Gary Harkins on going out with a bang and why it’s time to retire

Maverick playmaker reflects on his impressive 18-year career that ended with a red card

John Harkins and his four-year-old daughter Sophia in Greenock. Picture: John Devlin

It initially seemed like a matter of regret that there was no clamour of the crowd to acknowledge Gary Harkins’ retirement. A player who had provided so much enjoyment for so many over the years deserved to hear some acclaim.

That wasn’t possible amid lockdown. Although unaware of its relevance at the time, Harkins played what proved to be the last game of his 18-year-long career on 29 February. Had he known what this match represented then there might have been a few more choice words aimed at the referee who sent him off for foul and abusive language. The twist? Harkins was sitting on the Stenhousemuir bench at the time having been subbed off a couple of minutes earlier in the 3-0 defeat by Cove Rangers.

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“There was a throw-in over near us,” recalls Harkins. “The ref had not had a good game, which I guess you get at that level. But this was particularly poor. I was obviously in a bit of a huff, we were 3-0 down – I was not happy. I turned round to someone on the bench and said something loud enough that he could hear. He came over and sent me off.”

Even at this late stage of his career, he had learned something new. “That you can speak to someone else and get sent off for it,” he says.

He was suspended for the next match. Manager Davie Irons then committed a crime against football by leaving Harkins languishing on the bench as an unused sub in Stenhousemuir’s last game before the lockdown v Queen’s Park. It means the record books will show for evermore that Harkins was red carded in the last game where he was actively involved.

Gary Harkins always did enjoy the comparisons with Zinedine Zidane, whose shaven headed-look he also adopted. Like the French maestro, who had to walk head bowed past the World Cup trophy after being sent off in the final game of his career in 2006 v Italy, Harkins endured an extended walk of shame – Craig Napier, the referee, refused to re-start the match until he had made his way around the pitch. “It wasn’t the World Cup final, mind you,” Harkins points out.

The dugouts are placed opposite the main stand at Ochilview. It was a long trudge. Making things worse, the opposition manager was Paul Hartley, his old boss at Dundee and the one who cut short his third spell at the Dens Park club.

There is, on reflection, something magnificent about Harkins taking his leave in this manner. Hailed recently by BBC Radio Scotland’s Off the Ball programme as one of the last mavericks, it would have been disappointing if Harkins had signed off in a conventional manner. Choreography does not suit someone so expert at playing off the cuff.

And he got to feel the love in any event. After announcing his retirement on Twitter earlier this month – “been a pleasure,” he wrote – the well-wishers flooded in. At the time of writing, the post has been liked over 3,000 times – nearly six times the amount of people who watched his last game at Ochilview.

There are also nearly 300 comments, including one from Andy Ritchie. The Morton legend is a recent convert to social media. “The big fella would always be a player I would have paid my money to watch,” he wrote, which is like being told you can sing a bit by Frank Sinatra.

“That meant a lot,” says Harkins, who still lives in Greenock. “Having played for Morton, you hear all the stuff about how good he was, and for him to say something like that about me was really something. From being down this way, I have been lucky enough to meet him a few times.”

Keith Lasley – not someone he knows, other than as an uncompromising opponent – was another that stood out for him. The Motherwell assistant manager took the time to salute “one of the most naturally talented players I ever kicked (usually after you had megged me a couple of times)”.

There were other messages, too, including one from John McGinn, a former team-mate at St Mirren.

But the Ritchie comments still hold their charge. Coming from one maverick to another, they cut to the chase of why Harkins’ retirement has been mourned. At least one exquisite piece of skill worth the gate fee was almost guaranteed when he was playing. Despite being convinced he had at least one more season left at a higher level than Stenhousemuir, Harkins also knew that, at 35-years-old, the thrill was gone.

It was time to hang up the magic books – or at least rest them against the gravestone of his grandfather, Joseph. He posted this poignant photograph with his retirement tweet.

“When I see a pitch, or a set of goals, I used to think, ‘I can do this, I can do that’,” Harkins explains. “Now, when I pass a pitch, I have no desire to go and get a ball and play. I have lost a wee bit of hunger.”

He has a B-licence coaching badge which he suspects won’t count for much amid current Covid-19 related cutbacks at clubs. Difficult though it is to imagine, he’s reconciled to life on Civvy Street. It’s possible he can nutmeg a desk, at least.

He has abundant memories to sustain him, including the generous reception he received at Dens Park early last season when he returned with Partick Thistle. It was almost as if the Dundee fans sensed it would be the last time they would have the privilege of seeing him play.

They were never given the chance to say a proper farewell to someone they grew to love when he skippered the ‘Deefiant’ team towards survival on and off the pitch after an
unprecedented 25-point penalty 
for going into administration in 2010/11.

One of his last acts in a dark blue shirt – the colour he says “suits me best” – was delivering the corner from which Kostadin Gadzhalov bundled in the equaliser that left Dundee United staring relegation in the face in the ‘Doon derby’ four years ago. Harkins picked up an injury that night and did not play again for the club. His late appearance off the bench for Thistle in September drew a remarkably warm reaction from the home fans, whose side were 1-0 up at the time. They lost 3-1.

“When I first went to warm up, it was in front of the Bobby Cox stand and I got a round of applause,” he recalls. “There’s a picture of me standing speaking to the gaffer [Ian McCall] about to come on and I was getting another, even louder round of applause. A few of the women who work in the office texted me afterwards and said: ‘we have never seen anything like that before’. It meant a lot.”

Almost immediately, he hit the post with a header – not that it mattered in the end. “That was an easy header! I could have scored that no bother. I thought I would aim at the post. I did not want to ruin my welcome.”

His skills weren’t always so admired – or indeed even recognised. Harkins chuckles when recalling his early years at Blackburn Rovers. He was cast as a midfield enforcer whose job was to “get the ball and give it to someone more talented”. He was later moved back and told to take no prisoners at centre-half.

Paul Dickov felt the force of a Harkins reducer during training shortly after arriving from Leicester City. “I absolutely rattled him. He ended up having to go into the treatment room.” Graeme Souness, the manager at the time, looked on admiringly.

Harkins never made a first-team appearance for Blackburn Rovers. When his beloved Celtic came to town for a Uefa Cup tie in 2002, he was not required. He swapped his ticket in the players’ area for one in the away end. All seemed well – particularly since Henrik Larsson’s opener meant the visitors were in firm control after a 1-0 first leg win at Celtic Park. And then the Celtic fans started baiting Souness en masse.

“Me and Paul Gallagher were both sitting in the Celtic end while both at Blackburn at the time,” recalls Harkins. “When they started singing ‘Peeee-nisssss!’ towards Souness, it got a bit awkward!”

Harkins’ next port of call was Grimsby. It was not a punishment – Souness had been replaced by Mark Hughes by this point – but it felt like one. He’s not been slow to detail the wretched time he had at Grimsby. He delivers one final, perfectly cushioned volley.

“Nobody could get me back to that place,” he says. “That was horrendous. I should never have gone to Grimsby. But the agent I had at the time was shoving me down that way – it was good money for the age I was at. But once I got there it was: ‘right you are on your own now’.

“The manager who took me there [Graham Rodger] got the sack and the new manager [Alan Buckley] was a wee cretin.”

Harkins seriously pondered quitting the game. Partick Thistle were only able to offer a third of what he was on at Grimsby but there was not much negotiation required to entice him home with still a year of his contract left to run at Blundell Park, one of the few places where he is remembered less than fondly by supporters.

Ian McCall, a talented, mercurial winger in his own day, was certainly qualified to spot Harkins’ vision. Even so, due to an injury crisis, he deployed Harkins at centre-half before letting him loose further forward. A televised Scottish Cup quarter-final in March 2008 against Rangers at Ibrox allowed Harkins to demonstrate his playmaker qualities. “I think that’s when people started to think: ‘he’s not bad, actually’,” he says.

The rest is history, including a major honour – the League Cup in 2012 – while at Kilmarnock under Kenny Shiels. “It was a great dressing-room,” he recalls. “The only thing that annoyed me was, every week, no matter how I was playing, after 60 minutes my number would come up. It built the perception that ‘oh, he’s not fit’. Before that I never had any problems finishing 90 minutes.”

He was granted an extra 13 minutes on top of his usual hour in that cup final v Celtic before being replaced by the match-winner, Dieter Van Tornhout. He provided England with a belated glimpse of the real Gary Harkins while on loan from St Mirren at Oldham Athletic, who were managed by former Killie team-mate Lee Johnson. He made his debut against Steven Gerrard in an FA Cup tie at Anfield. To this day Harkins is regarded as a cult hero at Oldham.

“I had a few spots on Soccer AM; showboating, goals, stuff like that,” says Harkins. “It was good to go down there and finally let them see that. The fans really took to me.

“I think one of the press quotes was: ‘he looks as if he has just had 20 fags and was out last night, but he can play’.”

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