Harper on Newcastle and his south coast switch

You might not expect a goalkeeper with almost 300 appearances to his name to remember much about a five-match loan spell eight years ago. But Steve Harper is the exception.

By Nick Szczepanik • 18 September 2019

By Rex/Shutterstock
Steve Harper

County Durham-born Steve is best known for his 199 first-team appearances for Newcastle United, Albion’s opponents at St James’ Park this Saturday. After joining from his local club, Seaham Red Star, in 1993, he represented the Mags in Champions League and Uefa Cup ties, the 1999 FA Cup final and Premier League and Championship matches. But in autumn 2011 he played five games for the Albion under Gus Poyet.

“It was just a month on loan but I enjoyed it,” he says. “I wasn’t involved in the first team at Newcastle at the time and I was actually watching my son play rugby on a Sunday morning when I got a call asking if I could play for Brighton the next evening. I flew down on the Monday morning, went to the stadium, signed the loan forms, and I was straight in against West Ham at home, in at the deep end despite not having played for a while.”

By Paul Hazlewood
Steve Harper signs for Albion

Albion lost 1-0, the only goal scored by Steve’s former Toon team-mate Kevin Nolan. “Gus told me how he wanted to play, which was different to how I’d played previously. He wanted the modern, dynamic type of goalkeeper who would come for the ball. The left back, Marcos Painter, had the ball and I showed for it as Gus had requested but he passed it into the middle of the pitch where Nolan robbed Liam Bridcutt and put it in before I could recover my position. I said to Gus afterwards ‘I’m not doing that again! I understand where you’re coming from but it’s a little outside my comfort zone so I think I’ll just play how I’ve always played.’ And after that it was okay.”

His first clean sheet for the club followed in a goalless draw at Birmingham. After a 1-0 defeat at Watford came a 2-0 home victory over Barnsley and he left after a 3-0 defeat at Southampton that included an outrageously bad penalty decision by referee Peter Walton, who pointed to the spot after a foul that replays showed was well outside the box, and a red card for assistant manager Mauricio Taricco for disputing the award.

“It was 0-0 at half time and we were doing well,” Steve recalls. “I’d done a lot of homework on penalties with the goalkeeping coach because Ricky Lambert had scored something like 34 penalties in a row. He got two in that game and I tried to mess with his head. For one, I was actually standing facing the crowd when the referee blew the whistle and he put it in the net and I turned round and protested. I persuaded the ref to make him retake it. Unfortunately, he put it in the top corner. But I was trying my bit of psychology even if it didn’t make me very popular with the Southampton fans. But in a big game and down to ten men you have to try to do what you can.

“But five games, five goals conceded, three in that one game when the referee had a big influence, and a couple of clean sheets wasn’t bad. I would have stayed longer given the opportunity. The training ground at the time wasn’t the best, so I’m pleased to see that they’ve got a fantastic new facility. But Brighton was a good club, well set up. Lewis Dunk was there and I’m pleased to see him doing well. I always thought he had big potential, and there are plenty of good people there. They all made me feel very welcome and I’m happy to see that the club is doing well.

“And Brighton is lovely city, very cosmopolitan. I stayed in Hove and my wife came down for a couple of days and loved it, walking round The Lanes. I can see why people move down there. It’s a fabulous part of the world.”

He made nine more appearances for Newcastle the following season before lending his experience to Hull City, where he featured in the Premier League for two more campaigns along with former Albion favourite Liam Rosenior, now on the coaching staff at Derby County. “Rosey was a good professional but also a real student of the game. He was fascinated by tactics and systems and was always talking about his first job interview as a coach and his philosophy. I’m not at all surprised that he has followed that path although he was doing well on television too, a really incisive pundit.”

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Steve Harper in action for Newcastle

Newcastle are Steve’s club, though, and he relished the experience of playing for some of the most passionate supporters in the country. “It’s a great place to play, with 52,000 people roaring you on,” he says. “And when it’s a united football club and the team are on the front foot and the fans get behind them, they are not just a 12th man, they are a 13th and a 14th man as well. Of course, when things aren’t going so well and the fans are frustrated, then it takes a special character and a thick skin to play out there. All I ever said to new signings was: ‘These people would love to swap places with you. All they want to see is you giving one hundred percent and showing pride in wearing the shirt. Then they’ll support you all day long.’

“I was fortunate enough to play at St James’ Park on some Champions League nights, and in the iconic 4-4 draw with Arsenal. We were 4-0 down after 25 minutes and the fans were rightly upset with what they were seeing. But to be able to turn that round, 4-1, 4-2 and finally 4-4 and get them behind you and see the effect that has on the opposition, that was the emotional roller-coaster of being a footballer for Newcastle United all in 90 minutes.”

The fact that the club has not been able to reward those fans with a trophy since 1969 is a frustration. “The FA Cup finals of 1998 and 99 were symptomatic of Newcastle’s luck,” Steve says. “In 98 they came up against Arsenal going for the double and then Manchester United in 99 as they went for an unprecedented treble. The Keegan years were as close as they got to winning the Premier League and people concentrate on the great entertainers blowing it, but they forget what an unbelievable run Manchester United went on.

“Times have changed since then, with billionaires coming in and buying clubs and investing hundreds of millions of pounds and distorting the playing field but it is important to carry on the dream that the club can get back to the top table, which is what all supporters hope for. Leicester have shown that it is still possible.” 

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Chris Hughton during his time as Newcastle manager

Steve played for a Who’s Who of managers on Tyneside, including Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Sir Bobby Robson, Graeme Souness, Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer, Alan Pardew – and Chris Hughton, for whom he played 45 times as Newcastle won the Championship title to bounce back to the top flight at the first attempt after relegation in 2009.

“I think the world of Chris Hughton,” he says. “He came in at an incredibly difficult, turbulent time after relegation. It was a fractured club and he was the perfect man for the job, very respectful, but a very good, tactically astute football man and he made some big decisions that year. At times he left out Kevin Nolan, Alan Smith, Joey Barton, Nicky Butt. There was a myth at the time that the players were picking the team but that was complete nonsense. Chris was the man at the centre of a perfect storm who steered us through some very choppy waters. He did a wonderful job and I don’t think he got enough credit. It was no surprise to me to see him go on to do an excellent job at Birmingham City and then at Brighton.

“Keegan and Robson were both brilliant man managers. Keegan just made you feel ten feet tall. I always say that after ten minutes talking to Kevin Keegan, the world is a better place and the same with Sir Bobby. He was so enthusiastic, with a passion for everything, not just football. He’d talk about a beautiful door frame for ten minutes! He had a zest for life and an infectious personality. They both revitalised the club at different times. We were a game away from going down to the third tier when Keegan took over and bottom of the Premier League when Sir Bobby came in and we finished fourth, third and fifth and played in the Champions League. That shows you the effect that both had, men you’d run through brick walls for.”

Steve also went into coaching and is Northern Ireland’s goalkeeping coach after recently leaving a similar post with Newcastle’s academy for family reasons. “I was lead academy goalkeeping coach but my son is there now as an under-9 goalkeeper so I wanted to give him some space, give him the best opportunity to succeed without me being there as a coach. I didn’t think that would be fair. So now I am the Northern Ireland goalkeeping coach and that is brilliant. We have started the Euro 2020 campaign well in an incredibly difficult group with Germany and Holland in there too. I’m really enjoying that and also work for the Premier League as a match delegate.”

As a proud son of the North-East, Steve is also willing to rule on a topic that has recently been debated on Albion fan message boards: which is the better away trip, Manchester or Newcastle? “I have just finished a Master’s degree in Manchester so I have been there on and off over the last two and a half years and I know what a wonderful city Manchester is,” Steve says. “But there is no comparison with Newcastle, sorry.

“I’m sure every fan of a Premier League club looks for the date of their fixture away to Newcastle and says: ‘We have to go.’ And of course that’s not just for the match and the stadium but the wonderful hospitality and atmosphere around a night out in Newcastle.

“Of course, when I was a player I would rarely go out but I recently had to pick someone up there and saw some of the sights and heard some of the sounds of what goes on at The Quayside and in the city centre on a weekend. And I’m sure the Brighton fans won’t be disappointed.”