Jack Harper is ready to shake off the hysteria that surrounded his emergence at Real Madrid and do his talking on the pitch, according to Scotland Under-21 manager Scot Gemmill.
Harper, 20, was a regular scorer for the Spanish giants’ youth side between 2013 and 2016, as well as starring for his country through various age groups, prompting palpable hype among Scottish fans, pundits and media alike.
However, as with so many prospects, he failed to make the grade at the Bernabeu, joining Brighton last summer and enduring an injury-hit, ill-fated six-month stint at the Amex. He did not make a first-team appearance for the Championship outfit.
Brighton boss Chris Hughton even posited that his Madrid pedigree was something of a hindrance, noting “there was a lot of hype around his move here, because of where he’d come from and probably that didn’t help him”.
However, Harper returned to his hometown club Malaga in January and has swiftly rediscovered his mojo with their reserve side Atletico Malagueno, who compete in the Spanish fourth tier, form that could be rewarded with a Scotland debut at under-21 level against Estonia tomorrow night.
“When you are a Scotsman playing for a massive club, then of course it is a big story,” said Gemmill of Harper’s time in Madrid. “You are playing in a foreign country, speaking another language – I’m sure he did get a lot of media attention.
“That is the challenge for young footballers, not just to prove they can handle life on the pitch, but also conduct themselves off the pitch – and that, especially these days, includes dealing with the intense scrutiny into their lives.
“But if they want to play to the top level, then that is something to handle.
“I know from speaking to him that he is much more keen for his football to do the talking now – and that sounds good to me.”
Harper has scored 11 goals in as many matches for Atletico Malagueno, helping them surge to the top of their league, and prompting Gemmill, pictured right, to make a trip to southern Spain to run the rule over the bustling forward earlier this year. “Since going back to Malaga in January, he has been in such good form that I felt I had to go over there to watch him,” explained Gemmill.
“I was impressed and pleased with everything he had to say. He was clearly very keen to be involved.
“It may seem like commonsense, but I’m sure being back with his family in a place he is familiar with will help him. Just judging him on performances, that shows me he is doing something correct.”
With ten uncapped players in the squad for the clash at St Mirren’s home ground, The Paisley 2020 Stadium, Gemmill is seeking to lay the foundations for a successful Under-21 European Championships qualification campaign, which kicks off in September with onerous encounters against the Netherlands and England.
“We started to play the next generation of players in the games in September through November so it is a really exciting time,” added Gemmill, seeking to end a 20-year absence from major tournaments at this age group. “A lot of the players have been involved in the national team at other age groups and shown that they can play and achieve good results.”
Meanwhile, St Mirren winger Lewis Morgan, who could make his under-21s debut on home soil alongside club team-mate Stevie Mallan, is adamant the trials and tribulations of a tumultuous campaign with the relegation-threatened Buddies have toughened him up.
“I’ve definitely grown up,” said the 20-year-old. “Since I have been involved in the first team, it has been three really hard seasons. That makes you tougher.
“However, we have picked up and, if not for that improvement in the team, me and Stevie [Mallan] wouldn’t be getting called up.”