FOR years his was one of English football’s hard-luck stories, yet Steve Harper has been involved in some amazing occasions.
Over a decade spent largely watching "one of the best goalkeepers in the world" from the bench has taken him to some of football’s most famous stadia. Along the way he played in a Wembley FA Cup final, a Uefa Cup game in Rome’s Olympic Stadium and St James’ Park Champions League nights against Juventus and Dynamo Kiev.
But the Easington-born goalkeeper finds the prospect of Vicarage Road just as invigorating. Rome and the Twin Towers were one-off treats, but Harper will be at Watford today in the role he waited so long for, Newcastle United’s undisputed number one.
His displays at some of Britain’s least sexy grounds are contributing to the first chapter of what he hopes is his beloved club’s return to the stages they graced regularly and thrillingly in the early Noughties.
Harper is speaking at the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, its patron’s greatest legacy. A day after the 77th anniversary of Robson’s birth, there is also time to reflect on his footballing legacy to the city. Robson never lifted a trophy on Tyneside but memories of the European nights he brought about are treasured.
Sir Bobby passed away last summer after Newcastle’s relegation, the final unraveling of his work. Slowly it is being rebuilt, and the first step has been to cast off the awkward customers he was so adept at managing. "I am sure we can reach those dizzy heights again but realistically that is a long way off," admits Harper. "The stadium is there, the fanbase is there so that has to be the ultimate aim but our first aim is to get out of the Championship, stay in the Premier League and then build year on year.
"I have played in some of the Champions League nights and they were incredible nights both between the posts and on the bench. Having European football at St James’ Park when the Continent’s big-hitters used to come to Tyneside such as Juventus, Barcelona and Inter Milan was really special. But we have to be realists. We have to gain promotion before we can start thinking about nights like that again.
"For me personally the Juventus game (in 2002) stands out. I didn’t play at Blackburn on the Saturday and was then told by Sir Bobby in his own inimitable way I would be playing against Juventus in the Champions League. That was certainly a big change from an evening at Kingston Park with the reserves! It probably seems longer ago than it actually was. To finish third, fourth and fifth in the Premier League was a big credit to Sir Bobby." For some who tasted football’s headiest brews the Championship was not their cup of tea, but Harper had a different perspective.
"I am loving it now," he says. "To be part of a happy dressing room in a team top of the league is fantastic. I relish the Championship games just as much as those memorable nights under the bright lights of the Champions League. Once the whistle goes it is 11 v 11 on a grass pitch with one ball, it doesn’t matter who you are playing. You should treat each game the same whether you are playing Barcelona, Juventus, Middlesbrough, Blackpool or Scunthorpe. Players love playing football and when you haven’t played in a long time, when you do start playing regularly again you realise just how much you have missed it.
"I was second choice to one of the best goalkeepers in the world and people have to realise what Shay (Given) did for this club. Some of those times I would not wish on anybody. To go three or four years hardly ever playing was hard.
"I remember playing in Slovakia (against Dubnica in the 2005 Intertoto Cup) in July and we won 3-1. I thought I had done well and I never played again for the rest of the season. The other night was my 200th career appearance, which is probably not great for somebody that is 35 next month, but three years ago I was nearer 100 than 200 so I can’t complain. You can’t let it get you down."
While the pessimists predicted another Leeds United last summer, the optimists suggested relegation could cure Newcastle’s ills. The mercenaries were cut adrift while those more concerned with professional pride than pay packets closed ranks. You would be amazed how many fans were looking forward to trips to the likes of Scunthorpe and Blackpool because it had been a while since they had been to those places," he recalls. "The truly hard- core fans can remember the last time they went to some of the clubs outside the top division. I was amazed how many were looking forward to the team hopefully winning more often than not.
"We are a united Newcastle United. Everyone is in it together and covering each other’s back. People talk about cliques in dressing rooms but ours is a good place to be because the banter is flying about.
"It is enjoyable to be in a happy environment where you are winning more often than not. That is something that has been missing for a while. The difficult characters have moved on but we are not under-estimating the task ahead of us."
For more information on the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, visit www.sirbobbyrobsonfoundation.org.uk