Harper has 'wonderful balance', 'frightening power' and 'no limits'
- Credit: PA
Rakeem Harper may only be 21, but already he has played under the management of Tony Pulis, Tony Mowbray, Darren Moore, Slaven Bilic, Aitor Karanka and Lee Bowyer at Premier League, Championship and League One level. STUART WATSON takes a look at Ipswich Town's exciting new signing - a former England U19 international who has been described as having 'no limits'.
A FORMER STRIKER
Having joined West Brom at the age of 11, Rekeem Harper started to reach the fringes of the first team at the age of 16.
At the start of the 2016/17 season, he played in EFL Trophy games against Millwall, Luton and Gillingham. Then, he was part of the travelling squad for a November game at Leicester. After that, he was named on the bench for a December home win over Swansea.
Then Baggies boss Tony Pulis said: "Rek has done fantastic. He’s a young midfield player who is only 16, but he's got all the tools to be a player. He’s another one who’s got to take his gloves off and get his hands dirty. Find out what it’s all about.”
That report in the Express & Star labelled Harper as ‘a former striker, who has been converted to a dynamic box-to-box midfielder versatile enough to play a holding role or behind the striker if required’.
Harper made his senior debut on the opening day of the following Premier League season.
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Stepping off the bench to play the final 20 minutes of a 1-0 home win against Bournemouth, the 17-year-old became only the second player born this century to feature in a top-flight match.
“I’ve been waiting ages for this moment and just to get it was really good,” he said.
“Running on I was so excited and I just wanted to help the team because we were winning at the time and I wanted to help us see out the game and show the fans what I’m made of.
“For my time on the pitch it was very end-to-end, they had a lot of the ball and then we had a lot of the ball.
“We were living off the counter attacks and sitting in, and it was suited to my game really because we were going forward and getting back, going box-to-box.
“Getting in the midfield alongside Claudio (Yacob) and Jake (Livermore) was just a really good experience because they’re such great players.
“If I’m here then I want to be pushing into the first team and pushing on from this because I want people to know what I’m about as a player.
“But also, if I’m not here, then I’ll be doing my trade in a lower league and showing what I’m made of.”
LEARNING ON LOAN
Just a few weeks on from his debut, Harper joined newly-relegated League One club Blackburn Rovers on loan.
He made nine appearances – only one of them a league start – before returning to The Hawthorns at the turn of the year.
In his penultimate appearance for Rovers, Harper was dismissed in the first half of a 3-3 FA Cup draw against Crewe for committing a foul as the last man.
“I’m sure he will learn from it,” said Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray.
“He’s a very talented young boy but we have to put it in to context that he’s only 17, he’s not 18 until March.
“It will be part of his learning curve. What have I said to him? Nothing really, other than get on with training and when he’s ready for selection, we will get on with it. He’s among a few midfield players who when we think it is right to select him we will.
“I think he’s shown he has enough talent to impact our team but he’s still really young as a guy but I do like his attributes, I like his athleticism and his range of passing.
“He has a part to play. What’s in front of him is in his problem. We do have (Richie) Smallwood, (Corry) Evans and (Peter) Whittingham and he’s finding it difficult to knock over some very experienced footballers who have been getting the job done for us.
“He’s got a lovely personality, works really hard on the training ground and I’m sure he knows he has a big future in the game."
Harper was restricted to just three EFL Cup starts in the first half of the 2018/19 campaign as Darren Moore’s men got off to good start.
The experienced trio of Livermore, Gareth Barry and James Morrison were ahead in the pecking order.
All the while, contract talks rumbled in the background.
As the turn of the year approached, Moore said: “We are going to have more talks with him, settle him and his advisors down, because I'm under no doubt that this is the place for Rekeem Harper to develop and become a fully-fledged first team player.
“I'm delighted for Rak, because he's only been converted to a midfielder in the past three seasons.
“He's very new to the role but he's got wonderful balance, his first touch and control is excellent, he moves the ball away from danger and he's got the ability to put his foot on the gas and move with the ball.”
Harper’s chance came in early January when Livermore was suspended. He shone in an FA Cup win against Paul Cook’s Wigan, the Express & Star stating: "His strength on the ball and power in transition is frightening for someone so young. Can muscle players off the ball with ease and then burst forward at pace."
After that, he went on to be a regular fixture in the team during the second half of the season.
Playing behind the free-scoring front men of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez, Harper made 13 starts and three sub appearances in the league as the team finished fourth in the table.
His first goal for the club, a late winner, came in a crunch April match against Rotherham.
However, Harper was then said to be left 'chasing shadows' in a disappointing final day 3-1 defeat against Derby and was subsequently left out of the squad for the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Aston Villa.
He came on late in the second leg as West Brom lost on penalties to their Midlands rivals.
Harper was then named the club's Young Player of the Season.
That summer, Harper finally signed a new three-year deal at club.
Technical Director, Luke Dowling, said: “We are pleased Rekeem has committed his future to the club having been with us from such a young age.
“Rekeem is progressing as a player and we are confident that if he continues to work hard he will play a prominent role in the first team over the coming years.”
West Brom won automatic promotion the following season, finishing in second spot under new boss Slaven Bilic.
Harper was a peripheral figure though, limited to just four starts and six sub appearances in the league due to the fact that Livermore and new signing Romaine Sawyers had the midfield slots nailed down.
Early in the season, his performance in an EFL Cup defeat to Millwall ‘prompted words from the head coach, who was left unimpressed by his application’, according to the Birmingham Mail.
In December, Bilic said: "Rekeem has been on the bench because he has been training really top. He was in there for the game against Manchester United. He has to continue like that. He has to get that consistency in training which will push him towards getting a chance in a game.”
Harper was recalled to the first team for an FA Cup game against Charlton in January. Then, in February, he was called upon for a Championship game due to the fact that Sawyers was suspended.
He took that chance, impressing in a 2-0 home win against Preston.
After that game, Bilic said: “He was for me always the first option. We had more players who could play that role, but I wanted him.
“He responded great. It’s not easy for such a young player who didn’t play that many minutes.
“To have his first start against a team who is very good shows his qualities, but it also shows the quality of the team - that can help a new player gel. He was composed, good on the ball, he was tactically aware of the situation. I was very pleased for him.”
Harper kept his place for the next two games and then started twice more when played resumed after the Covid restart.
"Rekeem is one of the players who has made the biggest progress since lockdown, and before lockdown as well,” said Bilic.
"In the beginning, he wasn’t consistent.
“He was showing glimpses of his talent and ability, but not all the time.
"Rekeem has started to play really well, he has started to train consistently – power, movement, tactics, stamina, skill, everything.
“He’s becoming more and more mature.
“I never denied that I love him as a player - I love those kind of players, who are powerhouses but can pass the ball.
“He’s in a good way, let’s be honest, but he cannot stop, he must keep working.
“If he continues to show what he’s been doing recently, then he’s got no limits.”
A DIFFERENT CHALLENGE
Premier League football proved hard to come by for Harper though.
Livermore and Sawyers remained, while Conor Gallagher had arrived on loan from Chelsea to push him further down the midfield pecking order.
Harper played in the early EFL Cup games against Harrogate and Brentford, scoring a fine goal from outside the box in the former, but then found himself warming the bench or not being in the squad at all.
Sam Allardyce replaced Bilic in the hot-seat in December and, when the window opened, Harper was loaned to Championship relegation battlers Birmingham City.
After recovering from a disappointing display in Aitor Karanka’s final match in charge, a 3-0 home loss to Bristol City, Harper gave a good account of himself in Lee Bowyer’s opening two matches – a win against Reading and defeat to Watford.
Speaking at that time, Harper said: “The players know what the manager wants, it’s a lot easier for us out there to start games and get through games knowing we have a manager who knows his stuff.
“One of the biggest things is my positioning without the ball. Going forward he knows what I can bring to the team but without the ball how to step people counter-attacking on us.
“Say Gards (Gary Gardner) has gone forward, covering him. Just being tactically aware, these are things when you are young you forget about them but I feel I can build that into my game. I am just excited to learn a lot more things.”
Harper didn’t start the next six matches and then returned to the side for heavy end of season losses to Cardiff (4-0) and Blackburn (5-2).
Despite this, Birmingham fans appear to have reflected positively on his spell at St Andrews.
Looking back on his time at Birmingham just last week, in an appearance on the High Press podcast, Harper said: “When you playing for West Brom in the Championship, it’s like playing for Manchester City. The players are always going to be confident.
“But with Birmingham, when I arrived they had lost a few games so the confidence had taken a knock.
“When we were losing games, you felt like things were on egg-shells. Players were less confident and you could feel it in the group. You never know when you might win your next game, you might need a bit of luck or what not.
“You had that feeling that you didn’t know when you were going to win your next game, but you have to be ready, you have to switch it on quickly and do your job for the team to help them win games.
“I learnt a lot there. Hopefully it’s going to stand me in good stead in my career.
“It was very enjoyable; I came to play and prove to myself I can play at this level and Blues gave me the opportunity.”
He added: “My goal is to go back to West Brom and nail down a position in the team.
“With the loanees having left the building, that has really opened my eyes to the opportunity that is there.
“Depending on the formation, there could be two midfield spots up for grabs or three.
“I want one of those shirts - and I have do everything I can to get one of those shirts.
“I’m going to start the season with confidence and try and do the things I need to do to get in the team.”
Talking in the aforementioned High Press podcast, Harper also spoke about his ambitions in the game.
He said: “Every young player wants to play for their country so I’m really grateful for the opportunities I got with the under-17s and the under-19s.
“They were really talented groups.
“You see the likes of Phil (Foden), (Jadon) Sancho, (Callum) Hudson-Odoi doing things now.
“I remember going away with England and looking at those players and thinking this is the level you want to be at every week.
“To see them all do so well now makes me really happy and hopefully one day I can get back to playing at the top level with some of those guys.”