Every few years, there comes a time when the winter is littered with retirement announcements of notable figures. This summer sees some of the greatest careers fading with the winter sun, with Sir Alex Ferguson leading the way. Closely following on his heels are Jupp Heynckes, Paul Scholes, Jamie Carragher, David Beckham, and Michael Owen, to name but a few.
The word “loyal” is bandied around too loosely these days, especially when a player/manager is at the end of his career. True, players like Paul Scholes and Jamie Carragher have served a single club – and so will Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs, and others. One club men, there is no doubt about that. They have played their hearts out for the only club they have known, become part of the furniture, and their loyalty and exploits on the field of play have already been formed into songs by the adoring supporters.
But shouldn’t loyalty be measured in the face of adversity? Without resorting to analogies from the field of battle, one can only say that when your backs are against the wall, when success seems distant and your ambitions are taking a battering, that is when loyalties are unequivocally tested. Players like Scholes and Giggs, and to a lesser degree Carragher and Gerrard, haven’t really faced such a situation. They all have won numerous trophies at domestic level, and have been richly rewarded for their services – monetarily and emotionally, in terms of the fans’ appreciation and love. They have deserved it for their performances, and no one could say they haven’t commanded the respect that is showered upon them.
One then has to search for a word other than “loyal” to describe Steve Harper. The Newcastle goalkeeper, forever an understudy to the likes of Pavel Srní?ek, Shaka Hislop, Shay Given and Tim Krul, will finally be leaving St. James’ Park at the end of this season. Having signed for the north-east giants in 1993 from his local club Seaham Red Star at the age of 18, Harper has spent an incredible twenty years with the Geordies. In those twenty years, the veteran ‘keeper has made a total of 198 appearances – 45 of which came in Newcastle’s year in the Championship in 2009-10.
At an average of ten appearances per season, it’s rather cruel that Harper will end with 199 appearances for the Tyneside club, with this weekend’s game against Arsenal being his last. But it has been typical of Harper’s time at Newcastle, and anything else would gloss over the truth.
Born in Eastington, Durham, in the midst of the fierce Tyne-Wear rivalry, Harper was picked up from his local club by Newcastle as a back-up goalkeeper for Pavel Srní?ek. Harper went on to make a solitary appearance [in all competitions] over the next three seasons – while on loan at Bradford City in Division Two. The trend continued until the 1998-99 season, when Harper made his first appearance for Newcastle. However, the five-year wait didn’t prove to be much of a respite due to arrival of one Shay Given. Harper’s game time was limited, and he fed off Given’s scraps for the next ten years, making 117 appearances, most of them due to Given’s injuries.
The goalkeeper’s position is such that it is understood that the number two would only play if the top dog is either injured, suspended, or the game in question is of little importance. So, an argument can very well be made that Harper knew what he was signing up for when he joined as a teenager way back in 1993.
But Harper’s case is curious not for the lack of game time, but because of his inability to get himself a transfer. No fan or manager would hold it against a player if he asked for a transfer purely because he wanted to play. Looking back, Harper wishes he had done things differently. However, the powers of persuasion of managers like Sir Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan and Graeme Souness meant that Harper spent his best years on the bench, waiting for Given to leave something for him. Such was Harper’s misfortune that there were times Given played on even when injured, like in the Magpies’ Intertoto Cup campaign in 2006 [suspected broken thumb].
Of the twenty years that Harper has spent at Newcastle, ten years saw him not make a single appearance for the Geordies in the league. His best years coincided with the arrival of Given, and such was the impact of making just 16 appearances [in all competitions] between 2001-02 and 2005-06, that Harper spiralled into depression. What followed were sessions with counsellors and medication to help him out of his living hell.
It would be convenient to label Harper as unambitious for not getting a transfer. But not only would that be wrong, it would also insult the keeper’s commitment to the club. Post the Bosman ruling of 1995, Harper could have refused to sign new deals and, instead, could have waited for his contract to end. But his undying loyalty to the club he loved meant that he signed contract extensions as and when they were offered. This was perfectly illustrated in January 2009, when Harper signed a new three-year contract even though the Geordies were on the path to being relegated. While Newcastle managed to keep most of their squad intact for the following season, Given moved to Manchester City, leaving Harper to deal with the mediocrity that is the Championship.
And deal he did. Having waited sixteen long years to become Newcastle’s first choice custodian, Harper kept a club record of 21 clean sheets in 2009-10 as Newcastle won back promotion to the top flight in emphatic fashion. While he kept his place in between the sticks the following year, an injury allowed Tim Krul to gain a foothold. To make things worse, Harper lost his place on the bench to Rob Elliot in 2011-12. As luck would have it, Krul’s injury and Elliot’s dismissal last week against QPR has allowed Harper to finish his time at Newcastle with a start, barring an embarrassing decision from Newcastle. And one can’t discount such an event, considering the board’s decision to not offer an extension to Harper or even have the courtesy to offer him a backroom job. Keeping in mind the fickle nature of Mike Ashley, it would hardly be a surprise if the owner wasn’t aware of the fact the departing ‘keeper is the longest-serving player in the history of Newcastle United.
Harper might not have been the world’s greatest goalkeeper, but he didn’t lack ability. He might not have had the killer instinct or the selfish streak that one expects from today’s “professionals”, but when he leads his team onto the grass at St. James’ Park on Sunday – as he rightfully should – there will be 52, 404 voices who will honour the man who once stood tall against the likes of Juventus in the Champions League. A man who faced adversity, without any thought of just reward. A man who reminded us what loyalty truly is.