ended up breaking his ribs. I told him he had to go and to be fair to him he did.”
How did Harper feel; after all, this was his father? “Well, he wasn’t my biological father. No one really knows this. His name was Gerry and he gave me the name Harper but he came into my mother’s life after my brother and sister who’re called Fisher and after I was born in Oldham. It’s a complicated story. Gerry didn’t really take much interest in my football but I was sad when he died. I was playing for Portsmouth when I found out he’d got cancer and I came back up the road to see him. He passed away a few months later.”
And then the tale gets even more fraught. As far as he knows, Harper’s real father was Frank Coleman who died before he was born. But this is all he knows. “I’ve tried asking my mother about him but she won’t tell me. We’ve fallen out and are no longer speaking. It’s sad but I want to know the truth, even if it’s not got a happy ending. This’ll sound daft but my life is like a doughnut; there’s this hole in the middle. We all reach this stage, don’t we? We want to know where we’re from. I also want to know for the sake of my kids. They’re starting to ask questions. ‘Dad, why are you this colour? Why are we?’”
Kathleen still lives in Possilpark. She used to clean St Theresa’s to keep Harper in football boots. But now he’s fallen out with the church as well. “At times my faith has helped me. At Portsmouth, for instance, when I was having a bad time with my ex, I’d just become a father and my best friend, Andrew Dolan, had died of a heart attack at 34. I wasn’t strong enough back then; in fact I was pretty weak. But I also think the church brainwashed me. The questions I’m asking now are different ones, and I’m trying to answer them myself.”
Harper needs another coffee. He says it’s easy for him to talk about football, less so “real stuff”, but he’s doing an okay job. Back to football, though, and Hibs. The 90s were a manic era down Easter Road way, featuring a near-death experience, a cup triumph, Chic Charnley, managers arriving by helicopter and leaving with the tailfin between their legs –and relegation. Harper missed Wallace Mercer’s failed takeover bid and the Skol Cup triumph. With Hibs and Hearts about to clash in the League Cup, though, he does have fond memories of playing on the right wing in derbies and of that harum scarum period in the Hibees’ history.
“I think Hibs back then were underrated but it’s also true we should have achieved more. I played with Darren Jackson, Keith Wright, Mickey Weir, Michael O’Neill and Kevin McAllister – and yet some folk reckon we were dour and defensive! My first derby was a famous one – the 1-0 win at Tynecastle [’94] which ended Hearts’ incredible [22-game] unbeaten sequence. In the lead-up, all you heard was ‘Robbo this, Robbo that’ [John Robertson, Hibee Nemesis]. It was a nervous dressing-room but diehards like Gordon Hunter were hammering it into the rest of the team how the run simply had to end. And of course Geebsie scored the winner.”
Harper netted in two Easter Road victories in successive seasons, the second of them when the portents had been grim indeed. “It was the New Year’s Day game [’96] two days after we’d lost 7-0 at Ibrox. Neil Pointon scored for Hearts in the eighth minute, they missed a great chance for a second and Jim Leighton made a great save. I think we all wondered: ‘Uh-oh, what’s the score going to be here?’ But Michael O’Neill got a great equaliser and then crossed for me to volley home. I can still see the ball zipping into the net.”
In the New Year fixture two seasons later Harper was credited with helping save the job of manager Jim Duffy (the copter guy) when he created both goals in a 2-2 fightback after a drubbing seemed possible. Four months later, what was maybe his best strike in green-and-white after a run from halfway, beat Hearts but couldn’t save Hibs, then managed by Alex McLeish, from the drop. Big Eck wasn’t Harper’s boss for very long but there was still time for “many clashes” between the pair before Derby County paid £300,000 for him.
So began an English sojourn with eight stopovers including being loaned out twice to Walsall and spells with the topical managers Tony Pulis (newly taken over at Crystal Palace) and Harry Redknapp (football’s most controversial memoir until you-know-who this week). Harper wasn’t always happy down there; indeed Derby was downright miserable. Four months in a hotel, watching Ferraris swish into the club car park, he thought he wasn’t worthy. He helped the Rams beat Liverpool but was unaware of the significance of the Kop, the end where he’d scored. But he did eventually get himself a Lotus.
At Portsmouth he played a whole season with a double hernia. “Every time my name was announced the crowd would boo, but Harry Redknapp kept picking me. We won promotion and our goalie Alan Knight wrote in his book that no one had ever managed to win the Pompey fans round before.” He also collected league medals with Walsall and Norwich but these were all outwith the top flight and back home Harper became something of a forgotten man. Although he once scored a perfect hat-trick for our Under-21s, there was no full cap and with it the honour of being the first black player of the modern era to represent Scotland. He wondered if the row with Gary Mackay had harmed his chances. He wondered if manager Craig Brown even knew where Portsmouth was, or whether it was too far to come and watch. And, being Kevin, he wondered these thoughts out loud and sometimes angrily.
Then a lively career featuring the odd blazing goal but not enough of them, high promise largely unfulfilled, ended in the most mundane way. “I was in Spain. I was looking in a shop window. I tried to turn to the right and that was it, the cartilage in my knee had snapped.” For four years, Harper forgot about football. “I couldn’t deal with the fact I was finished. I stopped caring about it.” But, in this re-evaluation of his life, during which he’s fallen in love with an old friend, beauty therapist Helaine, he’s rediscovered something of the boy who would only ever stop kicking a ball for a slice of bread and jam and never for The Ten Commandments. “Football’s a fantastic game,” he says. “That’s why I’m trying to set up this school, which I hope will help kids who probably don’t think they stand a chance, because that was me once. I know I could have achieved more. I know that out on the pitch it probably didn’t look like I was enjoying myself. But I realise now I was incredibly lucky to be a footballer and I’m very grateful.”