Steve Harper’s first experience of the Tyne-Wear derby was a painful one. Literally.
Everyone recalls the apocalyptic conditions which preceded Ruud Gullit’s derby downfall because of the Newcastle manager’s misguided attempt to assert his authority by dropping one of the world’s best strikers, but there was another show of player power that night in 1999 that is not often as easily recalled.
United’s substitute goalkeeper Lionel Perez had refused to play on account of Gullit playing loan shot-stopper Tommy Wright, so Harper – despite a debilitating elbow injury that had kept him from training – was asked to be the understudy.
“It was a surreal experience. I was injured but because Lionel Perez wouldn’t play I was told to sit on the bench,” he recalls.
“When Niall Quinn smashed Tommy into the post I did sit up and take notice a bit. There was a bit of a worry.
“The derby is a massive occasion and to go on and play injured would have been interesting, to say the least.
“But if there was ever a derby loss you would take, it was that one because of what happened next. Ruud left the next day and Sir Bobby Robson took over and began the process of transforming the football club.
“I think you will accept the loss in exchange for that.”
Harper’s derby story is a tale of fear and loathing on Tyneside and Wearside, but mainly it is an uplifting one for anyone of a black-and-white persuasion.
In five starts he never suffered defeat, although sometimes it feels like the losses that he bore witness to might have stuck with him the most.
“I never lost but I was sat on the bench for the 2-1 defeat when Kieran Richardson smashed that free-kick in,” he recalls.
“That was the most painful. To see 48,000 Sunderland supporters celebrating and the rest of their supporters doing the same: it really hurt. It was a very sombre dressing room afterwards and it was a very sombre ride home.
“Fortunately, more often than not we didn’t have to experience that but it does stick with you.
“They are great games to playing in and it’s a strange feeling being away from it this year because I’ve always been involved, one way or another. I feel totally on the outside of it not being directly in that bubble where it’s all anyone is talking about in the city.
“I’m excited about it though. These are big games and I’m looking forward to seeing the match because it’s a really important game for both teams.”
There is a school of thought that these days, the fear of losing the derby actually dwarfs the enjoyment you get from winning one.
With neither Sunderland nor Newcastle engaged in battle at the top of the table for a few years, the importance of the derby has mushroomed to the point where it has wrecked reputations – and falsely inflatedothers.
Steve Bruce was damaged by two defeats in this fixture while Paolo Di Canio was acclaimed for his win: it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out who is a better manager.
But will Newcastle, still bearing a few scars from the 3-0 defeat suffered in April, feel any fear this weekend? “I think there’s more of that when you’re at home than away. In my experiences I actually found the away games and going to the Stadium of Light really enjoyable,” said Harper.
“If you’ve got anything about you as a professional footballer you feed off that animosity and hatred.
“I remember standing there at the Stadium of Light and you can feel it burning into your back, it’s real hatred – for 90 minutes at least.
“I like to have a bit of banter with the home fans at most grounds but the Stadium of Light is one place where I can never have that. I don’t think it would go down well!
“To be honest, I used to love that though. It gets you going and gets you motivated.”
A favourite memory was a win in April 2008 under Kevin Keegan when a double from Michael Owen sent a city home happy.
“I don’t know whether relief is the right word but you’re glad to have done what everyone wanted you to do.
“I always felt there was more pressure on the home derbies. To win for 52,000 people made it a special day and we had played well that day as well.
“We fully deserved the victory and there is a real uplifting feeling afterwards.”
The build-up to this year’s first instalment of the continuing rivalry has been dominated by Sunderland’s troubles, which were made more acute by a 4-0 humbling at Swansea City.
They are seven points shy of safety and some informed commentators are implying that defeat in Sunday’s game will be another nail in their Premier League coffin. Harper agrees – but feels there is significance on the black-and-white side too.
“It’s not just Sunderland who need the win. A win for Newcastle and they are right up there fighting among the top six and top eight again,” he said.
“Newcastle are flying at the moment and that was a really good point against Liverpool, not just for the draw against the odds but the way they played as well.
“Newcastle are on a high and Sunderland seem a little bit worried, but it’s Gus Poyet’s first home game in charge and that will definitely play a part. They need a win.”
Despite all of that joy and uplift, the narrative comes full circle in the end. We finish with pain, and last season’s 3-0 defeat – which was followed up by a 6-0 loss to Liverpool. It made for some dark days that Alan Pardew will be desperate to avenge on Wearside this weekend.
“I think Alan Pardew and his staff will be reminding the players of that one. Look at how they responded against Liverpool,” he said.
“That was an awful week, a really terrible few days. Luckily we got the points against QPR the next weekend but you don’t forget that kind of thing in a hurry.
“I’m sure it will be getting a mention in that dressing room.”