Harper knows it is time to let his feet talk to earn call-up
THE summer recess arrived at the wrong time for Jack Harper. This time last year, the 20-year-old, whose omission from Ricky Sbragia’s Under-19 side briefly became such a cause celebre, was uprooting himself from the Real Madrid youth system and starting again on the English Riviera at Brighton and Hove Albion.
As it happened, the upheaval took place at the same time as he was dealing with the first significant injury of his young career, bone bruising on his knee. Out for the opening months of the campaign, and deprived of a proper preseason, it wasn’t until late in the year that this Malaga-born Scot truly felt he was getting up to speed with the English game. This, of course, was far too late to make inroads into a Brighton squad under Chris Hughton which was winning most weeks and pushing for automatic promotion to the Barclays Premier League.
It was a similar story with Scotland. While eight goals in 15 games for Brighton’s Under-21 side in the Category 1 English youth league was a reasonable return, first-team football is the be all an end all at that age. While the SFA made regular checks on his progress, it was hardly a surprise that Sbragia – now Scotland Under-21 coach – kept faith with players such as Ryan Fraser, Ryan Christie, Ryan Gauld, Jason Cummings, Sam Nicholson and Barrie McKay who have all been getting their share.
Harper’s father John, originally from Barrhead, revealed last March that Spain retained an interest and warned that Scotland could be in danger of losing his son’s services, but the player himself knows that it is simply time to do his talking on the pitch. He said he has never been fitter and more motivated to hit the ground running for the start of next season and his loyalty to play for Scotland is not in doubt. While a place in the Brighton first team is his main goal, he restated his determination to play for his country if selected and urged Sbragia and the SFA scouts to check out his progress. He has one year left on his current deal at the south-coast club, who lost out agonisingly to Sheffield Wednesday at the playoff semifinal stage.
“I finished the season very well but it was right at the end of the season,” Harper told Herald Sport. “I am still learning a different style of game, a different kind of culture. I was still getting to grips with everything then it finished really soon for me so that is why I am so excited to start next season.
“I was training with the Brighton first team now and again and playing a few bounce games but they were contenders to go up and they didn’t have too many injuries,” he added. “It was a great season for the first team, so there were not many chances for me. But hopefully next season I will be on their level.
“Chris Hughton has told me to be patient, and that I will get the chance to show what I can do from the first day I am back. This is the top half of the Championship, so if I could get in I would be more or less playing for a team at Barclays Premier League level.
“Ricky is more than welcome to come down and watch me whenever he can, I’ll be 100%, working hard and hopefully I get the chance. I have only just turned 20 and I’d be delighted if I got the call. I have always said I want to play for Scotland, it is always exciting to get called up, and I would be there any time he calls me.”
While the 2015-16 season was a test of patience for Harper, he hopes he may just be stronger for the experience.
“The injury wasn’t a common one, it was a bruised bone – with internal bleeding inside the knee,” Harper added. “No-one really knew how long it was going to be. It could have been one, two months or it could have been a year out. So six months was quite a speedy recovery. It was a kind of weird injury that required a lot of patience, and I have not really been 100% until about a couple of weeks ago.
“The aim is to get in a matchday squad and then take it from there. I have been trying to get stronger, trying to be like these first team players, who are all big, strong guys. Then hopefully next year I will be on the bench, and hopefully get my debut. I am happy here – English football is probably the best football in the world right now, everything is great. Now I am just giving it 100% to try to get in the first team.”
NOT IN DOUBT: Jack Harper is as committed to Scotland as ever