Like many Dundonians of his era, James Harkes came from one of those families in the city where footballing loyalties could be split right down the middle. Some family members might watch Dundee one week, then Dundee United the next. But while his two brothers were Dark Blues and he’d often join them at Dens Park, Harkes was a United man.

He recalls a typical scene: “When I came back from the army, my brother was wanting me to go to a cup game that was on that day – Dundee against Rangers.

“United were playing St Mirren, so we went for a pint, and then we were coming down Hindmarsh Avenue between the grounds, and he says, ‘Where are you going? ‘I’m going to Tannadice.’ ‘You’re no going to see that mob?’ He didn’t talk to me for a week.”

As a teenager of some talent earlier in the 1950s, Harkes had briefly skirted the fringes of the Tangerines youth system after trialing, but the opportunity to sign for the club of his boyhood affection was to pass him by.

For now then, Tannadice would not call for a young Harkes, and not too many years later he would depart Dundee for good to emigrate to the United States. History, though, often demonstrates the intervention of destiny. And so it was written in the earliest days of 2019 for the Harkes family annals: Ian Harkes, James’ 23-year-old grandson, was unveiled as one of head coach Robbie Neilson’s January transfer window signings, marking a triumphant return for the Harkes name to the beloved club that had eluded grandad Jimmy, himself nearly 23 when he left Scotland, more than half a century ago.

“It’s amazing,” says an elated James Harkes, now 81, from his home in Kearny, New Jersey. “He called me Friday and he said, ‘Grandad, you’ll never guess where I am.’ ‘You’re up in New Jersey?’ ‘No, I’m in Scotland.’ ‘What are you doing in Scotland?’ He replies, ‘I’ve just signed for Dundee United. Well, I said, ‘Oh my God.’ What a turn up that was. You couldn’t write a script for that. Amazing, just amazing. It took me a wee while to come down out of that one.”

James Harkes left for the US in 1961. And the invisible hand of destiny went to work.

In Dundee, James had been an inside forward with junior outfit Dundee North End as well as Stobswell and Hilltown Harp while also an apprentice with a local building company. It was around this time when he trialed with the Terrors before heading off for national service with the British Army in Cyprus.

He returned to the City of Discovery before emigrating Stateside. The meandering tale then started to come together a short hop across the Hudson River from New York City in Kearny. There James would meet his wife, Jessie, a fellow Scot from Paisley, in the town’s Scottish-American social club.

The social club, the hub of the local Scottish expat community, played a central part in the Harkes family story and was pivotal in a US soccer renaissance.

James was among a cohort of local dads who helped spark a youth football surge in the small Scottish enclave, producing one of the best high school teams in the country and, incredibly, three of the starting line-up that in 1990 returned the United States to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. Kearny boys Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and, crucially, son of James and Jessie, John Harkes.

The initial spark for his Stateside flit was familial. “My sister had emigrated to Canada and then moved to the States and she was always writing to me,” says James. “Then I said I’ll have a go at it for a year, see what’s happening out there. I’m still here so it must have happened pretty good.

“I went to New York at first but I met a couple of Scots guys and they brought me to the Scots club. I loved it there because I was playing for the club’s football team. I played 15 years for the Scots-Americans before they put the big hook out and said you’re off.”

A happy outcome of his gravitation toward Kearny came in the summer of 1969 when a touring Dundee United side, earlier moonlighting as the Dallas Tornado in the old North American Soccer League, visited the Scots club the day before their friendly with Juventus in nearby Jersey City.

James fondly recalls mingling with United greats like Dennis Gillespie, who scored the only goal of the game against the Italian giants, Jimmy Briggs and Doug Smith, whose friendly disposition particularly impressed the erstwhile Tannadice regular. Incidentally, that was the tour after which United officially transformed their official home colours from black and white to tangerine.

By now, James was also coaching the area’s youth, many of them Scottish immigrants or the children of immigrants. Boys like his son John, quickly emerging as a naturally gifted midfielder.

First the dads started a recreational youth league. Then they established a boys club, appropriately named Thistle FC. On the team coached by James were John as well as Tab Ramos, a fellow midfielder and young Uruguayan immigrant to the area. Goalkeeper Tony Meola, of Italian parentage, was a couple of years younger so played on the age group team below.

In short order, this trio of Kearny youngsters had proven among the best footballers the US had to offer. Full US national team honours duly followed. So it transpired that in 1989 they were all on the field as an unfashionable US team booked a first World Cup finals spot since 1950.

“That was absolutely outrageous to see the kids from Kearny who made it,” remembers James. “They qualified down in Trinidad and Tobago. My wife and I went there. We beat them 1-0 and the guys were running around, and I’m saying, ‘We’re going to the World Cup. I can’t believe this. This is unbelievable.’ It was an amazing journey.”

The same trio remained key members of the Stars and Stripes starting 11 when the US hosted the World Cup four years later. By this time, John Harkes, who remembers visits to family in Dundee and marveling at the close proximity of Dens and Tannadice, had established himself in England, first with Sheffield Wednesday then Derby County.

The fact his father grew up at number 7 Fleming Gardens North, virtually a stone’s throw from the back of the Shed, the spiritual home of the United support, now the west side stand at Tannadice, was not lost on a man whose contributions to football in the US earned passage into the US Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005.

John, now head coach with US lower league club Greenville Triumph, notes another intriguing portent in the Harkes family story: that his mother’s home in Paisley was on the similarly named Fleming Street.

Back in Kearny, James Harkes contemplates the prospects of Ian, the second generation American of his brood who has brought his footballing family back to the baseline. Friends at the Scots club rib him: “Did you have something to do with this?”they ask. “No, I had nothing to do with it!’”

On a more serious note, he believes his grandson is well poised to contribute to United’s promotion push. “I’m just so glad he’s with Dundee United because he’ll get the right coaching there,” says James. “He’s a talented kid, he wants to learn and he’s smart. Hopefully it’ll work out for him and I’m sure it will. I’m so happy for him.

“He’s a smart midfielder, with a lot of energy, he works hard, has good vision on the ball. The difference between growing up over in America is the coaching’s different. I think with the coaching over there he’ll mature a lot. I’m sure he’ll help the team.”

He was heartened to hear his transfer from Major League Soccer’s DC United to Tayside had been warmly received by many of his fellow Arabs. “I hope they get behind him and give him a bit of encouragement,” James added.

Back in the late 1940 s, one of James’ own first games as a United supporter, aged about 11, was a first round Scottish Cup tie against Celtic when the Tannadice side were lowly old B Division dwellers living in the shadow of city rivals Dundee.

“They were in the A Division, we were in the B, and we beat them. Peter McKay [United’s then free-scoring centre forward] was playing for United then. That was big.” The neat narrative arc would have its denouement. As it turned out, Ian’s debut came just a few days after he signed up at Tannadice in United’s 4-0 victory away to Montrose in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. To the delight of the Harkes clan, he marked it with a goal.

James has since managed to catch a game on TV, the recent 1-0 loss away to fellow title contenders Ayr United in which Ian again emerged from the bench.

He hopes likewise to view the upcoming Scottish Cup fifth round encounter at Premiership St Mirren – destiny yielding to the hometown club of grandmother Jessie – with some of his fellow Kearny Scots.

James expects at some point he will have to collect his special United scarf – a memento from 1983 commemorating the club’s only league championship win – from its display spot behind the bar of the local Scots social club.

He plans a return to his home town, where he and his brothers would walk down Hindmarsh Avenue, the street that connects with Fleming Gardens North, scene of his childhood, and shortly leads to the brief space between Dens and Tannadice, where they would go one way, he the other, to once again watch his favourites. Only this time, there might be a Harkes on the park as well as in the stands.