AS a product of Possilpark, Kevin Harper has never relinquished his ambassadorial role for Glasgow's no-frills district. Almost a decade in exile south of the border has failed to diminish his passion for the streets of his youth. His mum, Kathleen, still lives there, though he reflects that the area has undergone radical changes since he left.
The primary and secondary schools he attended, St Theresa's and St Augustine's, have both shut down. The majestic building of St Theresa's church on Saracen Street, where as a devout Catholic he attended every Sunday, has sold part of its grounds to developers. Demolishers have also written off large sections of the area's decayed housing.
"I wouldn't have wanted to be brought up anywhere other than Possil, though, " he reflected. "There's good and bad everywhere, and I don't think it's for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed my time there."
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Harper is not the first Scottish footballer to flourish from tough, working class roots. But he is the first black player to do so. More than eight years after he left Scotland, and Hibs, to launch a career in the English Premiership with Derby County, he remains an anomaly.
Fourteen years after making his debut as a 17-year-old at Hibs, Scotland has failed to produce one black orAsian player. "When I broke through there weren't many black players. I don't think there's been another one come through since, and that's fourteen years. For me, that's an incredible stat.
"Fourteen years on and there are more black, mixed race and Asian people in Scotland. There's multi-ethnic communities everywhere and for nobody to come through Scottish football is unbelievable. I would like to find out why."
The issue of racism in Scottish football was restored to the agenda in recent weeks through the case of Dan Gerrard, a black Spartans player who alleged that he was subjected to a racist taunt from a Whitehill Welfare opponent. The East of Scotland League club accused the SFA of sweeping racism under the carpet after they postponed a hearing of the case and then passed a verdict of not proven.
Eventually, David Taylor, the SFA's chief executive, stepped in to confirm that new measures would be introduced to deal with claims of on-field racist and sectarian abuse. The issue echoed the case of Harper, who claimed he suffered racist abuse during an Edinburgh derby in November 1996. The matter was reported to the SFA but no action was taken.
Harper felt let down by the governing body. "There was video evidence and nothing got done about it, " said Harper. "If you want to sweep things like that under the carpet then they will come back and bite you. My experience was 10-11 years ago and if nothing has changed since then . . . I don't think you will ever eradicate it, but you have to have procedures in place to deal with it."
Harper was then one of the brightest prospects in Scottish football. A winger blessed with pace and skill, he came into a Hibs team flooded with experienced professionals such as Jim Leighton, Pat McGinlay, Darren Jackson and Willie Miller, and thrived.
"I came from being a little kid in Possil wanting to be a footballer, to going to places at Ibrox and Parkhead. I didn't play many reserve games before being thrust into the first team. I always said that if you didn't have belief in yourself, how could anyone else believe in you? I became well known in Glasgow and Edinburgh and I really enjoyed my time."
For Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson in 2006, read Harper in 1998. Like the former pair, Harper faced decision time. Derby County, then in the Premiership, made a GBP300,000 offer for him and so began his English odyssey. Two seasons at Derby, in a team which included Mart Poom, Paulo Wanchope and Stefano Eranio, was followed by a thrilling spell at Portsmouth under Harry Redknapp.
"I was at Portsmouth for five years and was able to see the transition from a side that stayed up on the last day of the [2000-01] season, when they beat Barnsley on the last day, to a side that won the [Coca-Cola] Championship by miles two years later.
"It was a quality side - Paul Merson, Yakubu, Shaka Hislop, Matt Taylor, Nigel Quashie, Gianluca Festa, Tim Sherwood. You had to sink or swim. Playing with guys like that took you to a different level. That was definitely the highlight of my time in England." Harper also picked up a second successive Coca-Cola Championship winner's medal in 2004 while on loan at Norwich City.
It was in 2003 that Harper received his first senior Scotland call-up, under Berti Vogts. He would have been the first black player in more than a century to represent Scotland, but in the end did not make it off the bench.
Nigel Quashie, an Englishman with a Glasgow-born grandfather, made the historic step two years later.
AndrewWatson, of Queen's Park, was the first black player to represent Scotland when he won three caps back in the 1881-82 season. Celtic's Paul Wilson, who was of mixed race, also won a cap against Spain in 1975.
Harper's switch to Stoke City last year proved ill-fated and injuries hindered his progress. He is currently on loan at Carlisle in a bid to regain match fitness. "I'm trying to fall in love with the game again, " he reflects. "Because I've had so many injury problems, I'm trying to get back to loving the game."
After so many years in England, Harper is feeling the tug of his homeland. He has recently entered into partnership in a bespoke tailors store, Forbes and Harper, in Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow, but also feels he has unfinished business in Scottish football.
"I feel as if I left Hibs without a proper farewell. It all happened so quickly. My last game for Hibs was in the first division and I came on as a sub. The next week I was in the Derby game for the game against Aston Villa. Crazy. I enjoyed my time in England, but I feel now is the right time to come back home."
You can take the boy out of Possil . . .