Steve Harper: I turned to counselling during my darkest days

TWO decades and plenty of water have passed under the Tyne bridge since his first day as a Newcastle United footballer, but for Steve Harper, some things never change.

TWO decades and plenty of water have passed under the Tyne bridge since his first day as a Newcastle United footballer, but for Steve Harper, some things never change.

So it comes to pass that his final week has been spent in a remarkably similar way to his first: working hard, cracking quick-witted quips and planning more success for the club he loves. The quirk of fate that has ensured he will play on Sunday means the blood and sweat have been exerted; we presume the tears will come later.

First there is the laughter that rebounds around the small changing room where Harper holds court to the Press men who have covered his career faithfully since 1993. Harper is naturally funny, regaling us with enough stories to fill a novel – never mind a two-page spread ahead of the final act of his black-and-white career.

But for all the smiles, there has been plenty of pain in the intervening 20 years. None more so than on his first day, when he arrived at Newcastle’s Maiden Castle training ground to be confronted by an angry John Burridge.

“My first day training was with Budgie at Maiden Castle and I thought I was going to die,” Harper says, succinctly.

“I was up and down, up and down. I thought he was trying to kill me. He was telling me I was too good-looking to be a goalkeeper, he was screaming at me, ‘You Italian-looking so and so’. I was hurting that day. I think he did it on purpose. I had come straight from college and I have not been up and down as much in the last 20 years.”

That was the conclusion to a “surreal” week that had seen him signed from Seaham Red Star.

“I remember Colin Suggett came to my mum and dad's house. They were offering me a one-year contract,” he said.

“I had a place at John Moores University in Liverpool which I then deferred for a year. One year, not 20! I have a picture in the house on the day I signed my contract.

“I was wearing a shirt and tie and Kevin Keegan had yellow shell-suit bottoms on. I am sure I could dig that out. Terry Mac wasn't much better. I still remember it. It has flown over.”

If those memories can make us all laugh, some are more painful to hear. One revelation – expressed publicly for the first time – is particularly important.

Far from the cruel caricature that was occasionally painted of a goalkeeper too settled in the North East and his role of able understudy to agitate for a move away, there have been times spent wrestling with his professional pride.

Harper calls these “the lows” at first, before eventually allowing the word depression to roll off his tongue. It will surprise many to read that seven years ago he took medication and visited a counsellor to help pull him back from the brink.

“They were tough times. It seems to be a bit more open now about these things, but I probably was a little bit depressed back in that time.

“When you have a good club like this and you have been part of it for a long time, it is only right that players admit to suffering. I was probably about 30 at the time, and it was really tough. You can't fight it yourself. You have to speak to people and get help. That is what I did.”

Revelations like this are part of the reason why no one should take for granted what Harper sacrificed to stay at Newcastle – usually as a result of chivvying from a manager.

“There have been times when it has been anything but comfortable,” he said. “The way I got through it was through the support of my family and particularly Lynsey, my wife, and by going to see a little old lady, a counsellor, and with medication from the doctors.

“It helps you through it because it was very tough and the more you try and fight it yourself it gets a hold of you. Fortunately more people are speaking of it now and it is almost more acceptable. But yeah, seven or eight years ago, having had that tough time, I like to keep an eye on players now who I think are maybe struggling. As an older pro, many is the time I have gone up to somebody who I think might be struggling and said: ‘Are you alright?’ And they have gone: ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And I have responded: ‘No, are you alright.’ I said to them – listen I have had a hard time once, let me know if you are struggling because I am here for you.”

As he lines up for the final time, there will be regrets. He admits that he should have pushed for a move – or at least more first-team football – under several managers.

“I probably blame Sir Bobby to be honest.

“I remember rapping on his door many a time and asking for a move and he said, ‘I need you, Shay might get injured. I need you to stay’. He had that persuasive, loveable thing when you might enter the room like a bear with a sore head and leave it giving him a hug! I should have done something about it back then.”

That begs the question: why didn’t he?

“I don’t think I had played enough games for people to come in and pay whatever they wanted for me at the time. There was uncertainty about me. People thinking, has he played enough games? There were whispers of this or that club but nothing concrete. For me, if I had left here at the time, you would have been dropping down the leagues. It just seemed to happen. I should have done something about it.”

This week has been a whirlwind, Harper barely able to comprehend the end of an association that has defined his adult life. That it ends with a match is quite remarkable. He said: “I have not set my mind to it yet. I probably would have if I was not playing, I'd probably have thought more about it.

“I will cross that bridge when I come to it. I am sure walking down the tunnel will be special. My kids will be mascots as well. I will be in game mode then.

“When the final whistle goes, hopefully we will be celebrating a good result. After that I don't know really. We will find out if there will be tears or not. Possibly. It is half my life. It will be very strange knowing that I will not be coming back.”

When he leaves, the last link with a triumphant but turbulent past will be broken. Newcastle will have to rely on others to inform newcomers about the values that underpin this wonderful football club.

Asked what message he would leave for any players who get the opportunity he had, Harper was typically erudite.

“Just give it your all, day in day out,” he said.

“At this club, the people, the fans and everyone, they know if you’ve put the shift in, day in day out and given your all out on the pitch, they’ll back you to the hilt.

“I think Jermaine Jenas said years ago that this place is like a goldfish bowl. It’s just the sort of place what everyone is doing, especially when you’re a footballer.

“So you have to do the right things to be a success at this club. It’s a great club to play for, but it can be a difficult club to play for and we’ve seen that with some of the players who have gone elsewhere and succeeded, who have found it tough here. It can be a heavy shirt, the Newcastle United shirt and you need to stand up and be counted.”

Nobody could argue that, over two decades, Harper didn’t do that.


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