CREATIVE footballing types in Scotland regularly speak of their careers being hampered because they are considered too small and lightweight to make the grade.

Gary Harkins suffered from the opposite problem. The Kilmarnock playmaker is flourishing at Rugby Park and is set to appear in the first major final of his career in this afternoon's Scottish Communities League Cup showpiece against Celtic, but most of his club managers in his early days took one look at his brawny 6ft 2in frame and felt sure he must be a centre-half or a destructive midfielder.

After three years at Blackburn Rovers, loan spells at Huddersfield, Bury and Blackpool, then a grim period at Grimsby Town, it was Ian McCall, at Partick Thistle, who had the epiphany. But not before he had selected him at centre-half for a few months.

"As a 16-year-old, I trusted my coaches to see something in me and to get me as far as I could," said Harkins, who has helped fill the Alexei Eremenko-sized hole in Kilmarnock's creative corps this season. "And to be fair, they were top drawer. We just disagreed on what I was. When I first went to Blackburn I was turned into a defensive midfielder where I had to run and tackle and then give the ball to someone else. Mark Hughes even played me as a centre-half in a couple of pre-season games for the first team. It must have been the bald head and the old face that made them think it.

"I would always fly into tackles if it was asked of me, so they could see I was eager and would play where they wanted me to play. I had always seen myself as something different, but it's getting your coach or your manager to see that as well so that you have the licence to go and do it.

''Ian McCall was pretty much the first to take the shackles off but I'm glad you didn't see those games with me as a defender at Thistle. Big Alan Archibald had to coach me through most of the games. I was always wandering away looking at the ball and getting the shout to come back from him. But if you understand the game you'll understand most positions. As a centre-half, I could think of what the strikers were doing and now I can see what the defenders should be doing."

While Harkins savours his first appearance in a major final, full-back Ben Gordon will hope for a better outcome than his involvement in the 2008 FA Youth Cup final, where the Chelsea went down 4-2 on aggregate to a Manchester City side who fielded future Stamford Bridge striker Daniel Sturridge. "Even then Sturridge was good," said Gordon, who is on loan at Rugby Park for a second time. "I think how well he did persuaded Chelsea to later buy him. He didn't play in the second leg because he was in the City first team. That's how good he was."

Such is the turmoil at Stamford Bridge – with Roberto Di Matteo standing in as caretaker after the departure of Andre Villas-Boas – that even a man-of-the-match performance today would hold no guarantees of jogging the memory of the Chelsea hierarchy, but the Leeds-born youngster, who has one year left on his Chelsea deal, hopes to put himself on display nonetheless. He is likely to see a lot of James Forrest this afternoon. "He's one of their major threats," Gordon said. "He's probably one of the best I've played against."

But perhaps the man with the most relevant League Cup backstory to draw upon is Kilmarnock assistant manager Jimmy Nicholl. In three League Cup final visits as a player and one as a manager the Northern Irishman has never lost. It is quite a record, particularly when his victory as a manager came against Celtic in 1994 when he was in charge of Raith Rovers, a result which earned the First Division side a Uefa Cup place. "It has been good to me – this League Cup," said Nicholl, who will be the senior partner in the all-Northern Ireland managerial joust between Neil Lennon and Kenny Shiels. "So I hope Kenny doesn't let me down.

"Once you win something you believe you must be better than average and I could see it snowballing with Raith. Unfortunately, we had to take Bayern Munich to Easter Road because I would have loved to see them at Stark's Park. We were 1-0 up and Franz Beckenbauer and Uli Hoeness were waiting for the team coming off at half- time. You could hear them getting a bollocking and this is so unprofessional but we spent the rest of time in the dressing-room with our ears against the wall waiting for our names to be called. They went on to win the Uefa Cup but what I am saying is, you can do it if you put your mind to it."

Unlike Ayr United in the semi-final, Kilmarnock are a creative, open team almost to a fault, and Nicholl is often cast in the role of trying to rein in Shiels. "What Kenny says to our boys is if they allow you to build up from the back then do it," Nicholl said. "If our players don't attempt to build up from the back because they are nervous and don't want to be the one responsible for giving the ball away in the defending third then he'll hook them, I tell you. But do we take chances? Yeah."

Such tactics don't always pay off. Killie have won just one of their last eight matches – albeit that was the 1-0 victory at Ibrox – scoring just six goals. But take a few chances this afternoon and things really could get interesting.