BYLINE DONNA EWEN
JOE Harper may not have been born in Aberdeen … but that has not stopped him from being embraced in the Granite City as one of its favourite sons.
He has had a long association with Aberdeen since he first joined the Dons from Morton FC, who are based in his native Greenock, for a transfer fee of £40,000.
In this, his 50th year of ties with Aberdeen — 2019 has proven to be a particularly memorable one for Joe … for all the right reasons.
He was one of the Dons legends chosen in a fans’ vote to have the pitches at the club’s new training complex – Cormack Park – named in his honour.
Joe was also inducted into the SFA’s Scotland Hall of Fame, last month.
He received the trophy from former Pittodrie team-mate Drew Jarvie at a gala dinner at Hampden Park, watched by his three children – Ross, Laura and Joanna – and his long-term partner, Sheila Mair.
Joe was recognised for his services to Aberdeen and Scottish football and his charity work.
He is in discussions to host a series of podcasts in the New Year and plans to talk candidly on a range of topics — including what went down in Copenhagen in 1975 when five players, including skipper Billy Bremner, were involved in an incident in a nightclub after a game against Denmark.
Joe always protested his innocence and his ban was lifted a year later, which freed him to claim his final cap when he played against Iran at the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina.
Kind-hearted Joe hosts an annual charity golf tournament at Aberdeen’s Craibstone Golf Course and has raised more than £100,000 for local good causes over the last eight years.
His role as an ambassador for the Dons includes looking after guests in the corporate lounges at home games.
To his credit, he is the club record goalscorer for Aberdeen FC and a former Scotland international.
Now aged 71, he earned the nickname ‘King of the Beach End’ after finding the net 205 times in 300 appearances for the Pittodrie club.
When Joe joined the Dons, the then Aberdeen manager Eddie Turnbull described his fee as “the best £40,000 ever spent by the club.”
Joe scored the opening goal, from the penalty spot, when Aberdeen beat Celtic 3-1 in the 1970 Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park.
His scoring exploits earned him the UEFA bronze boot for finishing as the third top scorer in Europe in season 1970-71.
Joe also scored when the Dons beat Celtic 2-1 at Pittodrie in the 1972 Drybrough Cup final before being sold to Everton for £170,000 in November of that year.
He then moved to Hibs before making a much-heralded return to Aberdeen in 1976, when Ally McLeod was manager.
Joe helped the Dons win the Scottish League Cup in his first full season back.
He scored in their 5-1 victory over Rangers in the semi-finals then set up one of their goals, for Drew Jarvie, as they beat Celtic 2-1 in the final.
He continued to finish as Aberdeen’s top scorer every season until suffering a knee injury during a League Cup tie, against Celtic, midway through the 1979-80 campaign.
He had played enough games to qualify for a winners’ medal when the Dons won the Scottish League title that term, for the first time since 1955.
Joe attempted to make a comeback against Kilmarnock but was forced to hang up his boots in 1981.
He earned four caps for Scotland and scored twice for his country.
He enjoyed spells as manager of Deveronvale and Peterhead before returning to Pittodrie as a club ambassador.
He has also written a column for the Aberdeen Evening Express for more than 25 years.
Joe and Sheila, a retired schoolteacher, live happily and contentedly in the Aberdeenshire village of Pitmedden.
ABN: Joe, can you share with us your first memory of arriving in Aberdeen.
Joe: I arrived in 1969 and came up on the train with the famous Aberdeen scout, Bobby Calder. Bobby had to go elsewhere but he had arranged for a taxi to collect me. The first thing the taxi driver said to me was, ‘right looney, where do you want to go’? Where I am from that name means something completely different. I was inclined to be offended until he pointed out to me in Aberdeen boys are called loons and girls are quines. A few days later I drove to Aberdeen and was driving up Holburn Street. I was lost and noticed a man in his fifties who was wearing a Dons scarf. I pulled over, got out the car and said, ‘excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Pittodrie’? He said, ‘Aye, my father tacks me.’ I burst out laughing. He said to me ‘are you walking or driving?’, I said, ‘driving’, he said, ‘well that’s the quickest wye tae get tae Pittodrie!’ Because of that exchange, I knew I had made the right decision and fell instantly in love with the place. The humour of Aberdeen folk is just fantastic.
ABN: What’s your view on the new AFC partnership with Atlanta?
Joe: I think it will be great. There are a lot of teams all over the world now that are in partnership. The fact Atlanta is owned by a billionaire is just fantastic as they are already talking about taking players over from Venezuela. It is a very exciting time for Dons fans, but we need to be patient as things just don’t happen overnight.
ABN: Joe, can you tell us what it meant to you to be chosen to have one of the pitches at the Club’s new training complex – Cormack Park – named after you?
Joe: Dave Cormack had mentioned something about it a few weeks earlier, but he made it sound like it had only just crossed his mind, so I didn’t read too much into it. What I can say is this … it’s a massive honour and honestly, it just doesn’t get any better. I am humbled as I am proud.
ABN: You were inducted in the SFA’s Scotland’s Hall of Fame, what does that mean to you?
Joe: I heard about it in the same week I was getting a pitch named after me. I travelled to Glasgow for my award. I was honoured and proud to be inducted but at the same time was angry because people kept saying to me, ‘it should have happened years ago’. I don’t believe that it happened at the right time is what I will say. It was bittersweet though as my parents were not alive to be part of it. They were always proud of me anyway, but I know they would have loved to have lived to see this day. I believe though (indicates finger above) they made it happen for me. I had already invited my children, but my partner Sheila had arranged, behind my back, I might add, for the rest of our family, including grandchildren and a group of my friends were also to surprise me. I’d heard it might be Willie Miller who was going to present me with my award. Willie’s a great guy, but when Dougie Donnelly got up on the stage and announced it was my old team-mate and great friend, Drew Jarvie who was presenting the award to me, I was overcome. It was overwhelming and humbling to have all the people I love right by my side to celebrate with me.
ABN: Stewart Milne has recently stepped down as Dons chairman. What would you say is his lasting legacy?
Joe: Stewart Milne is a great guy. He is a wonderful, wonderful man. I know for a fact he had dug the club out of the proverbial dung heap. He paid out of his own pocket, £600,000 because the bank would not give him an overdraft. That’s money he will never get back. He has been an Aberdeen supporter all his life, he loves the club. His legacy? He leaves the club in good shape and more importantly, debt-free. For Dave Cormack to come in and do what he is doing is quite special because he is doing it the American way. I hope Stewart doesn’t become a stranger in the boardroom. I always like to greet him with a hug. I’ve never said a bad word about him. Sometimes I have wanted to speak out and talk about the good he has done for the club, but he wouldn’t let me. I often said to him he should let the fans know what he has imputed, and they, in turn, would have stood behind him, but he’s just not that type of guy.
ABN: To what extent was your performance on the field the result of practice as opposed to innate talent?
Joe: Both, when I was a kid all I did was play football. I loved it with a passion, still do of course. I remember the World Cup 1958 watching Pele play for Brazil. He was my hero. I so wanted to be him. I never did meet him, but I would love to. Back in those days, there weren’t many cars in the street so we kids could play football for hours on end, kicking the ball of the lamppost to wall till our hearts were content. We would play on a patch of grass that had boulders and broken glass and that is where I honed my skills. When I got up in the morning it was always the first thing on my mind – practise my game. I’d get to school early just so I could get in some practice. During the breaks, I would practise some more and then I’d go home and practise all over again. When I signed for Morton at age 16 it was a real eye-opener. I was a mere boy amongst men. As part of my apprenticeship, I had to carry the kits, clean the boots and brush the terraces. It was great. I was trained from the grassroots up. I trained so hard, I was right-footed, but by the time I got to Aberdeen my left foot was probably better. In fact, my son Ross asked me about four years ago, ‘dad, were you right-footed or left-footed?’ I told him I was right-footed. He said, ‘every goal I have seen you score it’s been with your left foot, apart from the penalty.’ I was born with a gift. It is a good feeling and I consider myself blessed.
ABN: Who was your most difficult opponent?
Joe: They were all difficult. Every opponent is potentially better than you until you prove them wrong. There were some harder than others, like Gordon McQueen, he was a big boy. I loved taking on the big boys though as I had a low centre of gravity. The one thing I always tell young people who want to be strikers is when the ball gets played up to you, son, always remember you know what you are going to do with it before he does — so that gives you an advantage straight away. I always worked that theory as a kid. You have a split second to decide … take advantage of it. John Greig, now he was another hard man. He was never dirty. He never tried to go over the top of the ball to me. He hurt me a few times, and I’m glad to say I hurt him. It was just professional against a professional, there wasn’t any dirtiness.
ABN: Which was the best team you ever faced?
Joe: Juventus. We played them in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. We drew them at Pittodrie. I scored a goal that night. One player, called Pietro Anastasi, was their striker, now he was really good. They were just a different class. I learned a lot from going up against them. I have always had a determination not to get beat.
ABN: What was the best Aberdeen team ever, as put on the field?
Joe: It’s got to be the team who won the UAFA Cup in May 1983. Neil Simpson, Neale Cooper, John Hewitt, all these young boys, I was lucky enough to be there. The first time I met Neale Cooper he was 11 years old. He had only just lost his father and his mother sent me a letter to ask me if he could maybe get my autograph and be given a tour around the stadium. I took him in, showed him around the park, and he thought that was it. It was during the summer holidays, and he still had a few weeks to go before returning to school, so I suggested he come back on the Tuesday and bring his football boots so we could have a kick-about. I went to see my boss and he said we can get him on the park. I knew then. We would practise on the gravel carpark, I knew that boy would make it because he tackled me three times, sliding tackles. I’m saying to him, ‘what you are doing?’ and from that day one I took him on as a son of mine, and he was brilliant. The 1970 team I played in was also very special. When we beat Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final — 3-1. I scored one and Derek Mackay scored the other two. We played them off the park and cuffed them.
ABN: Who would play in your Aberdeen dream team?
Joe: Among them would be, goalkeeper, Bobby Clark. He is exceptional. He wasn’t a showman. If he didn’t have a chance at getting the ball, he would just let it go past. Right-back, Danish footballer, Henning Boel, who had a wonderful attitude to the game. He is a really nice guy and a very good player. Three left-wingers couldn’t get passed him. Centre back, Willie Gardner. He was a classy player who never looked hassled, but he didn’t get the praise he deserved as a defender. He could ping a ball 30 yards on to a boy’s foot. Not too many defenders could do that. Centre, either Martin Buchan or Willie Miller. I’ve played with Willie as I have played against him, he is a very good player. Martin Buchan was the youngest player to captain the team when we won the 1970 Scottish Cup Final. Left-back, Jim Hermiston, hard as nails. He went on to become a policeman and when we won the cup in 76’, it was Jim who marched down in front of the bus to Pittodrie Stadium, which was great. Midfield, Neale Cooper (obviously), Gordon Strachan, now he is a good wee player. Jim Bett is a quality player also. Left side, I’d probably stick John McMaster in there. One of the guys I have loved throughout my career because he looked after me as well was Davie Robb, he has a face only a mother could love! Seriously, Davie did so much work for Aberdeen on the park and was never credited with it. Upfront would be Derek Mackay, he’s my mate, but sadly no longer with us. Inside forward, without doubt, Drew Jarvie. We had a telepathic thing going on. Left-winger, Arthur Graham. Fasted boy I’ve ever seen running with the ball using both feet.
ABN: Who is your football hero, and why?
Joe: Pele, he is the best thing I have ever seen in football. All my memories are around watching him play. Whenever I watched him, I always wanted to be him? When we were young lads playing football back home in Greenock, we always took on the roles of our favourite players, some wanted to be Jim Baxter, and I would always say I am going to be Pele. Messi is the closest thing to him, but there is only one Pele.
ABN: What is the one thing that would surprise most people to discover about you?
Joe: I don’t think I have any surprises. I started out with a good life because my mum and dad always used to say to me, ‘listen, if you’re going to be a footballer, you are going to have to be humble. People and kids will come up to you to ask for your autograph. That 30 seconds will mean everything to them, even if it might not mean anything to you.’ I was also brought up to respect my elders, hold doors open for ladies, on a bus or train if a lady is standing, offer her the seat.
ABN: Describe your perfect day
Joe: Get up, see the sun, a nice day with no wind. Drive up to Craibstone Golf Course to play a round of golf with my mates. I have the time to do it now I am retired but I still have my paper round at Evening Express. Probably do a bit of after-dinner speaking and being at home with my family.
ABN: How has football changed since you started out?
Joe: It’s changed a lot. Nowadays it’s all about six-packs. They’re spending their money on haircuts, tattoos. It’s pretty ridiculous. Jose Mourinho is an example as is Ronaldo. The worst thing they ever did was put the big screens up. The one thing I will say though is they are a lot fitter than we were, but that’s down to good nutrition. We would be given steak and eggs to eat at our pre-match game. It’s different days.
ABN: What was your proudest moment in your career?
Joe: Has to be scoring a goal in the cup final in 1970, in front of a crowd of 100,000 people. Also, when I scored the only goal for Scotland when we beat Denmark 1-0.
ABN: What do you love most about living in Aberdeen?
Joe: The people. I really do. From that first day when I met the comedian on Holburn Street, I just felt I was in the right place. The people of Aberdeen. The city, but mostly the fans. I’ve always told them I love them. There were plenty of times I wasn’t playing great for the first 89 minutes and they would pick me up and I would end up scoring a goal in the last minute. They are my hero. I always went back to Greenock to see my mum and dad, but I never went back to live there. I consider myself Aberdonian, more recently, Teuchter.
ABN: And finally, what is the most ambitious thing you have left to do?
Joe: Tackle the ins and outs of podcasts! Seriously, if I was to die tomorrow, I would die happy. I’ve loved my life, I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but I have three amazing children, a lovely partner, I have no regrets. I reckon that makes me the richest man in the world.