Real Madrid CF's Malaga-born Scottish forward Jack Harper talks to UEFA.com about playing for his boyhood club, learning from big names and the UEFA Youth League.
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The Celtic name on the Real Madrid CF team sheet for last week's UEFA Youth League game against FC Basel 1893 stood out as an anomaly, but Jack Harper's talent means he fits right in among his Iberian-monikered colleagues.
Born in Malaga to parents who had emigrated from their native Glasgow – "they moved over just before I was born," Harper explained – the 18-year-old forward is living his boyhood dream at the club he supported growing up in Andalusia. It was the white of Madrid, and not the colours of the major teams of Scotland's largest city, Rangers FC and Celtic FC, that he always hoped to wear.
"I have always been a bit far away to get into that, and I went to school with all the boys supporting Madrid or Barça," Harper told UEFA.com. "It's brilliant playing for them. Madrid were always my childhood team. Mum and dad bought me a Madrid shirt when I was tiny, so I've always supported them."
Those Harper once admired on the pitch are now helping to nurture the next generation of home-grown 'galácticos' off it. Zinédine Zidane manages the Merengues' reserve side, while first-team assistant coach and former UEFA Champions League-winning captain Fernando Hierro attended last Wednesday's UEFA Youth League match at Basel to lend his support.
"It's great to have them around, of course it is," Harper said. "They were big players during their time at the club, and hopefully we can do as well as they did. It's great to see them about, get tips, it's a great honour."
That said, his own coach Luis Miguel Ramis, a Madrid defender of the early 90s who had a well-travelled Liga career, holds just as much weight as those with better-stocked trophy cabinets. "Probably the best advice we can get is from our managers," Harper added. "They might not be as famous, but they were professionals too and they know their stuff."
It seems that Harper has been a good listener. His goal in the 3-2 loss to Basel will have helped reinforce the burgeoning reputation of the Scotland Under-19 striker, tipped for a senior international call.
Indeed, with three goals and two assists in five UEFA Youth League outings – to leave his club within a Group B win, against PFC Ludogorets Razgrad next Tuesday, of reaching the last 16 – Harper has certainly caught the eye. The teenager acknowledges that the competition offers him and his team-mates the ideal stage on which to prove they can bridge the gap to first-team football.
"It's very good," Harper said. "You get to play teams you normally wouldn't. You see different styles of play, you learn every game. It's obviously not as easy as the domestic league and it's a great experience. No teams are afraid of other teams in this competition, because they are all great academies, and everyone goes out to win every game."
The tournament also ensures that Harper and company travel to games with Carlo Ancelotti's squad – Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale et al. "You just look at them and think that perhaps in a couple of years you could be in their position.
"Every year it's much more important, getting closer and closer to professional football. This is probably the last step to prepare us for that."