‘Little Joe’ receives big welcome on homecoming

Former Morton striker Joe Harper made a welcome return to Cappielow on Saturday as a special guest for our Ladbrokes Championship fixture against Falkirk and took to the pitch at half-time to make the 50-50 draw.

Greenock-born Joe turned 70 earlier this year but will be remembered by Ton fans as a teenage prodigy, who signed for his hometown team in 1963.

Scoring on his debut in the 1964 Summer Cup against Partick Thistle at Firhill aged just 16, the prolific striker would go on to net 74 goals in 122 appearances spread over the course of two spells.

That form earned him both a £35,000 transfer to Huddersfield Town – from whom he was bought back for £15,000 – and a £40,000 move to Aberdeen, where would go on to become a club icon.

Matchday magazine contributor Gareth Ewing spoke with Joe ahead of his return at the weekend to reminisce about his Cappielow career.

By Gareth Ewing

How did you come to join Morton?

It was a Friday night and we were sitting at home. Knock at the door and a Celtic scout asked if he could come in and speak to dad. He came in and basically said that he wanted to sign me. We listened to what he had to say. I was then training on the Saturday with Irvine Meadow – I was only 15 at the time – and had been asked to play a friendly against Irvine Victoria. A Rangers scout had told me he was coming to see me, and after we beat Vics 4-1 and I scored a hat-trick, he came up to the house on the Sunday and said to my dad and grandfather that he wanted to sign me. They gave me all the talk about how good it would be to come to their clubs and my dad told them both that we would give them the answer on Wednesday night.

Then, lo and behold, on the Monday night a knock at the door and there was Hal Stewart. He had a bottle of whisky for my dad and a box of chocolates for my mum. He said they had watched me since I was a wee boy, playing in schools’ finals at Cappielow. My dad said to Hal that he would give him the exact same response as given to ‘the other ones’ – an answer on Wednesday.

When Hal heard that Rangers and Celtic were in the running, his face dropped. When he left, my grandfather, my dad and I started to talk about it. I asked them what they thought was the best thing for me. At the same time both said ‘Morton!’ The reason? My grandad said: “You are better being a big fish in a small pool.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.  But he was right. I could have gone elsewhere and got lost. But if you are good enough, then you can show what you have at Cappielow.

On the Wednesday, my dad called Hal and told him I would sign. I went down the following day and signed all the forms. I honestly did think it was the best thing for me, and I was a Morton fan. Actually, two weeks before signing for Morton I was caught crossing the railway line by the railway police as I was going to Cappielow and was fined half a crown, which was my pocket money. I stayed up in the Belville Street area and it was a 10-minute walk. The half a crown got me into Cappielow, a pie, bovril then a bottle of Tizer and a fish supper on the way home.

You had a spell with Huddersfield then returned to Cappielow. I believe Hal gave you the call?

Well, I hated down in Huddersfield. I was supposedly the next Denis Law – he started his career there. But the problem was they put me into digs in an attic room with five other beds. It wasn’t great. Far from it. The guys I was rooming with were coming home every night blootered and being sick everywhere. I wasn’t getting any sleep. It just wasn’t for me. I asked for a transfer. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when I was down there and I asked the manager for a couple of days off. He said no, as it was not ‘immediate family’. But I went anyway, and it confirmed my thinking – why would I want to be there? I made my mind up, for various reasons, that I wanted to go home. I then gave Hal a call. I said: “Boss, I hate it down here.” Hal said leave it with him, no promises, but he will see what he can do. Within a few weeks I was back at Cappielow again.

What are your highlights and memories from your time at Morton?

One of my biggest memories was my first senior game for Morton. In those days, you didn’t have any subs. I was on the ground staff with a few others and we would brush the terraces and stuff like that. We played Partick Thistle in the Summer Cup at Firhill. We didn’t travel with the team and went up by train from Greenock to Glasgow, arrived there, had mince and tatties and a pint of milk, jumped in a taxi and got to the ground about 2.40.

I got arguing with the guy at the front door that we were players. The guy said: “Aye right, away and get a punt over the turnstile son.” Just at that, Hal came out. “Where have you been?” he asked. “Well, boss, we have just arrived, having gotten the train up”. “Have you eaten anything,” he replied.  As soon as he said that, I knew something was happening. “No” was my answer. To which, he says: “Right, get in. You’re playing.” I was only 16. I told Hal I didn’t have any boots. I ended up getting a pair from a guy called Billy Ewing from Partick. We won 1-0 and I scored the only goal of the game. Joe Caven put me through with a great pass. At that time, the big programme on TV was Bonanza, and one of the main characters was Little Joe. Of course, the headlines the next day were ‘Little Joe shoots down Partick’.

That was one of my greatest memories. But my fondest memories were the great Danes. We used to go to Aarhus every year with Hal for pre-season training and he started to bring these amateur players back over (there were no professionals in Denmark at the time). They were international players, though. Erik Sorensen, Kai Johansen, Flemming Nielsen to name but three. After formal training, there was nothing to do in town, so I used to do some training with them.They were a great influence on my career and I practised hard with them. They would cross the ball in and I would shoot using left foot, right foot and diving headers. I am naturally right footed but my left foot really improved as a result of those sessions. I loved them. Erik hated the ball going into the net. And I loved scoring. Therefore, it was a perfect combination for training.

It was the best apprenticeship that any young boy could get in football. Playing with Morton was a fantastic time in my life.  Probably the best time in my life, to be honest. Although I went to Aberdeen and scored lots of goals, won leagues and cups, it was with Morton and more so at my young age, it was simply heaven.

Do any other players stick out in your memory?

Hughie Strachan was a great guy.  A hard-working footballer who was very efficient in what he did. Johnny Boyd at right-back was superb. He bombed up the wing. What a hit he would have. When he shot everyone ducked it was so hard. Morris Stevenson, Willie Allan … Joe Mason was a terrific striker. Gerry Sweeney, Stan Rankin, big Jim Kiernan … They were all working-class football players.  But they played as a team and had a lot of success. Joe Caven was another smashing player. Obviously, a lot of them were older than me but I was learning every day from them.

Any stories about the legendary Hal Stewart?

A match against Stranraer when I was about 16 or 17 comes to mind. You always got paid via a brown packet. My basic wage was £10 and if you played you got a bonus also. I would go home and pass my packet over to mum and dad. One day, Hal called me in and gave me my wages. “Listen son, you need to get yourself a new suit,” he told me. Back then, I used to wear a suit without a collar, just like the Beatles, who were all the rage at the time, of course. I had the Beatles shoes on too! He said: “If you score a goal, I will buy you a decent suit. If you score two, I’ll also buy you a shirt.” I replied “That’s very nice of you, Mr Stewart.”.

We went down to Stranraer, beat them fairly comfortably, and I scored a hat-trick. The following week I went in to see him and there was a package to collect. Hal invited me to take it home and show it to my mother. I went up the road and opened it in front of my mum and it was a PIN-STRIPED SUIT. Now, for a 17-year-old boy, that was not the thing to be wearing.  And he had included three shirts with HUGE LAPELS!  And of course, my mum was saying “Oh, what a nice man to do that for you, son.” We had been on something like £15 for a bonus for that game. Next game, I was expecting about £30 in my packet, but opened it up and it was only £15. So, I went to see Hal on the Monday. “Boss, when I opened my wage packet, there was only £15 in it,” says I. Hal said: “Ah, yes son, I had to use the rest of it to buy your suit and shirts.” He bought it out of my bonus!


Image (main): Gary Bradley