WHEN it comes to cup competition, Gary Harkins doesn’t have much to look back on. In part, perhaps, because too many former coaches wanted to look on him as a back. The 27-year-old will be contesting the first final of his career when the Scottish Communities League Cup reaches its conclusion this afternoon. Kilmarnock manager Kenny Shiels has tapped into Harkins’ inner No.10 to make that happen. When he was younger, there were too many attempts to trade on his outer No.5. “It must have been the bald head and the old face that made them think it,” says Harkins, who sports a chunky, 6ft 2in frame. “I would always fly into tackles if it was asked of me, so they could see I was eager and I would play where they wanted me to play.”
Not until six months into his stint with Partick Thistle in 2008, was the Greenock-born player given the creative midfield role that his attacking craft and passing prowess designed him for. He soon acquired the unofficial title of most naturally gifted player outside the Scottish top flight. Those gifts he delivered up even more regularly on moving to Dundee in 2009, from where he joined Kilmarnock last summer.
Harkins feels a debt of gratitude to Ian McCall at Firhill for the fact he was the first manager to give him the chance to best serve his talents. By that time, boyhood hopes of cutting it at Blackburn Rovers had been dashed, and he had bumped around a few lower league English clubs on loan before being bruised by a grim spell at Grimsby Town. “It’s pretty much in the name,” he says when asked why that experience turned out so badly. “I didn’t do myself any favours, and didn’t get on well with the manager Alan Buckley, who came in after the one who signed me, Graham Rodger, got sacked after a few months.”
Initially, Harkins started out at Blackburn as a defensive midfielder but “even Mark Hughes ended up playing me at centre-half in a few pre-season games”. That was the only first team involvement he got at a club he joined from school. And so began a professional career in which there have been plenty of hard knocks.
“As a 16 year old, I trusted my coaches to see something in me to get me as far as I could. And, to be fair, they were top drawer. We just disagreed on what I was. I was turned into a defensive midfielder where I had to run and tackle and then give the ball to someone else. I had always seen myself as something different, but it’s getting your coach or your manager to see that as well so that you have the licence to go and do it.
“As I’ve gone on I’ve had managers who have let me do that. Ian McCall [at Partick] was pretty much the first to take the shackles off. I’m glad you never saw my games at centre half, though. I’ve never looked at myself as a defender. I had big Alan Archibald next to me at Thistle, who had to coach me through most of the games. I was always wandering away looking at the ball and getting the shout back from him.”
In Kenny Shiels, Harkins has a coach who, by repute, sees every player as a potential attacker. This season the Kilmarnock manager has given the Zinedine Zidane lookalike – which has earned him that nickname, predictably – and Charlie Adam playalike, his first taste of leading the line and a chance to add to his positional collection. How Harkins is deployed this afternoon will depend on whether Paul Heffernan overcomes an ankle injury, with the pair and Dean Shiels all in the mix to form the club’s strikeforce. “I’ve played next to Heff and off him at times as well,” he says. “But I like to play centre mid as well, the way I did at Dundee. I enjoyed that. We’ve got me and Dean, though, and both of us have been playing that No.10 role, with me slightly in front.” Kilmarnock have slipped back from their early season standards and have posted only one win in their past eight games – although that victory did come at Ibrox.
Harkins missed it with injury following the strange case of a broken ankle that wasn’t... and then was again. He returned from the injury inside two weeks to play in the mid-January Scottish Cup fifth round win over his old club Dundee. But after appearing in the Ayrshire derby League Cup semi-final the following weekend he was sidelined for most of February and, by his own admission, has struggled for consistency since.
“When I was at Partick, I went over on my ankle and it’s obviously happened then,” Harkins explains. “It’s called an avulsion fracture, where the ligament pulls a bit of the bone off. I obviously didn’t realise it had happened before but, when I went for a scan this time, you could see the bone had come off. But the ankle was stable enough without that ligament so I didn’t need anything done and it was the same when I did it again. I just needed a few weeks to get it stable.”
Harkins says he only needed one week at Kilmarnock to feel he was in a stable, happy environment. He has done his bit for team spirit and camaraderie by becoming the squad’s social convener. In that capacity, he has established a coffee club where the group will go for coffee and cake. Today they will look to sup from a very different cup, contentedly, and the opportunity to do so will be career-affirming for Harkins. “I’ve had a few years playing First Division and playing lower league in England so I’m happy to be playing in front of a full stadium, in a good atmosphere, in a final,” he says. “It’s what everyone wants to do when you start, and I hope it won’t be my last.”