Alex Harris has vowed to bounce back and reignite his career after the disappointment of being released by Hibs.
The 22-year-old winger has been a peripheral figure in green and white for much of the last four years after an ankle break knocked him off course shortly after he had announced his arrival in the first team in promising fashion under Pat Fenlon at the end of the 2012/13 season.
After 13 years with Hibs, Harris has been informed that his contract will not be renewed. Although sad to be leaving a club he joined aged nine, he is positive about the future and intent on viewing this summer as a fresh start.
“I got told last week that I wouldn’t be staying on but even before that I felt it was coming because I’d had a pretty frustrating year in terms of injuries and not getting much of a chance to play,” he said in an interview with the Evening News.
“As sad as I am to leave Hibs, it wasn’t a massive surprise. I was half hoping I might get a new contract but I hadn’t playing so I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t.
“I’ve been in a similar situation for the past few seasons, but until this year I’ve always had a contract. It’s been difficult. It’s disappointing, especially being a Hibs fan. When you’re told you’re not wanted, it’s hard to take. But I’ve been ready for it and looking into other things, so it might be a good thing in terms of getting a fresh start somewhere else.
“It feels weird being away from Hibs after 13 years there but I think of it as a good opportunity. I’m not going to sit and mope about and think ‘that’s the end of my career’ – I’m going to go and push myself, get my foot back in the door, make sure I have a good pre-season and kick on from here.
“I’m open-minded about where I go next. I just want to play games and improve. I’m open to new things, so whatever opportunity comes, I’ll look at it. I feel like my injuries are in the past and I’m looking forward to the upcoming season.”
Harris, who has spent time on loan at both Dundee and Queen of the South in previous seasons, admits his career has not gone to plan since he made the breakthrough under Fenlon. He is eager to get himself back on track. “After the way I broke on to the scene, it’s not really happened for me the way I would have wanted since then,” he said. “I’m not beating myself up about it though. I’m only 22, so I’ve still got a chance. It’s only been four years since I made my debut so I’ve still got plenty time. I want to show people that I can still get to a good level. I might have to take a drop down to build my reputation up, but I’m happy to do that if that’s what I need to do. I’ve still got full belief in myself. I’ve had a lot of setbacks in my career, but since last week, I’ve been really positive. Hibs have been good – they’re letting me use the facilities at East Mains over the summer to keep fit. I just need to keep myself ticking over and make sure I’m ready for whoever comes calling in June.”
There is no hint of bitterness as Harris reflects on his Hibs career. The winger dismisses any notion that others are to blame for the fact he didn’t fulfil his early promise at the club. He could easily point the finger at former Motherwell defender Shaun Hutchinson for the tackle that broke his ankle. Equally, no-one would have been surprised if he had taken a pop at Terry Butcher, who is deemed by some to have played a big part in crushing his confidence when he returned from the aforementioned injury at a time when Hibs were plummeting towards relegation. He could even have taken a swipe at Alan Stubbs or Neil Lennon for not playing him regularly in recent seasons. To his credit, he doesn’t. “My career is down to me – I don’t blame anyone for what’s happened. I take responsibility for myself.”
That ankle break, sustained on the opening day of the 2013/14 campaign and just months after his sensational display in the Scottish Cup semi-final fightback against Falkirk, is widely viewed as the point Harris things started to go wrong for him at Hibs. “That period when I first got in was the peak for me – I’ll remember that semi-final against Falkirk forever,” he said. “I got a good run of games, so I owe a lot to Pat for that. But then I got injured on the first day of the next season and that was a turning point.”
Regarding Hutchinson’s part in his downturn, Harris said: “He sent me a nice message after to apologise, which he didn’t need to do. These things happen. I don’t think he went out to hurt me.”
Butcher replaced Fenlon while Harris was injured and, after a five-month absence, the Englishman threw the highly-rated winger in before he felt ready. Short of sharpness and confidence after a five-month absence, he was unable to regain his spark as Hibs slumped to relegation. “I wasn’t match fit when I got back in the team, and I don’t think that helped my development,” he said. “The team were on a downward spiral, the atmosphere wasn’t good around the place, and I think the manager wanted a bit of fresh impetus into the team. “I feel like I came back too early, but at the same time I was never going to complain about playing. With hindsight I should probably have had more time in the under-20s to get my sharpness back.”
Harris dismisses any notion that Butcher should carry the can for him losing his way. “People say certain people hampered my career and I read a lot of comments about what Terry’s supposed to have done to me, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for anything that happened to me,” he said. “It was a difficult time for everyone at the club but I don’t think I was harshly treated or singled out. A lot of people have said it to me, but I’ve never understood where the perception that he treated me badly came from. He was obviously hard and strict, but I don’t think I was treated any differently to anyone else. He was really good with me when I was injured when he first came in and I signed my new contract at that time. There was never any notion of him being nasty or singling me out, so I don’t know where that came from. I don’t hold any grudges towards him.”
After relegation, Butcher was replaced by Stubbs and Hibs set about upgrading all areas of the squad. With the Liverpudlian head coach reluctant to use bona fide wingers, Harris soon found himself out of the picture. He would spend the final three years of his time at Hibs out on loan or on the periphery. “I’ve never wanted to get out of Hibs, but I was happy to go to Dundee and then Queen of the South because I want to be playing,” he said. “I enjoyed the loans because you want to be playing games.
“I don’t want to be sitting on the bench or in the stand. It was different this season because the manager [Lennon] wanted me to stay. I felt a lot stronger at the start of the season and felt like I was ready when I came back to Hibs. All I wanted was a chance, but I’ve only had three starts this season. You need to get a run of games to get your match sharpness and I’ve not had that. It’s been a frustrating year but I’ll always look back on my time at Hibs with good memories. So many people at Hibs have helped me through. As a Hibs fan, it’s been great to be part of the club.”
Having lost his father when he was just 17 in 2012, and then his former youth team-mate David Paul 18 months later, Harris has had to contend with plenty adversity. He believes that whoever he signs for next will be getting a strong character. “I’ve experienced a lot for my age both on and off the pitch but I feel like I’ve been brought up well,” he said. “My mum and dad brought me up to look after myself and I feel like I’m really strong after everything that’s happened.”