Joe Harper: More Scotland goals, more caps, but no word from SFA - 'Alex Ferguson gets special treatment'

“Go see Joe Harper, Saturday morning kid,” sings Van Morrison in a song dating back to 1967. It so happens that this was a good year for Scottish football as well as a good year for Joe Harper.

Joe Harper, pictured in season 1978/79 in a Scotland shirt.

A recent SFA investigation has brought him some news for once. Over half a century on, it turns out he managed to score five genuine, feel-the-quality, bona fide international goals for Scotland v Canada, equalling Hughie Gallacher's record haul against Ireland in 1929.

Of course, these goals have not just been discovered, stuffed down the back of Archie Macpherson’s sofa or something. They were always known about, even if Harper himself has trouble recalling them.

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Now 73, he turns the dial and tries to tune back into the summer of love. “I thought it was four! I remember hitting a volley from about 25 yards into the top corner, that’s about it,” says Harper now.

Aberdeen's Joe Harper in action in 1970.

He also scored a hat-trick in his first, still sadly unofficial, appearance against a New Zealand XI.

Harper was the Saturday afternoon kid. Even then, aged just 18, goals were his calling card, earning him a move from hometown club Morton to Huddersfield Town.

Whether this was enough to see him referenced by the then transcendent Van the Man in song has still not been established one way or the other. “It was (journalist) Ian Broadley who told me about it years and years ago,” explains Harper, on the subject of “Joe Harper Saturday Morning”, a song recorded by Van Morrison around the time of his masterpiece, Astral Weeks.

“Broadley was adamant that he’d been at a game Ian was working at when I scored four goals. I know he told Van that I was a right character! I don’t know what happened next. Broadley always maintained it was me that he wrote it about. Sadly, I never got any royalties!”

Joe Harper is presented with his award as he is inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame at Hampden Park, on October 27, 2019, in Glasgow, Scotland.

Harper, who played twice on the world tour, never got any caps either. Not for these games at least. And nor did anyone else.

After so many first-choice players had called off due to the inconvenience of European runs – Celtic, Rangers, Leeds United and even Kilmarnock were involved, the last two sides meeting in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup semi-final – a decision was made to downgrade the Scotland party to a touring XI. Youngsters like Harper as well as older, more established pros such as Alex Ferguson, who was had been in good scoring form for Dunfermline prior to a move to Rangers, were recruited.

The SFA had managed to create an itinerary including many of the world’s trouble spots at the time. A second game against Israel was cancelled due to the escalation of the Arab-Israeli war, while movements were hampered in Hong Kong due to student riots. Ferguson, writing in his first autobiography, suggests Kate Adie should have joined them.

Never mind war correspondents, football correspondents were busy elsewhere. Harper's exploits did not merit a while lot of column inches in newspapers at the time, not even in the city where he was destined to become king.

Joe Harper in action for Hibs.

The headline in the Aberdeen Evening Express report was: “Five-goal Harper is Scotland’s Ace”. The report, just five paragraphs long, details how Harper had scored five goals for Scotland’s touring team in their “easy” 7-2 victory over Canada’s national soccer team “in an exhibition match in Winnipeg”.

The exhibition match reference is important, because this is how the game – and, indeed, the whole tour – was viewed until a recent decision by the SFA to re-classify five of the nine matches played. The clashes with Canada, Australia, who the Scots played three times, and New Zealand are all now regarded as full internationals. Football historians are still dealing with the statistical chaos such a re-writing of history simultaneously triggers.

The most well reported upshot of this decision is that Ferguson is now a fully-fledged Scotland international, moving from zero caps to four overnight. The former Manchester United manager was invited onto the pitch at Hampden against Israel last month to receive a special commemorative cap.

Harper cast a gimlet eye at this scene. Although he was glad to see family members representing Harry Hood and Alan Anderson, fellow touring teammates, also represented, he suspects the whole scenario was driven by a desire to see Ferguson – hardly his closest pal in football, in fact, let’s cut to the chase, someone he can’t abide – honoured.

A Facebook post from former Aberdeen chief executive Duncan Fraser, a former SFA non-executive board member, appeared to confirm his suspicions.

"He is a Man United fan," says Harper. "He wrote something on Facebook about being proud to say it was him who instigated it. As soon as I saw that, I messaged him back: I said Duncan well done, I am proud of you, think of all the people you have made happy by giving them extra or first caps! And he was like: 'oh I am not sure if that’s all been sorted out'.

“I said Duncan you have to. There are bound to be players who were on that trip who are dead and their families can now say they have been capped. It might be their only caps! That’s why I wanted to make sure, that it was fair. That everyone got the same treatment."

Harper has called for the SFA to invite the rest of the surviving members of that touring party from '67 and families of those who have since passed away can take to the pitch before the World Cup play-off semi-final in March.

"Take us all to Hampden before a game and get the crowd buzzing," urges Harper. “That would be nice. It would be great, me on the park, my son and my two daughters in the stand. But don’t do it for just one person, that was the intention. It was just for Fergie."

The reclassification of these games is hugely meaningful for Harper, whose international goal tally shoots up from two to seven. Meanwhile, his four-cap haul becomes five. He knows the value of each appearance having been denied the opportunity to win any for just over a year.

His last appearance, three years after his penultimate cap, was as a sub for Kenny Dalglish in the last desperate moments v Iran at the 1978 World Cup.

The reason for the long break is worth repeating here since it helps explain some lingering resentment towards the SFA, who banned him for over 12 months after he was caught up in a nightclub incident also involving Willie Young, Billy Bremner, Pat McCluskey and Arthur Graham.

“That was a ridiculous affair,” he says of Copenhagen, where he'd scored the winner in a European Championships qualifier and then went out afterwards, with manager Willie Ormond's permission.

“The funny thing is – well, it wasn’t funny at he time as I was really angry - but after we had been back a week, STV sent a camera crew over the following Friday to film a report outside the nightclub.

“We’d been there on a Wednesday night, obviously after the game. About six people were there plus us five and two of them were the management - an Irishman and an English boy, it was their club.

“We were sitting there having champagne – they had been at the game and knew I had scored the goal.

“But on this report, the place was stowed out! Millions of beautiful Scandinavian women. My then wife was like: ‘Oh aye, it was empty, was it?’”

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There’s never a bad time to go see Joe Harper I’m thinking as I drive up the A90, humming along to Van Morrison and watching the rich brown furrowed fields of the Mearns flash by.

But there's rarely been a better time. After all, not only has he just become one of Scotland’s most prolific-ever international strikers, with a re-evaluated strike rate of 1.4 goals a game, he has also just recovered from a serious battle with Covid.

On top of this, Harper’s name was also evoked in several match reports on Monday after Martin Boyle’s hat-trick for Hibs in their 3-1 League Cup semi-final win over Rangers. The last man to score a hat-trick at the national stadium for Hibs was... Harper. The spookiness is enhanced when he launches into a story about making friends with a bat outside his window while holed up in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

He even goes as far as to draw a diagram to pinpoint where said bat was located when the King of Aberdeen was lying in a worryingly consumptive state. “I was looking at this black mass in the corner, then it started twitching, and flew away. He came back though.”

Harper is great company. He has the easy manner of someone who knows he has nothing left to prove. He already has enough goals without The Scotsman contacting him to confirm another five for Scotland (he’s still to hear from the SFA).

He already has a record 206 in two spells at Aberdeen, 65 for Morton, also in two periods, and 14 for Everton when Little Joe (him) was meant to play up front with Big Joe (Royle) but the latter was injured for much of the time.

Oh, and then there’s Hibs. Maybe best we get to them later. He loved it there, the love just wasn’t reciprocated.

Not like in Aberdeen, where he has already decided his ashes are going to be scattered, hopefully at Pittodrie, or, if the club moves elsewhere, at the new stadium or even training ground, where there is already a pitch named after him.

There’s also talk of a statue being commissioned, which is interesting given it’s already been announced that Sir Alex Ferguson is set to be cast in bronze either outside Pittodrie or the new stadium. It’s the first time that a segregation fence could be required outside a football ground.

Ferguson was back in the city a few days ago, helping unveil a statue honouring another king of Aberdeen, Denis Law. Harper is happy to defer to him, but not Fergie.

“Denis is a different king to me – he never played with Aberdeen! The local boys who do well for the towns and cities, they should get recognition instead of politicians and people like that.

“I was very friendly with Denis over the years,” adds Harper. “He used to come up a lot. I was even more friendly with his brother Joe. He used to be the man who gave you drinks on the train. When we first started going to games it was by train and so on the way back Joe would always have plenty of drink in for the boys. Joe, Denis and I had some good laughs.”

Laughs were lacking when Fergie and Harper shared the same orbit, initially on that tour of 1967, when the latter, still a teenager, found his elder teammate unhelpful to the point of obstructive, and possibly slightly jealous. “He was the main striker there but then I got my chance and took the glow away from him,” he says. “I was never a friend of Fergie’s. My gripe goes back to ‘67. I remember it well, stuff he used to say. I was only 18 but I could still have punched him.”

He did pull his punches slightly in King Joey, his autobiography, published over ten years ago and after Fergie had denounced him in his own book. “I wanted to have a chapter headed ‘Alex Ferguson’ and then leave the pages blank,” he says.

“He had nothing to do with my career. Nothing. He never helped my career at all. What I did when he was there was me all the time. I stuck to myself, I did not cause any trouble. I did what my job was. Because I know what he is like. He did it at Man Utd, he got rid of players at Man Utd.”

The way Harper tells it, the manner of his ejection from Aberdeen was brutal in the extreme. “Ferguson called me into the office,” he recalls. "’Right,’ he said. ‘That’s you. ‘That’s me what?’ I said. ‘That’s you finished with the club, get your boots and get out. Cheerio.’” A brown bag was produced with his boots already in it.

It was 1981, the Harper glow was fading on account of a serious knee injury which sidelined him for much of Aberdeen's title-winning season of 1979-80. Almost out of spite to Ferguson he made sure he got a medal, playing 11 times in the league before he got injured, enough to merit one.

Rejection by Aberdeen felt almost as wounding as being told he was being banned by his country. Copenhagen cast a long shadow. The SFA seemed to atone for the injustice when inducting him into their Hall of Fame two years ago.

“That came right out of the blue,” he says. “Anyone who has been banned by their country, they are not going to put them in a hall of fame! Someone obviously had some sense and said: ‘Wait a minute. He did not do anything!’

“That year out of my life not playing for Scotland, I think it was massive. I remember Kenny Dalglish saying to me: ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘Kenny, I don’t feel anything. I feel dead, as if someone has just stabbed me’.”

Harper was with Hibs at the time. In fact, he signed off for the trip to Copenhagen with the winner in the Edinburgh derby. It didn’t help forge a connection with the Hibs support, who, legend has it, had already booed him after he scored all five goals in a friendly v Nijmegen of Holland.

As for the Hampden hat-trick, it was so typically, deliciously Hibs that it's a surprise it didn’t seal a love affair between him and the fanbase.

Harper scored three times in the League Cup final v Celtic in 1974 and still managed to finish on the losing side while watching a childhood pal, Dixie Deans, score three for the victors in their 6-3 win.

“He stayed up in Johnstone. I was in Greenock. We played in some games together. My first game against him was for Morton v Arthurlie, and Dixie was playing for Arthurlie. We won 5-3, I scored five, he scored three.

After the cup final, it was ‘Margaret, Eddie’…my parents’ names.. ‘how are you doing?’ ‘Oh hello, Dixie son, good to see you’.

“‘Look at that Margaret, it’s a winner’s medal!’ I took it off him. ‘Let’s see that’. I rubbed it in my hands together with my own medal. I said: 'Take your pick'. They were the exact same medals! To this day Dixie doesn’t know if he has the original winner’s medal he was given!”