Joe Harper entered the international picture as a member of the Scottish squad to play Belgium in a February 1971 European Championship qualifier in Brussels, but an untimely injury caused him to call off and it was to be more than 18 months before he actually made his debut for Scotland.
Born in Greenock on 11 January 1948, Joe Harper first made his mark with Larkfield Boys Club before signing for Morton as a 15 year old in 1963. A Scottish youth international, Joe's stock rose quickly at Cappielow, and it was a surprise to no one when in March 1967 he followed the well-trodden path south to sign for Huddersfield. But despite holding down a regular first team spot Harper could not settle at the Yorkshire club, and in August 1968 he returned to Morton for half of the £30,000 Huddersfield had splashed out on him.
Dons boss Eddie Turnbull had been an admirer of the goal hungry Harper since a two leg League Cup quarter final against Aberdeen in 1966. In April 1969 Turnbull's first move to take Harper to Pittodrie was turned down, but the Dons supreme was not to be denied. Aberdeen stepped up their bid when the Greenock club lost to Motherwell at the quarter-final stage of the League Cup in September that year, and on 1st October Joe signed for the Dons for a reported club record fee of £40,000.
He starter his Aberdeen career playing wide on either flank with Jim Forrest the established player through the middle. Even when playing out wide it was apparent that here was a player with an eye for goal. The fans responded to Harper's "have-a-pop" style, and he quickly became a favourite. His penalty opener in the sensational 1970 Cup Final sealed Joe's hero status with the Aberdeen support. He was switched to main man for the 1970-71 season, and the move paid off with a glut of goals which resulted in his initial, injury-hit Scotland call-up as the Dons surged clear at the top of the Scottish First Division.
A small, chunky striker, Harper had a real talent for hitting the back of the net from almost any angle and range, while his speciality was to hook the ball home with his back to goal. He won the European "Bronze Boot" at the end of the 1971-72 season, but still could not force his way back into the international reckoning as new Scotland boss Tommy Docherty persevered with Derby County's John O'Hare throughout the latter half of 1971, and then in early 1972 recalled veteran Denis Law. Finally, with Joe scoring plenty in tandem with new club partner Drew Jarvie (19 goals in 18 games in the early part of the 1972-73 campaign), the Doc saw the light and called Harper up for the Scots World Cup opener against Denmark in Copenhagen on 18th October 1972.
Joe watched from the bench as Scotland quickly went 2-0 ahead with goals from Lou Macari and Jimmy Bone, but Laudrup pulled one back for the Danes and at half time the Scots were threatening to throw away their 2-1 lead. With 61 minutes gone, Joe Harper replaced Jimmy Bone for his first taste of full international action, and immediately the Dons' striker was in the thick of the action and looking lively. Ten minutes from time Lorimer and Macari broke away and, from the latter's square pass, Joe drilled home his first international goal to secure the points for Scotland. Two minutes later an angular Harper drive struck an upright before Peter Lorimer controlled the rebound and passed for Willie Morgan to make it 4-1.
Inside 25 minutes Joe Harper had turned the game firmly Scotland's way, and surely had cemented a long term international future. The Aberdeen striker was named to lead the attack in the return match against the Danes at Hampden a month later, and although he did not get on the score sheet he covered every blade of grass on the park and was very close with a number of efforts in the Scots' comfortable 2-0 win. As feared by many, Harper's international exposure soon had English clubs beating a path to Pittodrie with cheque books at the ready, and just over three weeks after the Hampden international Joe was transferred to Everton for £180,000. The Goodison move did not work out for the best however, with Joe playing largely out of position, in an Everton side desperate to recapture the glory days of 1970. Then Willie Ormond replaced Docherty in the Scotland manager's post, and Joe was out of the international picture once again.
In January 1974, he returned to Scotland in a £120,000 move to Hibs, but his arrival at Easter Road coincided with a stutter in the Edinburgh side's title aspirations. Joe turned in numerous fine performances, but many fans saw his arrival as the reason the Hibees faltered in the title hunt, and he was never accorded his due acclaim by the Easter Road faithful.
Willie Ormond was sufficiently impressed to recall Harper to the international fold at the start of the 1975-76 campaign, and Joe played once more against Denmark. Typically he responded with a goal, which was the only counter of the game, but happenings off the field overshadowed on-field exploits and within days Joe Harper, Billy Bremner, Willie Young, Arthur Graham and Pat McCluskey were banned for life from playing for Scotland following an alleged incident in a Copenhagen nightclub.
Harper remained with Hibs until April 1976, when Dons manager Ally McLeod brought him back to Pittodrie. Joe immediately took up where he left off four years earlier to help transform the club from relegation candidates in 1975-76 to League Cup winners in November 1976. In his second spell at Pittodrie, Joe displayed a more skilful all-round style of play, sometimes from a midfield role, yet still finished top scorer in each of his final three seasons with the Dons. Happily the over-zealous life ban imposed on the "Copenhagen five" was lifted soon after Ally McLeod became Scotland team manager. In 1978 Harper's international rehabilitation was completed with his inclusion in Scotland's 22 for the 1978 World Cup finals in Argentina, and it was there he won his fourth and last cap as a substitute in the disastrous 1-1- draw with Iran.
Joe's first-class career was effectively ended on 25th November 1979 when he was carried off at Celtic Park with a serious knee injury, although he returned for one final appearance at the end of the 1980-81 season. He later joined Peterhead as player-manager, and had a spell in local junior circles before taking over as manager of Huntly. Joe still frequents Pittodrie on matchdays, usually hosting the Legends Lounge in the Richard Donald Stand.
In October 2021 the SFA reclassified a 1967 match against Canada as a full international, thus adding to Joe's tally of full Scotland apperances and increasing his bag of goals by 5. Unfortunately, the SFA decided not to issue a physical cap for this game.