The Football Pink’s Mark Godfrey extols the versatile virtue of a man worth his weight in gold.
In the 1980s – as now – all the best teams had a player whose versatility was vital to the success of the team; nowadays that player will probably cost a club the thick end of £15million to buy plus a weekly wage packet that – if put to a more morally sound use – would go a fair way towards eradicating child poverty or the national debt. Think James Milner or Phil Jones.
That adaptability to be able to play and contribute positively in a variety of positions is both the utility man’s greatest strength and their biggest downfall – being a Jack of all trades, yet master of none is not conducive to holding down a regular starting place. Just ask Alan Harper.
The boyhood Liverpool fan spent five years at Anfield waiting patiently in the reserves but, like so many others during the late 70s and early 80s, found it nigh on impossible to break into what was the best club side in Europe at the time. Across Stanley Park, Everton manager Howard Kendall was putting together a new squad; youngsters and up-and-comers hungry to prove themselves in the First Division. In the summer of 1983, Harper was lured – like Kevin Sheedy a year before him – by the greater opportunity for first team action at Goodison Park; the £100,000 fee demonstrating Kendall’s belief in Harper’s ability to make the step up from Central League football.
The early 80s had not been kind to Everton. Not only had the club struggled to find the right group of players to be competitive again but they had to deal with having their neighbours Liverpool continually rubbing their blue noses in the annual collection of shiny trinkets over at Anfield.
The 1983/84 campaign was a turning point for both Harper and his new team – he got a steady run in the side in his favoured right back slot before losing it later in proceedings to Gary Stevens. Undeterred, he continued to pop up – like the very best of utility men – in almost every other position on the pitch. In the days of just one named substitute, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him take the gloves had Neville Southall been incapacitated during a game.
Not known for his goals, the first of just four for Everton (and six in total during his career) was an absolute beauty. That it came against Liverpool at Goodison made it all the more sweet; his well-struck shot beating Bruce Grobbelaar to earn Everton a draw. More importantly, just ahead of the Milk Cup Final at Wembley between the two (which Liverpool eventually won after a replay at Maine Road) it showed the formerly all-powerful Reds that they now had something to fear from the Blues for the first time in years. Kendall’s Everton were on the rise. At the end of that season they ended a 14-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup – Harper, a victim of his own flexibility and all-round game, was the unused sub; ready to ably fill in regardless of who he was asked to replace.
In those days, the squads of even the best teams in the country were not as bloated with top quality players as they are today. Your Manchester City’s, United’s and Chelsea’s of today can name virtually two separate first XI’s capable of finishing in a Champions League place – not so in the 80s. Often, a stand-in was so obviously inferior to the man he came in for that the opposition would target him as a weakness. That was certainly not true of Harper. He and his ilk were worth their weight in gold; solid and dependable, always ready. They were a manager’s dream. The role of utility man was a specialist trade in itself. If only there were agents around in those days to market them as such; they would have been more widely appreciated and a hell of a lot richer.
The following season – the greatest in Everton’s history – was more frustrating for the moustachioed defender. The team ran away with the First Division title without injuries and loss of form forcing much of a deviation from their now-fabled starting line-up. His ten appearances gave him the bare minimum needed to claim a Championship winners’ medal. Another honour came as an unused substitute in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final win over Rapid Vienna, although bench-warming duties paid no reward in the FA Cup final as Everton missed the chance of a glorious Treble, losing in extra time to 10-man Manchester United and Norman Whiteside’s wonder strike.
His most famous moment in an Everton shirt came a year later in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park; after coming on for the injured right winger Trevor Steven, Harper lobbed the on-rushing Martin Hodge of Sheffield Wednesday to give his side the lead – his precise finish belying the supposed unfamiliarity with the position by applying all the skill expected of a full time attacking midfielder.
Everton won the League for the ninth and – up to now – last time in 1986/87 despite a horrendous catalogue of injuries that persisted from the opening day to the last. But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Harper’s contribution to that title win should never be underestimated. Whenever a hole appeared in the dyke, threatening to swamp their challenge, Howard Kendall employed Harper to plug the leak – right back, left back, centre back, all across the midfield. There was no job too big for this footballing handyman. A vital winning goal at Chelsea on the run-in capped his most prolific of seasons in terms of goals and appearances. Yet, within a year of his peak on Merseyside, he was gone.
The European ban on English clubs had hit Everton hard – possibly more so than anyone else. Gary Lineker had left for Barcelona and gradually most of the squad from the glory days would leave for new adventures too, but probably the most devastating blow came when Kendall himself accepted on offer from Athletic Bilbao. That, combined with a lack of direction from the board, signalled that Everton’s decline had begun. Probably irked that his efforts in 86/87 hadn’t earnt him a more regular starting place when former assistant Colin Harvey took over the top job for the 87/88 season, Harper decided to leave for Sheffield Wednesday. It was a move that didn’t work out.
When Kendall returned to England in late 1989 as new boss of Manchester City, by way of endorsement, the first person he sought out to add to his playing staff was his reliable old charge. He returned to Goodison in 1991 – signed for a third time by Kendall, who knew exactly what he was getting for a modest outlay.
Forget the expensive foreign imports clogging up the bench of today’s top clubs, or the cocksure youngsters who think they’ve made it off the back of one or two promising performances, the Alan Harpers of the football game were the real gems of 80s football, even when the limelight shone on others less deserving. He may not have looked like the slickest, most naturally gifted of players; he may also have resembled Steve Coogan’s boozed-up work-shy studentphobic Paul Calf, but Alan Harper was the epitome of the unsung hero – his worth and value immeasurable, just as Howard Kendall and any Evertonian will tell you.
MARK GODFREY – @TheFootballPink
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