Brits on the beach in Malaga in the middle of winter is not an uncommon sight but it doesn’t take long for locals to realise that there is something different about this one.
Jack Harper is the Scottish centre-forward currently leading Malaga’s charge back to the first division in Spain.
It’s now almost a decade since he was signed by Real Madrid when he was just 13 years old having his picture taken with Cristiano Ronaldo at the club’s Valdebebas training complex.
Jack Harper is the Scottish centre-forward leading Malaga’s promotion charge back to La Liga
After a spell in England, he’s back in Spain and forming an integral part of the promotion drive
‘He’s the hardest working player out there, and I know because I have seen it first-hand,’ he says of a player he had idolised from far and then admired at close quarters during his six-year stay at the club.
‘He was always the first to come in and the last to leave. I don’t think I ever saw his car move. And just seeing how hard he is to defend against and how he moves in the box is an amazing education.
‘I think he feels guilty about doing anything that’s not 100 per cent professional and that’s probably the right thing. If you only play for 10 or 12 years, you should give it your all and he takes that to the next level.’
As Harper progressed through the various youth ranks at Madrid reaching the team’s under-19 UEFA Youth League side he would get steadily closer to the first-team superstars.
When the Madrid manager (Carlo Ancelotti at the time) wanted a couple of extra players for practice games Harper would often get the call to simulate the striker the team would be up against in the next match.
How did a call-up like that change that morning’s training session? ‘Well it’s your moment,’ he says. ‘But you’re only 18, it’s only the start. A little bit of tension is good for a footballer. Too much, probably not, but some tension builds character. If you can handle it, then that’s good.’
Sportsmail’s Pete Jenson pictured with Harper as they spoke on a beach on the Costa del Sol
Harper’s family’s journey to Spain was a 22-day trip in a beaten-up camper van before his birth
Harper with boyhood hero Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training complex
The ex-Los Blancos academy star also posed with the club’s then-manager Zinedine Zidane
His journey to southern Spain had already been an incredible one. His fireman dad and nurse mum moved to the country before Jack was born. It was a 22-day road trip in a beaten-up old camper van that included one stop-off at Euro Disney and another, unscheduled because the van broke down, in Fuengirola where they set up home.
Jack was born six months later and when he was old enough his dad took him to watch Malaga in among the club’s army of British ex-pat supporters.
‘I don’t ever remember learning Spanish or English I just began speaking Spanish at school and English at home,’ he says.
‘I was Spanish through the day and then I would go home and be Scottish, that is how I would describe it.’
He played for local club Fuengirola until Madrid spotted him when he was 12. ‘You tell your friends and they don’t believe it, they think Madrid is something out of this world,’ he says.
When Real Madrid restructured their youth system and disbanded their C-team in 2015, just as Harper was due to make the step up to play for them, he had a big decision to make.
His dad took him to watch Malaga in among the club’s army of British ex-pat supporters
He played for local club Fuengirola until Real Madrid spotted him aged 12 and signed him up
They wanted to keep him and send him out on loan but he chose a different path: ‘I was going to Stoke City,’ he says. ‘Mark Hughes was the manager and they had been watching me the whole year and they had a plan for me. They wanted me in the first team quickly.
I was all ready to sign but the doctor blocked it. I had internal bleeding in my knee from my last game for Madrid. I didn’t think it was that bad but when they did more tests, it was a six-month lay-off.
‘It was heart-breaking. I’ve not cried much in my life but that was a sad day. I came home and did a month’s recovery by myself and Brighton were still keen on signing me. I appreciate that to this day.’
Although the move to Brighton was not a success, blighted by those first months spent alone in physio instead of getting to know new team-mates on the pitch, he still feels the experience helped.
‘Growing up in Madrid, I would say I have the tiki-taka side of football, I still had to man up and that’s what English football gave me.’
Now back in Spain as an integral part of Malaga’s promotion drive his unorthodox career path seems to have matured him beyond his years.
When Real Madrid restructured their youth system, Harper eventually left to join Brighton
In the club’s last home win he scored the winner to go top as they chase a return to the big time
He talks about the dangers of what he calls ‘trying to be a footballer too early’ and stresses the importance of appreciating the learning journey. ‘As a kid you’re not a player yet,’ he says. ‘You’re a student of the game.’
And he remains an unashamed mix of Scottish and Spanish shouting ‘Gol!’ when he scores because ‘that’s what the fans shout’ but preferring Irn-Bru over Sangria: ‘I’ll have one now and then, when I deserve one’, he says.
As he turns away from the Mediterranean and heads to dry land one fan shouts out: ‘To the first division!’ Harper gives him the thumbs up. The supporters will want to buy him more than an Irn-Bru if he gets them up.
In the club’s last home win he scored the winner to put them top.
‘Malaga’s objectives are the same as mine,’ he says. ‘Hopefully both me and the club will be playing in the top division next year.’
Pictures by Pablo Garcia