ASK anyone in Scottish football what they think about Gary Harkins and it won’t be too long until the word ‘maverick’ comes up. The midfielder, who has recently hung up his boots after a 20-year career, is a well-known personality within Scottish football for his irreverence, his jovial attitude and his outstanding technical ability that set him apart from many of his peers.

Perhaps it’s the carefree way he played at times as he ran games from the middle of the park. Maybe it’s simply his light-hearted nature that comes across on the pitch. Or it could be that every so often, Harkins would do something with the ball that would send your jaw crashing towards the floor.

Whatever the reason, the maverick tag is one that has stuck with Harkins – even if he is not entirely sure why himself.

Asked what he thought about his go-to moniker, he replied: “I’ve no idea! Maverick is one of the main things people say about me and it’s one of them where I’ve never looked at myself as a maverick.

“Obviously I’ve enjoyed playing, I always tried to play with a smile on my face and when you get a bit of stick from fans you’ve got to laugh at it. I don’t know where it’s came from to be honest.”

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Harkins may be at a loss but there are probably a few team-mates who could muster a guess. Whenever you speak to players or managers who have worked with the 35-year-old, it is never long before an anecdote arrives explaining the mischievous side of the playmaker. His penchant for practical jokes adds to the free-spirited nature so often associated with him but his pranks haven’t always gone down well with his employers. There is one particular incident has lived long in the memory for Harkins.

“When I was at Grimsby, the manager hated me and I didn’t like him either,” he recalled. “We had just moved into this new training ground and it had this wee room with big windows that looked out onto the pitch. You’d go in there to get your lunch.

“One day we were going back in and the manager had given me extra running as usual but he had left his car open. So as he was inside eating his dinner, I jumped into the car, pulled the handbrake off and pushed it onto the pitch!

“I moved it by the window so that didn’t go down to well. I got a talking to then I had a nice day to myself the next day with the physio.”

Harkins may well have been a nuisance off the park, but on it he was anything but. After coming through the youth system at Blackburn, a move to Grimsby followed before he made the switch to Partick Thistle in 2007. He didn’t particularly enjoy his time at Grimsby but it was there where he had an epiphany that would ultimately define his playing style – and his career.

Harkins explained: “When I was younger I was coached to give it to people who can play, to just touch and play. I wasn’t coached to do skills or to do things.

“I think that happens to quite a lot of guys in Scotland where their talent gets coached out them. I got to a point when I’d left Blackburn and went to Grimsby – I had a year at Grimsby and I hated it – and I thought, ‘I’m not playing football this way. If I’m going to play, then I’m going to play the way I want to and enjoy it’.

“That’s what I did and it was much more fun for me once I could play the things I see and not have to think about what the coaches expected of me.”

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A short stint in defence signalled the start of his career at Thistle before Ian McCall gave Harkins a free role in midfield, where he would have fewer defensive responsibilities and more creative license. It was a decision that brought the best out of Harkins; within two years, he was named Player of the Season in the second tier and sealed a move to Dundee for £150,000 in 2009 – a colossal fee for First Division clubs at the time.

“I had come up the road from Grimsby and I was a centre-half or a defensive mid,” Harkins said. “At the time, the gaffer was short on defenders. He had said to me that I’d play in midfield but to start with I had to play centre-half. Luckily we both realised I was hopeless there!

“Ian McCall was the first one to do it [play me in a free role] when I was at Thistle. He was the first coach to give me the license to go and play and do what I want. [Former Dundee manager] Jocky Scott was the same. He was great.

“You go from there to Kilmarnock where I was told not to track back. At Kilmarnock at the time, we were told to defend as a seven and the three of us up the front were to get into a position for whenever we’ve got the ball again.

“I can see both ways of it. It would work at times but then you get the old ‘lazy’ tag if you’re not doing any defending.”

Like his reputation as a maverick, that lazy tag would also follow Harkins throughout his career. Few would contest the technical ability that he possessed but there were always those that contended that he didn’t make the most of his talents. A common criticism was that he simply didn’t work hard enough and that with a little extra effort, Harkins could have been playing at a higher level.

The man himself dismisses that notion, insisting that he worked hard every day of his playing career – and the odd bit of stick from opposing fans also played its part in spurring him on.

“If a team at a higher level came in for me, I could have played for them no bother,” he said. “But for whatever reason it never happened.

“People say I never worked hard enough but I worked hard for 20 years. In school I would finish halfway in the class whereas the rest of the football boys would finish first by miles. I wasn’t naturally fit as an athlete so I had to work hard to keep up with the boys that were already ahead of me in that way. I did it for 20 years and I was lucky enough that I only had one operation.

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“The longer I went on in my career, whenever I was playing against a team the opposition fans would always give me pelters. It’s something I enjoyed. I would much rather they knew who I was and they were trying to put me off than not bothering about me. It’s something that I enjoyed and thrived on.”

His first stint at Dens Park would be one of the most difficult spells in his career. Off-field issues plagued Dundee at that time, eventually resulting in the club entering administration. As the captain during the crisis, Harkins felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

He said: “I had just been made captain so I had to deal with not getting paid and not knowing what was happening; having to speak to the management, coaches and directors to see what was going on.

“Your pals start to lose their jobs and things like that, which isn’t very nice, then you’ve got to go out and play with all that going on. You don’t know if the club’s going to make it through or not.

“It probably turned out to be one of the biggest years of my career with how the club, the players and the fans all got together.”

A move to Kilmarnock in the summer of 2011 followed, where Harkins would win the only piece of major silverware in his career with a 1-0 League Cup final triumph over Celtic. It was the first time the Ayrshire club had won the competition and a career high point for many of the Killie players involved, yet the day would be marked by tragedy.

Shortly after the final whistle, the news filtered through that the father of one of the Kilmarnock players, Liam Kelly, had a heart attack in Hampden. He was rushed to hospital and died later that evening, leading to an unusual atmosphere in the winning side’s dressing room.

Harkins said: “In Scotland, if you’re not at Celtic at the moment then you’re thinking ‘Am I ever going to get a trophy?’. We had Celtic in the final that day and I think they were 26 games unbeaten. Everybody was thinking that they were going to scud us 4-0 but we were really good that day. Cammy Bell made a couple of cracking saves, boys defended brilliantly and we managed to score a winner.

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“It was a surreal day. Winning the cup was obviously great but then Liam Kelly lost his father. You’re sitting in the dressing room thinking, ‘My dad’s at the game’. Especially in the dressing room, it wasn’t what you would expect after a trophy win. Everyone felt for Kells and it went really quiet for him. Later on you got to have a wee drink and enjoy it but it was mixed emotions in the dressing room.

“I think it was the first time Kilie had own that cup. On the pitch it’s fine, it’s not until later on when you realise what’s happened in the stand and you always put yourself in that person’s shoes. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to that with how big an influence my dad has been on me.”

After deciding to hang up his boots, Harkins is hopeful of a move into coaching in future. But given the current financial landscape in Scottish football due to the coronavirus crisis, he doesn’t expect this to happen any time soon. The odd trip to Dens Park when crowds are allowed back will have to suffice in the short term and as someone who received his fair share of boos during his career, Harkins is looking forward to dishing out some choice words of his own when the football restarts.

“I’ve been thinking about it [retirement] for ages,” he said. “Once this all happened and the season it stopped it made it a lot easier. There’s not been any football to miss so it’s been quite an easy change for me.

“I’ve got my B license and I would like to do coaching but football is going through a tough time in Scotland just now. Opportunities are going to be very limited. It’s something that I won’t say I don’t want to do but I think I’ll probably be taking a break from football.

“I’m a Celtic fan but the result I’m looking for after that is Dundee, especially now that [James] McPake’s in charge. He’s a friend so I’m always hoping they do well. I’ll go and watch a few games up there now hopefully and enjoy sitting on the other side of the shouting. I can’t wait to be booing [Paul] McGowan, that’s my plan!

“I’ve been happy since I made the decision. I made it before and was waiting for the summer but now I’m just looking forward to a new start and something else hopefully.”

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Reflecting on his playing career, Harkins has few regrets. But there is one thing that he can’t help looking back at and wondering what might have been: the opportunity that he turned down to play under Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly at Dundee United. His affinity for Dundee, he says, meant that it was a move he never truly considered making – but Donnelly enjoys teasing Harkins about his true motivation in knocking back the approach.

“Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly tried to sign me for Dundee United when I was leaving Dundee one year and if it had been any other club in Scotland I would have signed for them,” he admitted.

“But because I had that affinity with Dundee, I didn’t want to tarnish that. I was thinking that in the years to come if I go into coaching or management or anything like that then Dundee would be a really good place for me to do that, so I didn’t want to tarnish that.

“I still get pelters from Simon Donnelly for it now. He’s always telling me that if I’d gone there I would have got a Scotland cap but he’ll no hear any reasoning. He just calls me a big s****bag!”

One thing is for certain: Scottish football will be that little bit duller without Harkins’ antics. A genius on the park; a joker off of it. A midfielder who could turn from maestro to maverick at the drop of a hat, there is no one else quite like him.

There are few players who have spent the majority of their careers in the second tier capable of the sheer artistry that was second nature to Harkins, and fewer still that are as widely respected for their innate talent. There will always be those who believe he could have achieved so much more but the man himself is content with his lot. Just like every Saturday, he played the game on his own terms and at the end of it all, he has walked away with a grin plastered across his face.