Joe Harper has never been a man for taking the conventional route – even when it led him into scrapes and confrontations.
On his international debut, against Denmark in 1972, he was originally listed as a substitute by Tommy Docherty who added that he wouldn’t be leaving the bench.
But then, after being told to get ready to take the field with 30 minutes left, he realised that he needed the toilet, went searching for the WCs in the corridors of a foreign arena, opened the wrong door….and suddenly found himself locked out on the street.
Unperturbed, Harper made his way along to the main reception, managed to convince a stadium official that he played for Scotland and subsequently scored in a 4-1 victory.
Argumentative, single-minded, unafraid to speak his mind and damn the consequences, Harper was nobody’s idea of the Angel Gabriel, but he scored with a Bunter-esque appetite and his record of 207 goals in 125 matches for Aberdeen is phenomenal.
As the King of the Beach End, he might have hung up his boots at Pittodrie 40 years ago, but his feats remain unprecedented and the statistics are only part of his legacy.
Nobody else stood up to Fergie like Harper
There has never been any love lost between Joe Harper and Alex Ferguson – in boxing parlance, they were the Greenock Terrier and the Govan Bruiser – but the striker made it clear in his 2008 autobiography King Joey: Up Front and Personal that he had his own unique way of dealing with the manager’s volcanic temperament.
The biggest spat happened after Ferguson’s first loss as Dons boss when the players were ordered to sit in the middle of the pitch on the Monday morning, as the prelude to being berated and having their performance ridiculed and rubbished.
The majority of the squad were understandably cowed and intimidated by this torrent of venomous vitriol and wished the ground would swallow them up, but not the combative little fellow in the centre of the drama.
On the contrary, when Ferguson eventually barked at him: “What about you Harper, what do you think went wrong?”, he raised his head, looked his interrogator straight in the eye and said: “I don’t think the tactics worked.”
That sparked a massive dressing-down at the end of the session after the other players had departed the scene with Fergie screaming: “Who do you think you are to question my tactics”, even as he jabbed his finger closer and closer into Harper’s face.
Others would have shut their mouths, but once again, that wasn’t an option for Joey. He snapped right back: “I’m not paid to manage the club, but you asked for my opinion and I gave you an honest answer. If you don’t want my opinion, don’t ask for it.”
At which point, he walked out of the door, totally unfazed by the hairdryer treatment.
The fun and flair soon won over the Aberdeen fans
There’s no denying the efficacy of Harper’s talents, nor his influence on Aberdeen after he was signed by Eddie Turnbull for £40,000 from Morton for his first spell in 1969.
He helped the Dons win the Scottish Cup for just the second time in their history, opening the scoring with a penalty as overwhelming favourites Celtic were beaten 3-1.
Then, following spells with Everton and Hibs, he returned to the Granite City under Ally MacLeod for the start of the 1976-77 season and inspired instant success, with Aberdeen once again defeating Celtic – by 2-1 after extra time – to win the League Cup.
Many supporters loved his insousiance, his swaggering joie de vivre and ability to create opportunities from the unlikeliest places – and one of those young fans in the 1970s just happened to be the fellow who is now the chairman of the club in 2021.
Talking about an absolute Dons legend
Dave Cormack said this week: “Joey Harper was my idol. He inspired me to go to Pittodrie and become a real Dons fan.
“At the height of his career, every Dons supporter wanted to be Joey. He is still one of the best strikers I have ever watched.
“It has been an honour to get to know him off the pitch over the years. He is not just a club hero and legend, he is also one of the greatest ambassadors for AFC.”
So many goals and so many happy memories
There is the same unalloyed passion for his exploits from people such as Chris Gavin, the secretary of the Aberdeen FC Heritage Trust, who marvelled at the fashion in which Harper bewitched, bothered and bewildered defenders with outrageous pieces of skill.
As he recalled: “Joe being a legend, it is hard to separate fact from fiction in my memory. It was Eddie Turnbull’s Dons [in the late 60s and early 70s] who turned me from being just a spectator into a thoroughly committed fan.
“The joy of seeing and celebrating goals by Joe – especially when we were at the Beach End – was fantastic and that characteristic celebration, down on the knees with arms aloft, made the match days extra special.
“There were so many goals from him that they blur in the memory, but one has always stood out for me. It was against Hibs at Pittodrie – I can’t date it with any certainty – but Joe was making for the penalty box when two Hibs’ defenders closed in on him, creating a sandwich and knocking him to the ground.
“However, even as he fell, he managed to strike the ball so sweetly that it looped all of 24 yards, over the keeper, and into the back of the net. For some reason, I was watching from the South Stand that day and was lined up perfectly to see the flight of the ball as everybody in the stadium roared with sheer delight at another special by the King.
“The Hibs players couldn’t believe what had happened, but every Dons fan knew just how comprehensive his armoury was on a football field.”
International duty wasn’t much fun for Harper
Although he left an indelible mark on Aberdeen, Harper only gained four international caps and was embroiled in one of the myriad off-piste incidents which plagued Scottish football in the 1970s.
If his maiden appearance against Denmark had been an auspicious occasion, the same couldn’t be said of his next away assignment with the Scandinavian side, which was overshowed by a rammy in a nightclub which led to Harper and several teammates being given lifetime bans in the murkiest of circumstances by the SFA.
It was alleged they had been involved in a nightclub incident where a light was broken and an altercation followed, but Harper insisted he had been punished simply because he had returned to the team base in the same taxi as the other players.
The governing body eventually seemed to agree with him because his ban was lifted a year later along with the same sanction meted out to Arthur Graham. But it clearly left a nasty taste in his mouth which hadn’t vanished 30 years later.
Indeed, he revealed in his book that he had received a late night phone call from a senior SFA source and added: “I wish that I’d had a tape recorder. He said they knew that Arthur and I hadn’t done anything wrong, but for the good of Scottish football, the ban still stood. If I took the matter further, I would never play for Scotland again.
“If I didn’t, I could be back in a year. 13 months later, I was playing in the World Cup.”
A sorry end to a national debacle
Not that it brought him much comfort. Harper knew and respected MacLeod from their time spent together at Pittodrie, but the World Cup fiasco in Argentina in 1978 remains one of the most embarrassing chapters in Scotland’s sporting lore.
The opening 3-1 loss to Peru sparked fierce criticism of the team’s tactics and MacLeod’s failure to properly analyse his opponents. But, if anything, the next match against Iran, which ended 1-1 and marked Harper’s final outing for his country, was even more humiliating. At least, the Peruvians had some world-class players.
He wasn’t enamoured of any aspect of the tournament – and perhaps with good reason. After all, King Joey found himself in a dingy hotel, where players were forced to sleep three to a room and he was in the same berth as Alan Rough and Derek Johnstone.
As he said: “It was a nightly trial. Both were naked save for their perms.”
Thankfully, Harper had ample compensation from his fanbase in Aberdeen.
AFC Heritage Trust member Jock Gardiner’s first-ever Dons match was at Ibrox in November 1979 when he and his father relished the visitors winning 1-0 with a late strike from Steve Archibald.
He said: “It was not all-ticket with 18,500 in attendance, but with no obvious away section at the turnstiles, we got tickets in the top deck of the new Copland Road stand. It was a wet and miserable day, which was only brightened up by a gritty Dons display, with Joey leading the Red front line alongside Stevie Archibald.
“Having kept my teenage emotions in check for the best part of 88 minutes, my unbridled joy at Aberdeen’s late winner could be contained no longer and I was met by a torrent of abuse (and half-full McEwan’s lager cans] from the home supporters.
“My dad was quick to react and he ushered us out of the ground quicker than Joey could run 100 yards back to the safety of our Ford Granada.”
The last word from a legend
Joe Harper is still in thrall to Aberdeen and can be found entertaining guests and other aficionados on match days at Pittodrie.
And he delivers his thoughts on the Dons in his columns for the Evening Express.
Given his achievements, he’s entitled to make one grand claim about his goalscoring.
” I know one thing for sure,” he says. “I will go to my grave knowing that I am their top goalscorer, and I’ll never be beaten.”