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Playmaker proves that looks can be deceiving

GARY HARKINS smiles ruefully when told of one Oldham Athletic supporter's assessment of his performance against Peterborough United on Saturday.

Gary Harkins has dismissed the criticism of his workrate which led to the midfielder leaving St Mirren and going on loan to Oldham Athletic. Picture: SNS
Gary Harkins has dismissed the criticism of his workrate which led to the midfielder leaving St Mirren and going on loan to Oldham Athletic. Picture: SNS

"He's fat, has a bald patch, ambles about and looks knackered after 20 minutes," wrote the fan on an internet forum. "But, he has Premier League-quality ball control, vision and a wand of a foot. He was phenomenal. From 4pm to 4:50pm it was the Sir Gary Harkins show. And it was a pleasure to be a viewer."

Two goals and a brace of assists fuelled that belatedly glowing testimony, the 29-year-old's second-half contribution helping the Sky Bet League 1 club recover from 3-0 down at the interval to earn an unlikely 5-4 victory. "One good half and he's doing interviews," chided manager Lee Johnson as he scurried through the Boundary Park players' lounge yesterday lunchtime.

The jibe draws another smile from the midfielder, who has been brought south by his former Kilmarnock team-mate to help in what is likely to be a fraught fight against relegation. It might not be the most enjoyable assignment but Harkins cuts a contented figure as he sits in his training gear and bobble hat, happy not only to be playing but also with the relationship he has with his manager.

The contrast with St Mirren, where he spent the opening half of the campaign, is obvious. Signed from Dundee last summer, Harkins seemed a perfect fit for Danny Lennon's side but struggled to make an impact and was permitted to leave on loan this month. His exit was accompanied by the manager questioning his workrate and, while understandably coy given that he expects to be back in Paisley to fulfil the final year of his contract, it is clear that the insinuation rankled.

"I've had that reputation [for being lazy] but the managers I've had would tell you that I'm not like that," Harkins says. "Maybe I look that way because of the way I run or the position I play, but I'd say my job is to be in a position where I'm good if I get the ball. There is no point me turning up at left-back."

There was a time when that was more likely, Harkins having begun his career as a boy at Celtic, then continued through his apprenticeship with Blackburn Rovers, as a centre-back. It was not until six months into his time with Partick Thistle that Ian McCall moved him into an attacking midfield role - "he decided he wanted to get me as far away from my own goal as possible" - and it was in that position that the robust playmaker thrived with Dundee and Kilmarnock.

His departure from Rugby Park was expedited after a dressing-room disagreement with Kenny Shiels, the culmination of 18 months of frustration at "always being the first player substituted after an hour, regardless of how I was playing".

However, Harkins insists that relations with the Northern Irishman remained cordial after the manager allowed him to return to Dundee for a second spell 12 months ago, that short stint ending upon the club's relegation last May. It was then that he made the ill-fated decision to sign for St Mirren, rejecting an offer from Dundee United out of respect to the Dens Park club.

The interplay between Harkins and Leigh Griffiths was one of the highlights of his first stint at Dundee and the two may reconvene tonight when Wolverhampton Wanderers visit Oldham. The Midlands club yesterday confirmed that they have dismissed a bid from Celtic for the striker, but Harkins suggests such interest is indicative of the strength of the division.

"There are some really big clubs throwing a lot of money around and boys on a lot of dough," he says. "You look at wee Sparky sitting on Wolves' bench, not getting a game but linked with Celtic . . . you wouldn't get a player sitting on a bench in Scotland getting linked with a move there."

Quite why the Scotland internationalist has not established himself in Kenny Jackett's XI despite scoring 13 goals this term is unclear but Harkins' own observations on the differences between the Scottish and English game might offer some clues. "The big thing is the size, speed and strength down here," says the midfielder, whose debut was an FA Cup cameo against Liverpool. "I mean, I'm 6ft 2ins and I'm sometimes one of the smaller ones.

"Another thing I've noticed is you can tell boys have been coached from a young age about how to play formations. They have been through academies and learned, whereas up the road boys are going into first teams at 17 or 18 without having had that. Leigh was in that situation with Livingston and Dundee but in terms of ability he's right up there in this league."

Similar things have been said about Harkins during his first few weeks at Oldham. His challenge now is to turn "one good half" into four months of fine form before returning to Paisley to prove people wrong all over again.

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