First published in True Faith issue 104:
At the end of this season, Steve Harper’s long career with Newcastle United finally came to an end. Joining in 1993 from Seaham Red Star, the 20 years since make Harper the longest-serving player in the history of the club. Signed by Kevin Keegan in the close season following promotion, Harper’s career spans the club’s entire Premier League era, in which time it’s been transformed a number of times. Even the stadium is barely recognisable from then, never mind the staff. The one constant has been Harper.
Only a shade under 200 appearances in that time tell their own story however. In comparison Jimmy Lawrence who was at the club for 18 years in the Edwardian era played almost 500 games. Harper will be remembered as a perennial understudy, though it’s usually forgotten nowadays that for a long period he was considered the equal of Shay Given, and more than one Newcastle manager referred to them as the best goalkeeping pairing at any Premier League club. The Irishman eventually won that battle for keeps however, coming within a whisker of becoming the club’s record holder for appearances made, all watched from the sidelines by Harper. He was a first choice for a couple of seasons following Given’s departure in 2009, and broke the club record for number of clean sheets in a season during 2009/10 in the Championship. He was an important member of the players’ committee who were so influential both on and off the pitch in returning Newcastle to the Premier League and re-establishing them there under Chris Hughton and then Alan Pardew. In an era when player loyalty is commonly thought to be only to themselves, Harper is a true rarity, a one-club man in the pro game. Even rarer, he was a genuinely talented player who spent most of his career at a single club while not being selected. Why on earth did he stay?
He undoubtedly could have been main keeper at any number of other top-level clubs, and his career and form would have improved through playing more often. The temptation must have been great, especially considering that internationally he had hardly any competition to speak of in the early 2000s, only a small percentage of top-level clubs fielding English keepers at the time, and regular football would surely have put him in contention for an international call up.
If he was just in it for the money, one way to prolong a career and money-earning potential is to avoid injury and wear and tear. The surest way of achieving that is if you miss out on the physical grind of putting your body on the line, week-in week-out. On the other hand, that logic taken to its extreme would see the players who earn most from their careers being the ones who don’t play at all and it most certainly doesn’t work like that. The classic money-grabber in these agent-blighted times chases the cash by moving as often as possible. Did Demba Ba nobly move to Chelsea to improve his chances of regular selection or to double his pay packet? I have no idea if Harper ever had an agent but if he did they must have been tearing their hair out most of the time and counting the easiest money they’d ever make the rest of it.
Maybe he was just lazy, lacking in the drive required to make the transition from talented to greatness. Perhaps being in his comfort zone at Newcastle suited him nicely. Even if that’s so, should footballers be expected to not just be different to the general public but better than them? Many people in all walks of life have little or no real ambition and live their lives not for their work, however thrilling others may find it, but for their free time. I think we’ve all got the idea by now that expecting footballers to be role models for society is nothing short of absurd. It would be just as absurd to be surprised or disappointed when they show themselves to be truly typical of other ordinary people everywhere. Is it really so shocking that Harper didn’t chase personal goals which he may not have cared about?
It’s certainly harsh to suspect the worst of someone merely for failing to show signs of being as mercenary as all the other players you criticise for it. I often tell myself I could have been a high-flying City of London binman had I not chosen to sit on a chair in the North-East for 8 hours a day. I’d like to think Harper’s a man who was happy with his lot professionally and who had a family he didn’t want to uproot in the pursuit of glory. If a little bit of loyalty to the club and a lack of ego sneak in there too, those are values that can only be commended.
Whatever his reasons for staying at the club in the face of orthodox career advice, no one could deny that the club only gained from it. Over most of the last 20 years we’ve got used to not needing to worry about our keeper getting injured, with such a fine, experienced, dependable backup ready to step in. For the rest of the time when he’s been first choice those qualities have been to the benefit of the team’s performances. Football changes constantly and maybe those changes ensure we won’t see his like again.