Unglamorous and unrevered he might well have been, few Evertonians will dispute the notion that Alan Harper was one of the most important players in Everton’s mid-eighties glory years.
Born into a Liverpool supporting family in 1960, it seemed the natural progression for Harper to join the side he had idolised as a boy. Although a stalwart of the Liverpool reserve team, never did he receive the opportunity to play for the first team at Anfield and was released in the summer of 1983. Perhaps surprisingly, Howard Kendall moved for the 22-year-old – although over the years the Everton manager did well in acquiring Anfield cast offs: Kevin Sheedy, Dave Watson and Peter Beardsley among them – and on the opening day of the 1983/84 season Harper replaced the highly rated Gary Stevens as right back.
Right back was always Harper’s favoured position but the continued excellence of Stevens, who regained his place and was to become an England international, severely restricted his chances of regularly filling the berth. Instead Kendall used him to fill a variety of roles ranging from defence to attack which he always did with enthusiasm and proficiency. When not deputising for injured players, in the days of just a solitary substitute Harper was left to sit on the bench and wait for his chance – an unenviable position, though one he carried out without complaint.
He did however enjoy his moments of glory, most notably when his first goal for the club earned a point in the Goodison derby in March 1984. He also scored a spectacular long-range chip over Martin Hodge in the 1986 FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday and a 25-yard thunderbolt shot against Chelsea in April 1987 which put Everton top. Such goal-scoring was a rarity – he scored only 5 times in over 200 Everton appearances – but often seemed to come spectacularly and at crucial times, earning him the nickname ‘Zico’. It might have been ironic, but Evertonians held Harper in genuine affection, affording the utility man cult status.
Although he made just 13 appearances in the 1984/85 Championship side, an injury crisis in 1986/87 meant that ‘Zico’ played in almost all of the games that season. His was a crucial role in a team that overcame the odds to lift their ninth league title.
What Harper yearned for – and what Everton seemed to be unable to give him – was a regular first team place. Once more, with players fit again, Harper found chances limited in the 1987/88 campaign. When his contract expired in Summer 1988 he opted for a move to Sheffield Wednesday. He was reunited with Howard Kendall at Manchester City eighteen months later and when Kendall returned to Merseyside he took Harper with him at the cost of £300,000. It was the third time Kendall had signed Harper, testament as to how highly he rated him.
After nearly two seasons at right back he lost his place to Matt Jackson, and was sold to Luton Town on a free transfer. After playing an important part in Luton’s 1994 FA Cup run, when they reached the semi final, he became part of Adrian Heath’s coaching staff at Burnley. Later, in the early-2000s, he returned to Goodison for a third time as a youth coach, in which time he oversaw Wayne Rooney’s meteoric rise. He left in November 2005, later taking up a scouting position at Bolton Wanderers, where he worked under the club’s chief scout, Colin Harvey. In 2010 he returned to Anfield as the club’s chief scout.