Interview: Joe Harper on the day he punched Alex Ferguson

Joe Harper, the 'King of Aberdeen' now 70, scored 199 goals in 300 appearances for the Dons
Joe Harper, the 'King of Aberdeen' now 70, scored 199 goals in 300 appearances for the Dons
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One by one the vanquished trudge towards the 19th hole. “Cheatin’ bugger,” says the first, and something tells me he’s delivered the judgement before. The next guy is small, round and grey-haired and he thinks that I think he’s the reason for my visit to their golf club. “I’m no’ Joe,” he says. “You’ll easy spot him in the next few minutes. He’s wearing a bandit’s mask.”

Joe is Joe Harper and there’s no mistaking this small, round, grey-haired fellow. In his 1970s heyday he was a 5ft 5ins giant of Scottish football, a holy terror of the mud-baked penalty boxes, a 242-goals-in-364-games dead-eyed marvel and the king of Aberdeen. At the Craibstone course just outside the city and now in his 70th year, Wee Joey still rools OK.

He was always a fierce competitor, had to win at everything, and for an example of this he harks back to first club Morton, presided over by the PT Barnumesque Hal Stewart, who instigated Scotland’s Danish Invasion: “At one time we had six of these lads. There was nothing to do in Greenock apart from drink so the Danes would hang around Cappielow after all the Scottish boys had gone for the day and do extra training – and as a groundstaffer I’d bunk off sweeping the terraces of fag-butts and join in. Erik Sorensen, the goalie, absolutely hated being beaten which made me, just 16, all the more determined to score past him, preferably with an overhead kick. Every afternoon it was a duel between us.”

When you’re that good, 242 goals good, other fans will try and put you off your game and the terraces had a special song for the Weeble-shaped poacher supreme. “One day playing Celtic at Parkhead I caught Billy McNeill singing it,” he recalls. “I made an arse of controlling the ball and he went: ‘Harper’s a barrel, Harper’s a barrel of shite, shite, shite.’ I told him to eff off. Two minutes later the ball bounced off my knee and away and I got it from John Clark as well. When I mucked up the next chance even my team-mate Drew Jarvie joined in. A bald man commenting on my build? The cheek of it! ‘Sorry Joe,’ he said, ‘it’s just that when that song starts up you usually score.’ Well, the ball came back over and this time I slotted it away.” Of course he did.

Harper, in common with all footballers of his generation, was not a snowflake. He once played against Clyde, at the insistence of his manager, the day after he’d flown through a car windscreen which left him with 42 stitches in his face and three cracked ribs. Then there was the time he fell through a glass door at a house party, just six stitches this time, and he was quickly back in his usual place for the Dandy Dons. He had to be: that boss was Eddie Turnbull.

But if we’re looking for conclusive proof that cars and doors never broke Joe’s bones sufficiently to keep him out of action and names never hurt him, then consider the events of 5 August, 1974. Turnbull was still his boss, but by then the pair were at Hibernian where the former had been greeted as the returning hero he assuredly was while the latter, try as he might, was never really accepted. That night, in a pre-season friendly, the score was Joe Harper 5, Nijmegen of Holland 0, and yet come the final whistle the little centre-forward was booed off the park.

Harper couldn’t win at Hibs. Unlike at Aberdeen where he always won. Joe’s problem, with a small number of the Hibs cognoscenti, was that he wasn’t Alan Gordon and he wasn’t Jimmy O’Rourke, these two legends having drifted out of the team after he’d rolled into Leith. Returning to Aberdeen he achieved more glory, with even more adulatory bowing from the fans whenever he rammed in a goal at Pittodrie’s Beach End. Which was great, or it was until Alex Ferguson came along.

With the current Aberdeen due at Easter Road today, we’ll come back to Joe’s Dons-Hibees sandwich, and the odd-tasting bit in the middle for our man, but first we should maybe talk about haggis. It was Hogmanay and it was October. Yes, you read that right. Harper’s relationship with Fergie was even more strained than that with those Hibs sceptics and things came to a head when some of the Aberdeen players were invited to be part of Grampian TV’s Auld Year’s Night hoolie, filmed two months early. The northern station didn’t want to risk a live transmission and something going wrong - just as well, too.

“It was a bit surreal,” Harper recalls. “How do you celebrate Hogmanay when it’s still autumn? Bobby Clark, Stuart Kennedy and myself did our best. We were in our kilts and the wives got to wear their fancy frocks. There was Highland dancing but, you know, only one small glass of wine per man. Never mind: it was a Sunday, we’d beaten Rangers the day before and I’d scored, and we were excused training on the Monday.

“Fergie was there, too. After the recording was finished a local hotelier invited us all back to his house for a party. We were in the kitchen and I was just about to start on a nice plate of haggis, neeps and tatties when Fergie said: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I asked him what he meant. ‘You with your weight problem cannae be eating that,’ he said. I ignored him but he grabbed my plate and threw it across the room and into the sink. I picked up another plate and loaded it up with four big dollops. Then he cancelled my day off and stormed out.

“The next day at the ground I nipped into the office to sign a few strips and balls and he started on me right away, calling me a liar over how long I’d taken to do this. It was completely stupid but steam was coming out of his ears. I told him to eff off. ‘What did you effing say?’ he said. I said: ‘If I’ve got to effing hit you, I will.’ He came right up to me, leading with his chin, so I hit him. This was seen by [Pittodrie backroom man of many parts] Teddy Scott. ‘You’re my witness, Teddy – he started it,’ I said. ‘But he’s your manager, Joe,’ Teddy said. I said: ‘What was I supposed to do – let him punch me? Only one man punches me and that’s Eddie Turnbull.’”

As their respective autobiographies have detailed, manager and player could not find a way to work together – the Granite City wasn’t big enough for both of them and their egos. Harper,
required to make a sad exit from the club, although not without wresting the medal he was due for Fergie’s first title season in 1979-80, reckons his boss was jealous of him. “He once said: ‘What the effing hell’s this about you being the effing king of Aberdeen?’ I said: ‘I don’t call myself that. If you don’t like it, speak to the fans.’”

Harper’s harum-scarum football life began with a £1 fine when the 
shipyard worker’s son was nabbed trying to sneak in to Cappielow for free. He was slapped with a Scotland life ban for downtime excesses as one of the “Copenhagen Five” but protested his innocence and was back playing for his country after a year. He was part of the ill-fated World Cup expedition to the Argentine when it was three to a room, and having to sleep between Alan Rough and Derek Johnstone, naked apart from their bubble perms, seemed like sufficient punishment for all previous sins.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Harper was loyal to Ally MacLeod who’d selected him for the campaign ahead of Aston Villa double Player of the Year Andy Gray and he stressed the team were to blame for Scotland’s dismal showing, not the manager. MacLeod it was who ended Harper’s unhappy spell at Hibs and with Aberdeen the pair won the 1976 League Cup together – but Joe’s all-time favourite boss was Turnbull.

That Hibee interregnum had echoes of one earlier in his career when as a Morton starlet Harper reluctantly joined Huddersfield Town and endured sleepless nights before games from having to share a room in his digs with roaringly drunk Irish navvies. After that surely the blond Roughie must have vaguely resembled Brigitte Bardot in dawn’s early light and DJ Raquel Welch. Okay, perhaps not. Harper yearned for a return to the place he knew best and was soon back at Cappielow.

He went to Hibs via Everton in a £120,000 deal and although glad to see the back of manager Billy Bingham, he wanted to carry straight on to Aberdeen but the summons from Turnbull couldn’t be ignored. “I liked to think I was the son Eddie never had. I loved him as my manager at Aberdeen the first time and thought we could repeat what we’d done there, maybe go further with Hibs.”

With Turnbull in charge the Dons had won the 1970 Scottish Cup, beating Celtic in the final. Harper scored – of course he did – his penalty being coolly slotted after eight minutes of fuss and bother while Jock Stein’s team disputed the award. “I was asked afterwards by a journalist if the delay had made me nervous. No, I said. Was that why I’d played keepy-uppy the whole time? No, I said. When Eddie threw a ball at you at training he wanted you to transfer it from head to knee to toe and back again, otherwise you did 50 press-ups. I didn’t fancy getting nose to the Hampden tuft in front of 100-odd-thousand folk. Then I was asked what went through my mind as I struck the penalty. I wasn’t married then and I said: ‘Bang this in the corner, Joe, and you’ll be able to have any woman in Aberdeen tonight.’ Of course, Derek McKay went on to score our other two goals!”

At Easter Road the Turnbull’s Tornadoes team had overtaken Aberdeen as challengers to Old Firm dominance. “I went there because of Eddie but Hibs were a super side with classy players like Pat Stanton, Alex Cropley, John Blackley, John Brownlie and Alex Edwards – and I wanted to play with Alan Gordon and Jimmy O’Rourke and not replace them. We were three guys who could each score 25 goals a season. Unfortunately that’s not how it worked out and the team was broken up, I guess to recoup what had been spent on me.”

But why was he barracked when he continued finding the back of the net in green and white? There’s a wry chuckle and he says: “Listen, I can almost understand it. Two real favourites were being stood down for this wee gadgie from Greenock. But here’s something the fans won’t know about the Nijmegen game: it was arranged at short notice and I was on holiday with the family on Arran, pished at a barbecue, when Eddie tracked me down.” Twenty-four hours later, unquenchable in his pursuit of goals, Harper netted a nap hand. Did that really merit booing?

Football fans, we agree, can be thrawn, perverse and masters at cutting off conks to spite mugs. “Those two seasons at Hibs I finished the top scorer. If your goal wins an Edinburgh derby you’re a legend, right? I hit one against Hearts from 20 yards into the top corner. I scored the goal which beat Liverpool and I scored a hat-trick in a League Cup final [1974], albeit that we still ended up losing. But the abuse didn’t bother me. Maybe these fans were remembering the goals I scored for Aberdeen against Hibs before I arrived. When I went back to Aberdeen I picked up where I left off and banged in a few more.

“I was a goalscorer, pure and simple. I did what I was paid to do and got the most amazing buzz from it. I loved scoring for Aberdeen against Hibs and when I swapped sides and Hibs were awarded a free-kick up at Pittodrie I signalled to Bobby Clark where I was going to put the ball and that’s exactly where it went. That’s the only goal in my career I didn’t celebrate, though. Wasn’t that fair enough?”

At Easter Road today the home fans may still be getting over the departure of John McGinn, as loved as Gordon and O’Rourke were, and subjecting the newcomers in the team to heavy scrutiny. Harper asks for the replacements to be given time, to be judged on their own terms, and the same with those recruited for Aberdeen’s rebuilding. This is a fixture he always enjoyed, whatever colours he was wearing, and as he reels off a final few encounters from the past it’s easy to understand why.

“Sadly a great unbeaten record, and a great shut-out record, came to an end for Aberdeen at Easter Road. We were going for the league that season [’70-’71] but there was no shame in losing to Hibs. And maybe my greatest goal was scored against the Hibees, you know. Fans still tell me that the one they loved the best was when I beat three men – or was it four? – and whacked the ball into the net as I was falling. Archie MacPherson told me later it had made a right arse of him. His commentary had gone something like: ‘Here’s Joe Harper, we’ve seen precisely nothing of Scotland’s top scorer today … woof!’”

Harper’s first game of his second spell at Aberdeen was for the reserves – against Hibs. What happened? “We won 6-0 and I scored all of them.” Of course he did. And he’s just remembered: the most notorious example of Wee Joey malarkey, when he commandeered a snowplough with Derek McKay and Ernie McGarr, was only made possible by another game with Hibs being called off.

“It was Christmas-time so the postponement enabled us to begin the festivities early. By the time we’d finished drinking in Union Street the snow was a couple of foot deep and there were no taxis or buses. How were we going to get home? It wasn’t a real snowplough, just an old single-decker bus with a big shovel strapped to the front. But these workmen huddled round a brazier obviously fancied some entertainment so they let us take it for a wee hurl. This story has got exaggerated down the years – we didn’t drive all the way to Stonehaven – but far enough for the boss to be raging. We were summoned to his office. Ernie on his way out said to me: ‘Stand up to him like a man – he’ll like that.’ I did and that’s when Eddie gave me a lovely black eye!”