Saturday 14th September 2013
Wednesday saw the likes of Alan Shearer, David Ginola, Andrei Shevchenko, Paulo Maldini and Franco Baresi get together to celebrate Steve Harper’s career that took in 20 years at Newcastle United. First and foremost the proceeds for this testimonial went to Great North Children’s Hospital, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the Newcastle United Foundation, so it’s for more than worthy causes (apart from the latter one! *INSERT WINKING EMOTICON HERE*), which is the main thing. And Harper deserves one for being at the club so long. But for a man who must have spent a massive amount of time dedicating his life to football as a kid and beyond to get anywhere near a place in Newcastle’s team, to then virtually squander a career on the bench – apart from the club’s 2009-10 Championship campaign -is pretty sad.
I don’t think it’s anybody’s business to question the ambitions of another person, whether it’s someone settling for a role at Tesco’s for life, or Matthew Le Tissier staying at Southampton when he could have joined any number of top clubs that were winning trophies. It’s up to them, but Steve Harper is a footballer, that’s what he does. He was there, he was in, he had beaten millions of people to get in that Newcastle squad (millions when you take into account how many youngsters play football dreaming of doing it for a living, whatever club it is), and for that, we should applaud him. But he didn’t make the most of it. We all have dreams and ambitions and most of us fail at them, but Harper had both feet already in his dream world. He was working hard in training, and he could have joined a number of other clubs, but he basically had a free season ticket for Newcastle in all his time there. Most football supporters would train with the stars and sit on the bench for free, so in that sense, Harper is a winner compared to most of us football fans, but in terms of a first-team football career, his has been virtually non-existent.
Harper has said that he thought about leaving St. James’ Park under Bobby Robson, but was coaxed into staying by the former England manager who said he would give him more first team football. You can understand that being told this by Robson of all people would make him want to stay at his home town club, but how about all the years since then? (Robson departed in 2004). He’d already been there for 11 years aching his arse off on numerous benches by the end of Robson’s reign!
If you take into account Manchester United’s famous Youth Cup winning side of 1992 – Giggs, Beckham, Scholes an’ all – some of those players didn’t even make it at lower level. Harper must have had something going for him considering a succession of managers at Newcastle (18 including four in an interim role) kept him at the club throughout all those years; which would indicate that if he was good enough to be a number two/number three keeper throughout that time, he undoubtedly had the ability to have had a solid career in one of the three tiers below the Premiership at least. He must feel at least a tinge of embarrassment at the fact he didn’t broaden his footballing horizons and go to a club where he would receive regular football.
Number two and three goalkeepers are vital for back-up at clubs – it’s a squad game after all – so he was needed, but they usually leave once it’s apparent they will never make that number one spot their own. If he became first choice keeper for another side then the second and third choice ones at that club would bide their time for a period, but not 20 years! They would move on because that’s the nature of football.
Anyone that gets a professional contract like Harper has done is, out of all the millions who play football and dream of making a living from it, extremely talented. They would be the outstanding player in their local sides, often competing against older age groups as they are usually too good for their own. And as Nick Hornby stated in his book, Fever Pitch, unlike musicians or people in other arts, you will never find an untapped genius footballer, tortured by his art.
But it’s funny how many players are accused of just sitting on the bench picking up their wages like it’s a terrible, merciless thing, while Harper is hailed as a ‘one-of-a-kind, loyal one club man’. Even with his career finished as a player at Newcastle, he has now gone to Hull City to spend 99 per cent of his employment time on their bench rather than finding first team football elsewhere. As his fellow Hull team mate, Danny Graham, said this week of his decision to leave Sunderland for the Tigers this summer, ”I could have quite happily sat around but I learned from a very young age you need to play. It’s massive and I knew it was time to leave.” Why didn’t Harper?
When the words, ‘‘happily sitting on the bench picking up their wages,’’ are uttered in that order, they are always used in derisory terms. But it isn’t when it comes to Harper even though this is what he did and will undoubtedly continue to do at Hull. Why is that? By all accounts he is not an arrogant, diva of a footballer where people will pick up on any indiscretion and blow it up out of all proportion unlike ones who have a somewhat bad reputation like Ashley Cole for example. A player like Cole would be crucified in the press and on the fan forums if he did the same.
I think ‘good luck to Steve Harper – you were at your local side and got to watch the club play every week’. As I said, he deserves some plaudits and recognition for doing better than millions of other people by getting anywhere near a squad place in an English Premier League team, and he is known as a decent human being throughout football, which is the most important thing. But does he really deserve so much accolade for settling for a place on the bench for virtually his whole career while many other players are lambasted for supposedly ‘not caring’ whether they play or not?
What do you think it is that makes Steve Harper stand out from footballers that are deemed not to care whether they sit on the bench as long as they pick up their wages?
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