Didn't take the usual path for footballers
28 August ~ As both a Newcastle United supporter and someone who (eventually) managed to grind my way to an Open University degree, I always felt a certain empathy with Steve Harper. He does, I concede, have more footballing ability than me but I liked him for more than being a decent goalkeeper. We are told that goalkeepers are different. Harper was different. Not content with completing a social sciences degree, he is also a qualified football referee and has expressed an interest in refereeing as a profession.
He is a talented cricketer and, apparently, no mean golfer. Nor was goalkeeping a certainty; as a youngster he attended Sheffield Wednesday's school of excellence and played as a centre-forward.
Academically capable, he deferred a place at Liverpool's John Moores University in 1993 and signed for Newcastle instead, though he didn't make his debut for the club until 1998. That appearance, almost symbolically, was as a substitute in a 3-1 home victory against Wimbledon, noted more for a two-goal debut by Duncan Ferguson, who was a kind of anti-Harper. When Harper appeared in the 1999 FA Cup final against Manchester United, it was only his eighth first-team start. In his 20 years at Newcastle there were 18 different managers, something from which people may like to draw their own conclusions, and 199 appearances.
Harper's most productive season, in terms of league games, was in 2009-10 after Newcastle had been relegated from the Premier League. He appeared in all but one of the season's 46 games as Newcastle won the Championship. That was a rare opportunity to appear on a consistent basis and he proved that he was a thoroughly reliable goalkeeper. Indeed, during one of his various outings on loan, he was sufficiently impressive for Huddersfield Town fans to vote him their Player of the Season in 1997-98.
While it may be hard to recall any jaw-dropping saves, it is equally difficult to recall many embarrassments. The only one of note was being beaten by one of Xabi Alonso's shoot-from-my-own-half specials for Liverpool in 2006. At least Harper had the minor consolation of knowing that the Spaniard had done this sort of thing before. Even then, the mild humiliation was caused by losing his footing and slipping over rather than a piece of idiocy or ineptitude.
There were loan spells at a few other clubs. He could have gone elsewhere but stayed at Newcastle. With many players, your first thought would be "he's only staying for the money" but it was impossible to attribute such thoughts to Harper – it came as no surprise when he announced that the proceeds of his testimonial match would be donated to charity. The son of a miner from Easington – his father was on strike throughout the 1984 dispute – Harper came across as a grounded and resolutely ordinary man and one whose background could be readily recognised by supporters. He was the complete antithesis of the spoilt superstar.
Steve Harper was never going to be a self-styled eccentric in the mode of John Burridge who was, oddly enough, an early mentor at Newcastle. Nor was he going to be one of the game's "characters". But, in his own quiet and rather intellectual way, he was a maverick. Tom Locke