Interview: Ex-Hibs winger Alex Harris eyes surprise international call-up

Entitled, spoiled and over-privileged, Alex Harris has heard them all. But the former Hibs winger, who spent every day of his schooling at fee-paying Edinburgh Academy, all the way from nursery to sixth-form, has had to overcome more obstacles than most in his short career to date, including emerging from an environment that doesn’t tend to produce footballers.

Former Hibs winger Alex Harris back home in Edinburgh this week. Picture: Greg Macvean
Former Hibs winger Alex Harris back home in Edinburgh this week. Picture: Greg Macvean

Edinburgh Academy is normally in the business of developing rugby stars, with Scotland winger Blair Kinghorn, who was three years below Harris, the latest. “People ask about it, it’s not something I randomly bring up,” says Harris with reference to his education. “I am not ashamed of it at all. But it is different I suppose.

“I played rugby until I was 15. I was being taken to Civil Service Strollers from eight or nine, so I played football from an early age, as much as I played rugby. My sister used to hate it, having to go from school straight to Hibs training at night. She had to do her homework in the car.”

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Saturday was rugby, Sunday was football. While the shape of the ball changed, the position did not – winger. “All my time was sport, sport, sport, which I loved. When I was 14 or 15, my Hibs games were on Saturdays. I had to decide between rugby or football. For me it was a no-brainer. School were great, they knew I had aspirations to be a footballer. Everyone knew I played for Hibs.

“I was part-time in my last year at school – it was Tuesday, Wednesday at school and Monday, Thursday and Friday at Hibs, with games on a Friday. It was weird juggling the two.” He has five highers in total: Maths, Chemistry, French, PE and English.

He left school in the summer he turned 18 and made his Hibs debut that October. He had barely taken off his school blazer. “Everything happened so quickly,” he recalls. “My mates were at uni, having a different life to me. But I always had time for them. My mates now are still my friends from school.”

Everything seemed to come very easily. Those brickbats about a charmed life were, on the surface, true. “I feel I am getting on a bit now. I am 24. I have different things to think about like a mortgage. At 18, 19, you feel free, you don’t think about things. You are living in the moment.”

And what a moment… A first goal for the club at Hampden of all places, in the ‘Alex Harris semi-final’ against Falkirk, sparked the remarkable comeback from 3-0 down that took Hibs into the 2013 Scottish Cup final versus Celtic. Harris, still only 18, played the whole 90 minutes of the 3-0 defeat.

Everything seemed possible. Privately, however, Harris’ world had darkened considerably. On the pitch, a 9-0 aggregate drubbing at the hands of Malmo at the start of the next season wasn’t in the script. Neither was a serious ankle injury sustained following a crude challenge by Motherwell’s Shaun Hutchinson in the first league game of the season.

By the time he was playing first-team football again later that season, Terry Butcher, pictured, had replaced Pat Fenlon. Concerns over whether the new manager rated him were quelled by Butcher’s warm words and a new, three-and-a-half year contract. Harris actually turned down an extra two years. “I could still be there!” he calculates.

“Me and my mum went in one evening – Butcher was just a few weeks into the job – and he told me all the things he saw for me in the future,” he explains. “He talked about himself, his own career. It was good to get a proper chat. I felt very wanted.”

Recalling these talks means acknowledging a poignant absence from the room: that of his father, Kenny, who died following a brain haemorrhage only a matter of months before his son made his first-team debut for Hibs. The marketing executive and part-time comedian was just 53.

“He and my mum, and my sister to be fair, they were all so supportive of my career. I owe a lot to my dad. He did not see me play for Hibs. That came… afterwards. Since my dad passed, my mum has been so supportive. My uncle has taken on the father role. We are a close family. It’s a bit more difficult for them to come to games now, mind you.”

Creativity runs in the family – though to what extent Harris can express himself in the Vanarama National League North, where he plays now with York City, on a weekly rolling contract, is a moot point. Sister Ella is in her last year at university in Newcastle reading music and is lead 
singer in a band, Ellen & The Funktones. “She got that from my mum,” he says.

Diane Harris grew up in London, moved to Edinburgh around 30 years ago and now sings with The Candidates while also being a member of Forth Valley Chorus, a 100-strong women’s choral group.

Diane’s father, Harris’ grandfather, is from the Caribbean island of Grenada, which has led to an interesting proposition for him.

“The Grenada manager got in touch with me last season, when I was at Falkirk, to enquire about my family and passport details,” reveals Harris. Myles Hippolyte, his Falkirk teammate at the time, is of Grenadian descent and tipped them off.

“Paul Hartley had just got the Falkirk job, so it was a bit 
awkward,” says Harris. “With Grenada, their games are not necessarily in European international breaks. I’d have to miss matches. The manager had just come in. I didn’t want to lose my spot.” Harris, who is also eligible for both Scotland and England, remains very open to the possibility of turning out for the Spice Boys in future.

It’s hard to ignore the contrasting fortunes of the player he swapped places with four years ago last month. Though currently injured, Martin Boyle, who headed to Hibs on loan from Dundee while Harris went the other way, has grabbed his chance with both hands. Boyle’s own international ambitions have also taken an unexpected turn having been called up by Australia for the recent Asian Cup. Harris’ most up-to-date status is unused substitute for York in last weekend’s win at Kidderminster in the sixth tier of 
English football.

He is not alone in having to deal with thwarted ambition; there is a raft of Hibs lost boys from this class of a few years ago, one that seemed set to rival the golden generation of Derek Riordan, Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown and Co. As well as Harris, there were high hopes for Sam Stanton, Danny Handling, Jordon Forster and Ross Caldwell, who scored a winner in an Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle. None of them had Hibs careers of significance. “I speak and text to them every so often – we keep in contact,” says Harris.

“I suppose we would all wish we ended up in a better position with Hibs. But I don’t regret anything in terms of what happened. While I wish some things could have been different, I am not disappointed about how my career has gone. But I do think had we not been relegated I might have had a more positive future at Hibs.”

Nothing seems surer. As Hibs’ plight deepened he was pushed back into the team by Butcher before he was ready following injury. The following season, with Alan Stubbs now in charge, he headed back to the Premiership on loan to Dundee, where Hibs play tonight in a televised fixture. Harris helped the Dens Park side reach the top six and Paul Hartley told him he wanted to sign him permanently.

Stubbs assured Harris he was needed back at Hibs but, after starting a League Cup game against Montrose, the winger was then informed he was being allowed to leave on loan again, with Queen of the South interested. This was a significant development in view of the way the season ended, with Hibs winning the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years.

“Obviously being a Hibs fan, I was still keen to go to the Scottish Cup final,” he says. “I had a seat to the right of the dugout, kind of where David Gray celebrated the winner. I was a bit higher up. I was actually sitting a few seats away from Pat Fenlon. I spoke to him at the game, small world!

“I refrained from running on the pitch,” he adds. “My mates did, tops off!”

He met up with the victorious team later that night in Edinburgh’s Shanghai nightclub. His own story is so wrapped up in the Scottish Cup it seems especially painful to hear Harris relay his movements on such a memorable occasion since they sound further removed from the action than could, perhaps should, have been the case.

Harris is not bitter. He simply curses the hamstring strains picked up shortly into Neil Lennon’s tenure. The Northern Irishman was another manager who gave Harris the impression everything was still ahead of him at Hibs. Indeed, he informed the winger he once tried to sign him for Celtic.

“Too many changes in a small amount of time,” he says, summing up his Hibs career. “I have had a lot of managers at Hibs and even Falkirk [where he had to cope with three in little over a year], but I didn’t have a bad relationship with any of them in terms of not speaking to them.

“If the manager does not want me to be part of the plans then I am happy to go and speak to them and be told that. I just don’t like not hearing it first hand.”

Polite, talented and still bursting with unfulfilled potential, he has one last task on this brief trip back to Edinburgh before York’s home clash with Nuneaton Town tomorrow: getting those black curls that ensure he remains so recognisable trimmed. “When it comes down to it, all I want to do is play football,” he adds.