He Played For Them Too - Derby - Kevin Harper
For five and a half years Harper served his employers well by scoring 15 goals in just under 100 appearances. Performing consistently as he did it was only a matter of time before he was linked to a bigger club and it was ex Pompey Manager Jim Smith who took the plunge and uprooted Harper to Derby County for £300,000 in September 1998.
Despite his potential, Harper did not settle well with the Rams and failed to impress 'The Bald Eagle', so after starting just 7 times in over a year it was no surprise when, in December 1999, he was loaned to out Walsall for the rest of the 99/00 season.
It was during his spell at Walsall however that Harper caught the eye of Pompey Manager Tony Pulis. Pulis needed to strengthen his failing Pompey side as they were in danger of relegation and in Harper he thought he saw something that perhaps Jim Smith didn't. Pulis quickly arranged for Harper to put pen to paper, paid Derby what they had paid Hibs and in March 2000 took the 24 year old to Fratton Park.
Harper made his Pompey debut almost immediately in a lack lustre 1-0 defeat away to Birmingham City - A game that saw Pompey not even manage a single shot on target.
Better times however were just around the corner as Pompey won 5 of their next 6 matches. Matches which saw Harper score his first Pompey goals; A thumping header in the 3-1 win away to Crewe and a stunning individual effort in front of the Milton End against Norwich in a game which saw the Canaries defender Kenton receive his marching orders for continually fouling the menacing wing-back. Harper continued to show glimpses of why Derby had originally taken him from Hibs and helped Pompey finish the season in 18th place, 4 places above the drop zone.
The following season (2000/01) was frustrating for all concerned: Harper missed nearly half the season with a shin splints problem. Pompey sacked Pulis, appointed Claridge and then appointed Rix and Harper together with the rest of the team having the chant 'you're not fit to wear the shirt' had to go into the final game of the season needing a win to avoid relegation. Luckily, a 3-0 home win over Barnsley (with Harper scoring the 3rd) was enough to ensure Pompey's safety as they finished 20th this time, just one point above the relegation zone.
The 2001/2 campaign was not that much better for Harper, he faced the brunt of the Fratton fans frustration after finishing a disappointing campaign with the dubious honour of having been sent off (twice) more times than he scored (once), but in retrospect there was one bright spot in Harper's season - Graham Rix was sacked in the March and the Fratton Park reigns were handed to a certain Mr Harry Redknapp.
Whether is was the new faces Harry brought in or his knack for getting the best out of players, we don't know but under Redknapp Harper had by far his best season in 2002/03 and as a result of his excellent performances down either wing, the wing-back who was once the target of the boo-boys became widely regarded as the most improved player in a team of Redknapp purchases. Harper featured in 37 of the 46 games that saw Pompey sweep all before them to claim the Division One Title and contributed 4 goals:
A far post volley from an inch perfect Steve Stone cross after coming off the bench in the 3-0 away victory against 12 game unbeaten Burnley in October. A spirited run followed by a cut inside and a superb curler against Watford at Vicarage Road in the televised 2-2 draw on New Years Day, and one of Pompey's four without reply during the twenty minute demolition of Coventry. But Harper's best of the season was surely against his old club Walsall at the beginning of April, when he collected a cross field pass just inside the Walsall half then raced 40 yards rounding two defenders on the way before coolly placing a firm shot past Darren Ward in the Walsall goal to notch up Pompey's first ever goal at the Bescot Stadium and in doing so return Pompey to the top of the league.
Despite his impressive part in Pompey's promotion season, Harper, together with another 9 players on Pompey's books, was to struggle to find a place in Harry's premiership side and in September 2003 he was loaned out to Norwich City. The loan spell at Carrow Road was initially arranged for one month but was extended to three due to his contribution to a side themselves pushing for promotion. In some respects, making only 9 appearances on his return to Fratton Park it could be argued that he played a bigger part in Norwich's push for the Premiership than he did in Pompey's bid to ensure they did not swap places with the Canaries.
After failing to re-establish himself in Pompey's colours he was loaned to Leicester City at the start of the following season and in January 2005 eventually left Fratton Park for good when he was sold to Stoke City, but again despite starting his Stoke career impressively he was again dogged by injuries and found it difficult to challenge for a first team place.
In October 2006 Harper was loaned out again, this time to Carlisle United and then once more back to League Two side Walsall before eventually being released by Stoke City in May last year.
At the start of this season (2007/08) Harper opted to return to Scotland and joined UEFA qualifiers Dunfermline Athletic of the Scottish First Division - I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the now 31 year old is again loaned out!
All in all Kevin Harper, like so many before him, never really lived up to the reputation bestowed on him but for one season at least he became an integral part of Pompey's modern day history and for that Pompey fans everywhere will I'm sure be forever grateful.Written by Chix
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