Hibs’ Alex Harris in a class of his own

Academy player: Alex Harris. Picture: Greg Macvean
Academy player: Alex Harris. Picture: Greg Macvean
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HE IS still a slip of a lad, but Alex Harris already knows what it is like to play in a final at the national stadium. Four years ago, he tasted victory in one. The ground was Murrayfield, the ball was oval, and he was holding it, not kicking it.

His try in a 29-21 defeat of George Watson’s College helped Edinburgh Academy to win the Scottish Schools Under-15 Cup.

It was the last hurrah of his short rugby career. These days, at the age of 18, he is still hugging the touchline, still a flying winger, only now the ball is at his feet and the team is Hibernian. This weekend, he will be at Hampden Park, where he hopes to help them into the Scottish Cup final with a win against Falkirk.

That is not how it tends to pan out for graduates of Edinburgh Academy, an independent school with a proud tradition in rugby. Mike Blair, the former Scotland captain, together with his brothers, David and Alex, are among the institution’s alumni. As Harris breaks into the Hibs first team, his classroom contemporaries are playing rugby sevens, taking in Dubai and Hong Kong on their way to next year’s Commonwealth Games.

“A lot of my friends are big rugby fans so it’s a bit weird hearing them saying they’ll be supporting me when rugby’s their main game,” says Harris. “But it’s good to hear that. My school don’t start playing football until your last three years so I was playing rugby until I was 14.

“I was playing rugby on Saturdays and then Hibs youth games on Sundays so I was on the go all the time. But I eventually decided to take a step back and focus on football. I enjoyed rugby. I actually miss it a wee bit, but I’m glad I chose the way I did. I’m guessing it’s part of my contract that I’m not allowed to play now anyway.”

Harris, who has been with Hibs since he was nine, signed a one-and-a-half-year deal with them in December. He has made a big impression on Pat Fenlon, the manager, who gave the player his first-team debut as a substitute in October. Last weekend, he handed him his first start, albeit in a 2-1 defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Harris is nicknamed Boozy, after Guillaume Beuzelin, the former Hibs midfielder, who is now a coach at the club, but it his appearance, rather than his game, that has prompted parallels. While the popular Frenchman stroked the ball around the centre of midfield, Harris adopts a wider position, taking on defenders with an explosive turn of speed.

“He’s got a burst of pace, he can go by players at will and his range of passing is very, very good for a young player,” says Fenlon. “He is a clever footballer. He plays with his head up. To have someone like him coming into the team at this stage of the season is like getting a new signing. He’s an unknown quantity for the opposition so it’s definitely a bonus to have him.”

Even more impressive is the way Harris has emerged during a season darkened by personal tragedy. Just days before the start of the campaign, his father died suddenly of a suspected brain haemorrhage at the age of 53. Kenny Harris was a hugely popular figure in Scottish marketing, a part-time comedian who performed regularly at the Edinburgh Festival, but he never got the chance to see his son on the big stage.

“It came out of nowhere,” says Alex. “I’m still shocked to be honest. It was really hard, but hopefully I’m making him proud. I’m sure he’ll be watching down on me at places like Celtic Park and Hampden. I think about him before every game and even during the game sometimes. He’s inspired me to go on this season.”

The priority for Kenny Harris was his son’s education. As recently as last season, Alex was spending two days of his week in the classroom. Only now, after attaining Highers in mathematics, French, chemistry, English and PE, is he free to concentrate on Hibs.

Traditionally, football has been suspicious of players who do not leave school at 16 to serve an apprenticeship in the game. Its veteran coaches worry that boys who have not grown up on the street corner of a deprived housing estate will be too soft, too pampered for the “people’s game”. As for private education, you’re having a laugh aren’t you?

It’s inverted snobbery, as Fenlon proves with a glowing tribute to Harris, not just as a footballer, but as a person. “He’s got the ability – a lot of players have that – but he also has a fantastic attitude. He wants to do well. No matter what your background is, that’s the big key, particularly for young footballers. They have to have the will and the desire.

“He’s got a little bit of bollocks about him, that little bit of devilment, which is good. When you look at his background, people may say ‘has he got that?’, but he has got that in abundance. He’s had a difficult time to deal with over the last year, but he’s come shining through. He’s a real credit to himself.”

The last man to have progressed from a fee-paying school to the Hibs first team is thought to have been Alan Gordon in the 1970s, but now they are queuing up. As well as Harris, David Paul (Watson’s), Max Todd (Heriot’s) and Ryan Baptie (Clifton Hall) are all on the club’s books.

At the end of a week in which a study claimed that Britain’s traditional working class was “fading from contemporary importance”, it is clear that football is changing with society. What used to come naturally in Scotland – a consequence of its tanner ba’ tradition – now has to be manufactured, which means that footballers are increasingly produced by areas and institutions with the money to invest in them.

“Over the course of the years most footballers have probably come from working-class areas and hard backgrounds, but I think the game is changing and evolving,” says Fenlon. “There are a lot more people wanting to play football or be involved in it at different levels. I think you will see more players come from different types of background. Definitely.”

As a youngster, Harris was taken to Celtic games by his father, but his allegiance now is to Hibs. He was a supporter in the stands at last season’s Scottish Cup final against Hearts. Most of Hampden’s green half disappeared before the end of the 5-1 humiliation, but the Harris family remained until the bitter end.

His ambition now is to aid the healing process by attending another final, this time as a player. If he can help Hibs to beat Falkirk on Saturday, it will comfort those supporters who had their noses rubbed in it last May.

“We’re trying to get back in with the fans and show we’re a bigger team than we did in the Cup final. The Hearts fans had a banner that said ‘Big Team, Wee Team’ and we’re just trying to show we’re not the wee team in Edinburgh. We’re above Hearts in the league. Now we’ve got the Scottish Cup to look forward to. And hopefully another final.”