Newcastle United might have given up on them, but the North East can still pull its weight in cup competitions.
Just ask Steve Harper, who has two in quick succession. The first, this afternoon at Wembley, you’ll know all about as Harper and Hull City look to write one of the FA Cup stories by upbraiding Arsenal and creating a slice of history.
The second, at Aston Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground a week on Thursday, is for the Newcastle School for Boys’ under-11 side that Harper coaches. With the veteran ‘keeper’s son James spearheading the attack, the young side has made the final of the national Danone Cup.
It is some achievement for a school that has only 25 boys in that particular year group.
“I’ve been working with them for the best part of three years and they’re a good bunch,” Harper reflects – blinking into the May sun after putting the team through its paces.
“When you get them at seven or eight, the ball is a bit alien to them, so you start teaching them the basics. You want them to enjoy having the football rather than panicking when they get the ball, and you start putting the building blocks in place.
“From a year group of 20 or 25, only half of them have ever played football. To have such a talented little group is some achievement. They’ve done really well to get to the national final and let’s hope they go one step further now.”
They will be taking on the cream of the country’s best small schools next week with the prestigious Danone Cup up for grabs. It is a step up for Harper’s boys, but they have nothing to be afraid of, having made their mark in North East schools football over the last few years.
“They’ve only lost one game in three years,” he says.
“And they then avenged it with a 6-0 win the next time they played them, so they’ve really progressed. They have lost a couple of penalty shoot-outs though, so I’ll be working on penalties next week before we go to Aston Villa!
“They’re a brilliant bunch and it’s a great school. My lad (James) goes and my youngest goes as well, and the school have been very helpful with welcoming me getting involved with them.”
Harper’s son James is a talented forward, having opted not to follow his father into the union of goalkeepers. It was a decision that Steve made for his 10-year-old offspring. “I told him there’s no future in goalkeeping,” he quips. He now alternates between playing through the middle and on the right wing.
“He’s a flying machine!” Harper says of his son.
“I think I’m going to need a paternity test with the speed of him. And he’s blond as well.”
Not that coaching his son hasn’t provided a few moments for the former Newcastle custodian.
“We’ve had our moments in the past. I used to coach his Saturday team as well. Our father-son relationship has certainly had its moments,” he said.
“You both learn from them. I suppose Steve Bruce has a bit of that with his son in the Hull team as well! When you get to know the kids, you realise there’s no point in shouting and bawling at them. You have to learn how to get your message across.
“The kids will respond to different things. One of them might need a gentle, arm-around-the-shoulder attitude, but you can be firmer with others. The important thing really is for these kids to enjoy it. That’s what playing football at this stage is about, and as long as they go to Birmingham and enjoy it, then they’ve achieved what they want to achieve.
“To win it would be fantastic, but as long as they go and do their best then they’ve done what we expect.”
Before he coaches his final, there is the small matter of this afternoon’s incredible swansong to a season where Harper has played 19 times.
Bruce faces the unenviable choice between Harper and Allan McGregor, who made his surprising return for the Tigers in their final Premier League game. The prospect of playing at Wembley again – possibly in his last ever match – is understandably exercising Harper’s mind.
“It’s fantastic to be there, it’s such an achievement. I think I’m the only one in the squad – although the manager keeps telling us he’s won it 85 times,” he said.
“I was there and lost it and I have been saying to the boys that when you have been there and lost one, you have 15 years of ‘What ifs?’ I just try to emphasise to them to go there and try and grasp it.
“I saw it both ways. I went there as a fan and in ‘98 I played in it. Two very different things, but if we had won that I don’t think I’d have had to buy a round in Newcastle for the rest of my life.
“It has been a fantastic season. I’ve made 19 appearances, which is beyond my wildest dreams, but I would snap your hand off to make it 20.”
Thoughts, inevitably, are turning to the next stage of his career for Harper and where he turns next.
He has an option of another year at the KC Stadium, and Bruce is keen to keep him in East Yorkshire with a Europa League campaign to negotiate. But Harper has begun the road into coaching, and admits he is “fighting the urge” to go into that full-time.
“I’m over for five days in Belfast next month to complete my A licence and that means I’m qualified to manage everywhere but the Premier League,” he said.
“I do enjoy it. If you’d asked me five years ago if I’d wanted to coach or manage I’d have looked at you like you were mad, but now I’m fighting the urge to go into it.
“I’m certainly considering it in the near future. The under-18 or under-21 thing might be a way to start, but if another opportunity came up I’m sure I could take the plunge.”