Sky Super Sunday, football supplements, online forums and wikipedia pages oozing words all over your screen have seen off one of true football fans’ compensations, one of the markers that set us apart from the casual fan, a way to identify a true believer. Because the Unsung Hero is no more. These days, if he’s not coming off the bench for a ten minute cameo that’s analysed the morning after in a 2000 word article in The Guardian by Michael Cox, he’s filling in for an otherwise engaged Andros Townsend on Soccer AM or picking up Jermaine Defoe’s leftovers in a London hotspot. Even those who definitely should be Unsung Heroes have been transformed into Cult Heroes that even casual fans can joke about – and I’m looking at you, non-scoring Tony Hibbert. It wasn’t always this way.
Everton’s great sides of the mid-80s were rounded off by the archetypal Unsung Hero – step forward (but don’t come too close with a face like that) Alan Harper. Chances are you don’t know him – plenty of Blues under the age of 40 probably won’t either, – but, for those of us glugging the statins every day and wondering if a cruise might be a better option this summer, he’s a God amongst men.
His record is unexceptionable – the Unsung Hero must have an unexceptionable record – 148 appearances in two spells with four goals. He also conformed to another of the Unsung Hero’s person specification criteria by picking up a couple of medals as an unused substitute in finals.
But one match above all others defined Alan Harper’s status as a Hero first and Unsung second. Everton were facing off again against Tottenham just a year after a tumultuous White Hart Lane night, remembered best for a Neville Southall wondersave and the sense that the title really was ours again. This time it was the FA Cup – and this is when the FA Cup really mattered – and Tottenham were in no mood to be dispatched again. Harper started this one at full back, but, with less than ten minutes gone, Mark Falco or Graham Roberts (I’m not sure which) – both as “robust” as Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle were delicate – had sent Kevin Ratcliffe from the fray on a stretcher and Everton were left without captain and centre-half, with Adrian “Inchy” hardly a like-for-like substitute.
Alan Harper moved inside and had Falco in his pocket all night. The ball seemed to be magnetised to him – if he wasn’t clearing corners, he was cutting out passes; if he wasn’t making tackles, he was tracking runners. He was, inasmuch as a man of 5’9” can be, immense, the rock on which a 1-2 win (Heath, Lineker) was built, the single most important reason for that first Merseyside FA Cup Final .
He was never as good again – how could he be – but he’s an Unsung Hero for life.