Heart and soul

The former Hibs and Derby winger Kevin Harper is giving everything in his first managerial job at Albion Rovers.

By Andy Ross

This article first appeared in Issue 15 which was published in March 2020.

Photograph by Brian Sweeney

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“When I was up in Scotland I should have done better and when down in England I should have done better. For me as a manager I want to make sure that players understand that you probably only get one shot at it and you have to make the most of it.”

12:30pm on the final Saturday before Christmas and Kevin Harper has just arrived at Cliftonhill ahead of Albion Rovers’ clash with Annan Athletic.

He exchanges warm handshakes with a number of club staff and shares a joke with his clearly enthusiastic midfielder Nicki Paterson who despite arriving well ahead of his team-mates, has risked the wrath of his gaffer by turning up without his club tie. After passing through the home dressing room, he invites me to take the ‘comfy seat’ in his modest office. His team may have an important game in a few hours, but he couldn’t be more accommodating.

A Saturday afternoon is the final part of a busy week for the 44-year-old, who has to make the very most of the limited time he has with his players.

“It’s different because we are only part-time. Obviously on a Saturday you will have the game and then the Sunday depends on where we have played the previous day,” Harper explained. “If we are away then Joe (assistant manager Joe McLaughlin) and I will sit and decipher the game on the bus home.

“I have four kids, two of which are under five. When I get home I’ll try to leave the game and pick it up early on the Sunday morning when they are sleeping or even leave it until the Monday.

“I do that because it’s not fair on the family. My missus and I will have a conversation over 15-20 minutes and then that’s it done, we’ll then just settle down to watch some television and the usual stuff.

“It’s important to get yourself settled down and have a look at the highlights of the game on the Monday. After that I’ll then begin to prepare for the training session on the Tuesday where we’ll go through a little bit of what we’ve done right and what we need to improve on.

“Wednesday is just a low day, though I’ll ponder training on Thursday and from there on it’s all about preparing for the game on the Saturday.

“When you are full-time you can do a lot more. Here you have about four hours with the players to cram in all that we have to do – it’s just about making sure that the players are right really, and that I know what we need to do to win games.”

In the all-consuming world of football management, Harper admits that it can be difficult to switch off. Rovers operate with limited resources and there are substantial challenges presented by taking up the managerial reins at the club. 

During his playing days, Harper enjoyed spells with the likes of Hibernian, Portsmouth and Derby County. He believes the demands of management are a different sort of pressure to that put on players.

“After taking the job here my phone was going crazy and that was new for me – I quickly had to get used to that,” he explained. “I’ve been in football most of my life, but management is very different from playing.

“As a player you train and afterwards shut the door and go home, while a manager is constantly thinking about what you plan to do next and what you could have done better.

“I ask myself all sorts of questions, such as what could I pass on to the players, are the players okay and what frame of mind are they in. It’s important to remember that the majority of them will have been working all day too – all of these things come in to play.

“I think as you grow into the role, and I’ve been in it for over a year now, then you begin to understand it a lot more.”

When Harper replaced John Brogan as manager in November 2018, he became the first black, Asian or ethnic minority boss of a Scottish club since Marcio Maximo left Livingston in October 2003. He endured the disappointment of applying for jobs without receiving any replies before finally getting the chance to prove his worth at Cliftonhill.

His appointment brought heightened publicity, welcome attention at a club that struggles for coverage. That was short-lived however – with the exception of a feature on BBC Scotland’s A View from the Terrace. Rovers faded back into the background.

Away from the spotlight, the scale of the task facing their new boss was becoming clear and in Kevin’s first 12 games in charge they failed to register a single victory. It was looking as if 100 years of League football in Coatbridge was on the brink of coming to an end.

A much-needed boost came when a 1-0 defeat at Clyde became a victory and three points after the Bully Wee were punished for fielding an ineligible player.

The Coatbridge sides’ fortunes seemed to turn from that point and the team embarked on a fine run of results.

On the penultimate weekend of the 2018/19 season, Albion would ensure their safety by defeating Berwick 3-0 condemning the Shielfield Park side to a relegation play-off in which they were comprehensively defeated by Cove Rangers.

“The board deserve credit for showing patience with me after a difficult start, they saw positive changes during my early stages in charge,” Kevin said of his difficult start to life at the club. “The biggest thing for me was that on the field was different, even though it took until my 13th game to get a win.

“From my first day I said that we wouldn’t be able to change things right away, we had to deal with the players we had and unfortunately those players weren’t good enough for where we wanted to be.

“We had to bear with it and try to make them better through lots of coaching and helping them to try gain a better understanding of the game.

“At the end of the day it just didn’t happen for them so we had to change it and fortunately for us the players we brought in were the right players. Our transfer dealings were really good – those signings were pivotal in getting us over the line and ensuring we stayed up.

“It’s well documented that I applied for a great number of jobs without even getting an interview. Fortunately I applied here, got an interview and the job. The publicity that the club have got from me being manager, whether that’s because I’m the first black manager in 13 years or not, they’ve got great press out of it.”

Kevin was well aware that having got his opportunity he had to demonstrate his credentials by achieving a target that seemed near impossible at the outset. “For me it was about proving that I had the capability to take on a tough job and keep the club up. I always knew I could do it and in my very first interview I guaranteed that we’d stay up,” he said.  “You’ve got to remember as well, that although we were poor at that point, so were Berwick. We always had that and while the initial part was coming in and seeing how Berwick were, I always knew that come January/February time that would be our chance to change it.

“At one point we were seven points behind Berwick and they had three games in hand, these games were a worry but we were able to go on a run and get closer and closer. We had a few games in a row where we lost 1-0, passed up some good opportunities and then everything just turned.

“Our goalkeeping coach sadly passed away and the group became even tighter and that was probably the catalyst for everything going forward. We needed a bit of luck too, but I felt like our luck changed purely on the back of the effort we were putting into games.

“At no point did I ever lose the dressing room, the boys have always been 100% behind what we are trying to do – that’s a massive thing.”

During an eventful playing career, Harper made his breakthrough at Hibs before moving to Derby County and then Portsmouth. He won three league titles during his career and played 39 times in the English Premier League. He reflects on his time as a player as a mixed bag, admitting that he took too long to learn from mistakes early in his career. Not one to dwell on the past, Kevin hopes he can use his own experiences to help his own squad reach their full potential.

“If I look back on my career, I had three league winners’ medals, but I feel I could have done a lot better. Looking at it I probably was a C when I should have been an A,” he assessed. “That was down to me, I probably learned a lot of things I should have being doing as a kid when it was too late.

“When I was up in Scotland I should have done better and when down in England I should have done better. For me as a manager I want to make sure that players understand that you probably only get one shot at it and you have to make the most of it.

“For me it’s now about passing on my experiences to the players here. Whether they take that on board is up to them.

“I’ve got experience of not being in the team, being in the reserves for a long time and not being the favourite, but when I get on the pitch I was always focused on doing my best and trying to change the manager’s mind.

“I’ve worked under some really good managers such as Harry Redknapp, Tony Pulis, Nigel Worthington, Jim Smith, Steve McLaren and Alex Miller – too many to mention. If you don’t take anything from those type of characters, then you’re not probably in the right job to be honest.

“I brought bits and pieces of every single one of them, the knowledge that I gained and how they made me feel, both good and bad.”

Cliftonhill is a footballing environment without airs or graces. From the small core of match-day volunteers scrambling to ensure the stadium is ready for hospitality guests, those outside carefully placing dustbins and buckets to collect the leaks from the roof in the stand, it would be difficult to sell the place as anything other than ‘what you see is what you get’.

It creates a warm and honest vibe – hard working people doing the very best they can to ensure the football club is the very best it can be and an approach which the manager carries into his relationship with his playing staff.

“The most important thing for me is being honest with the players and that gives you great kudos,” he explained. “It’s difficult at times but that’s the way I work, if you work hard in training and do the business on a Saturday then you’ll be in my team.

“That’s my philosophy, it always has been, I had to work hard to get anywhere in my career and played alongside so many top players who worked hard and had an abundance of ability.

“I think it’s a given that you should have the commitment, desire and work rate to be the very best you can be. It’s as the saying goes that hard work will beat talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.

“If you do well in training and in games then you put me under pressure to play you. I give you a jersey; it’s only you that hands it back to me. I can’t take it back, because if you are playing well then you’ll stay in the team.

“I didn’t really appreciate my career in football until I retired and I should have done better that’s for sure – it’s advice that I’ve lived, it’s not taken from a book.”

Working to a shoestring budget, Harper admits that recruitment can be challenging but stresses that what the club, himself and his coaching staff can offer is the chance to improve. “I think all in all we’ve changed about 40 players in and out,” he said. “When you consider that’s been in just over the space of a year then it’s quite incredible. It’s a hard sell and we know the level we are looking at. I have the analogy that we are in a puddle while others are in lakes.

“The players I speak to, I’m honest with them. My first statement to most of the players I spoke to in the summer was that if I’d called in November 2018 then they would have told me to ‘get tae’ which is a fact.

“Players will benefit from coming here; they will get better, although they obviously won’t get the most money. What they will do is learn and most importantly enjoy it. At the end of the day I want every single one of my players to get to a better level, whether that’s in this league, at the top or the league above – I’d be quite happy for someone to come in for all of my players in January and for me to have to start again. I doubt the club would like that too much mind you!

“I’m a coach and my job is to make players better – this isn’t the Kevin Harper show.”

The main event gets underway at 3pm in front of 210 hardy souls who are on hand to witness Rovers’ best display of the season so far.

After just four minutes they are awarded a penalty and Declan Byrne makes no mistake from the spot. Midway through the first-half Albion double their advantage through a stunning free-kick from Daniel Scall. The fans are lapping it up and the players are playing with a swagger that defies their standing in the League Two table.

At the break one lucky punter wins a Christmas hamper in the prize raffle, while one generous fan donates back half of his winnings after scooping £160 in the 50/50 draw.

The good vibes continue in the second half. A goalkeeping error is seized upon by Byrne and he cuts the ball back to allow Ouzy See to slot the ball home and make it 3-0. The fourth goal follows four minutes later when Byrne grabs his second.

However there is still time for more twists. The suggestion from a few punters around me that ‘four-nil is a dangerous lead’ was met with laughter. But with seven minutes remaining Annan have a penalty and the chance to make it 4-3. Maybe they were right.

Tommy Muir steps up to take the kick, but is denied by an excellent stop by Ryan Goodfellow. The home fans celebrate knowing their side are going to see this one out, though it’s hard to think of how they could have made what seemed like a routine win any more dramatic.

Walking off the pitch, Harper rightfully looks thrilled after witnessing an excellent display from his side and a result that moves them up to the lofty heights of seventh.

His on-going quest for improvement at Rovers both for himself and his players continues. “It’s all about getting a chance. Albion Rovers have given me an opportunity and I feel like I’m taking it. If the situation arises where someone says that I think he’s done well there with pretty much his hands tied behind his back, with salary and the conditions then we’ll see what happens.

“I feel I am approaching things the right way for this particular club. I won’t know if it’s the right approach for a club further up the ladder until hopefully I get to that point – though at this moment in time I genuinely believe I’m doing the right thing and taking as much information on board from as many people as I possibly can.

“It’s exactly the same as when I was a player, I want to reach the very top. I have the drive, determination and the ability – I genuinely believe that.

“For me it’s about leaving the club in a better place from when I took over, whether that’s the club get rid of me, I move somewhere else or decide that my time is up – as long as I look back thinking I left the club in a better place then I’ll feel like I achieved what I set out to do.

“I take it as it comes; if this is my first and only job then I’ve had my shot. Last season I saved the club from potential oblivion and can be proud of that.

“I’m hopeful this is the start of a journey. I love managing this club – the players, the fans and the board are great. We have great potential to get better and I believe we are doing that just now.”

This article first appeared in Issue 15 which was published in March 2020.

Photograph by Brian Sweeney

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