STEVE Harper has been there, done that and worn the T-Shirt. He has seen it all, felt it, been through it and come out the other side.
For 17 years Harper has played for the club he loves, yet he has not always been happy about it. For 15 of those years he trained, played for the reserve team and sat on the bench on a matchday.
For the vast majority of his career he played second fiddle to Shay Given’s brass band. He constantly felt the frustration boiling up inside him, but he always swallowed it down again.
He was an excellent goalkeeper who rarely got the chance to show it and he knew he was to blame. He could have left, demanded a transfer, or he could have refused to sign the new contracts, but Harper was loyal to a fault.
It would be easy for him to say they were isolated moments, rare periods of frustration, but this was, by and large, his life until Given’s patience finally snapped on Tyneside and he left for Manchester City two years ago.
Only then did Harper become Newcastle number one, only then did his patience pay off and only then did he start to feel as though he had not made a huge mistake. Yet, he does not regret a thing. “I did come close to leaving,” said Harper, who has played 177 games for the Magpies, 66 of which have come since January 2009. “There were a couple of times it almost happened. There were little whispers of so and so being interested.
“The club turned down a couple of bids and the problem was the figure the club wanted for me at the time, as opposed to my experience, put people off. It was a case of out of sight and out of mind.
“People were interested, but it never came down to a straight choice of leave or go. I always wanted to go out on loan, you can ask every manager I’ve had. That puts you back in the limelight, I didn’t enjoy playing reserve team football.
“Why did I stay? I’ve been here half my life. If I left, I felt it would be a step down. The nearest I came to leaving was before Shay got injured by Marlon Harewood against West Ham. I would have gone then, three or four years ago.
“I was the wrong side of 30, but I got an extended run in the side and since then I’ve played the best part of 100 games. It worked out in the end, it just took a bit longer than I planned.
“This is my club. I looked at the first and second year Academy players the other day and their dates of birth and I’ve been here since before any of them were born, which was quite scary. It will be a massive wrench to leave, but it will happen. I’ve got no regrets, what’s the point? It’s a waste of time and energy wondering what might have been. You can’t do anything about it, so I don’t bother.”
Incredibly, for all of the frustration Harper has still played in the Champions League, the Uefa Cup, the Premier League and even an FA Cup Final for Newcastle.
He has experienced every high and low of the last two decades and he knows better than anyone what makes the club and the city it calls home tick. And, as he begins to steel himself for the day he hangs up his gloves, Harper can confidently say, for the first time since the Sir Bobby Robson era, Newcastle United are heading in the right direction again.
It has been a tough turnaround, but he feels he is part of a revival. It is a revival born out of the pain and suffering of the last two years, and galvanised by the strength and unity found in that adversity.
He said: “We’ve succeeded because of team spirit, organisation and togetherness. The manager has to take a lot of credit for that. It’s a happy, stable football club, which has a set of players who are fighting for each other and the manager. It’s easy to have team spirit when you’re winning and it could have unravelled when things got tough. There are no big egos here. It’s a level playing field in the dressing room and it’s a good place to be. We help and support each other.
“There are 25 games still to go and there will be tough periods where we lose a couple of games on the spin. People are going to predict we’re going to get sucked into trouble, but hopefully we’ll continue as we have been. We’ll keep ticking over.
“People are still trying to destabilise the club. For too long we were an easy target. We were always in the headlines for various reasons and it’s hard to shake off that bullseye on the club’s back which made us an easy target. Only in this 16 month period have we started to put it right, but it is going to take time to shake off.
“Uncertainly doesn’t help football clubs, and it has re-surfaced a bit because of the manager’s situation, but we have come through it. Chris and the players get on with their jobs.”
Currently eighth in the table, Newcastle could start to think of a push for Europe, but Harper is adamant they remain in a relegation battle.
He said: “Avoiding relegation is still the first aim and until we have got more points than three more teams can achieve the better. It’s going to be a long season, but if we can do that we can set another target.
“We are on an even keel because of the manager and that benefits everybody. Relegation was a reality check for this football club and maybe some of the fans realised that.
“We got rid of some of the players and we have bounced back. You would never say relegation was good thing, but we cleared the decks.
“Nobody is getting carried away. There was a glimpse of it when we beat Villa 6-0, but feel the fans understood what could happen this season and what we needed to do. There has been level headedness and a lowering of expectations across the board.”