Centre stage at last for patient understudy Harper

In Shay Given's shadow for 12 years but Newcastle's new No 1 never lost the self-belief forged as a kid from the coalfields during the bitter miners' strike
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Steve Harper takes your pen into his left hand and starts drawing a map. "Those are the 'A' streets," he says, "those are the 'B' and those are the 'C'. That's Seaside Lane, up here is 'Canada', where we lived, and those are the allotments I'd run through every day to meet my father after work. That's the pit. Down here is Memorial Avenue – there are 81 trees, one each for the men who died in the 1951 Easington pit disaster."

Harper then uses the pen to sign an autograph for a patient hunter, and when he returns to his subject it is to say: "To me it wasn't an unusual upbringing. To me it's natural and I'm proud of it. I love Easington and I'll defend it till I die."

Harper had been asked to run through the back streets of his memory of a childhood in the County Durham coalfield village of Easington. We are on the brink of the 25th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike, which went national on 12 March 1984, and Harper remembers it well. One of modern British history's most convulsive periods is part of him, and he of it.

That makes Harper a different sort of football man, and at Newcastle United, 20 miles north of Easington, the goalkeeper has had a different sort of career. It could be said to be upside down. Soon to be 34 and into his 16th season at St James' Park, Harper has just seized the No 1 spot at the club, rather than having just relinquished it. He has longevity but "low mileage", and though his chance has come late due to Shay Given's 12 years on Tyneside, Harper's determination is apparent.

"The big thing I got from my upbringing," he says, "from my parents, from the miners, was the work ethic. I broke my thumb and ruptured ligaments in my first year as a pro, and only my attitude got me through, I think. I'll be impressing that upon my children."

Harper's children live, as he says, "behind gates, but then society has changed. Back then you would let your kids wander the streets. You'd have your breakfast and disappear for the day. At Easington Colliery you'd be on the beach or in the streets playing football and you'd come home when you were hungry. There were no mobile phones, every kid did the same. You'd have your tea at somebody's house, that's what everybody did. There was community spirit. When the strike happened it was a very tough time".

Harper was almost nine when the miners' strike began in 1984, that Orwellian year. He was almost 10 when it ended. His father, Alan, worked at Easington Colliery. The strike lasted a year; Alan Harper was out for a year.

The miners wanted "coal not dole". The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, wanted to batter the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill, into submission. To those of Harper's age and above this is familiar, but at Newcastle United, as at most football clubs, the vast major-ity of the playing staff are younger. This is last-century stuff, history.

Harper himself says that watching Billy Elliot, filmed in Easington, provoked memories. Thatcher's violent victory meant the end of an industry that had helped fuel clubs such as Newcastle with supporters and also players. Harper may be the last in that line.

"I just remember what a tough time it was," he recalls. "I was a young lad who used to go down to the mine at four in the afternoon and wait outside for my dad to come out of the doors. I can picture it vividly even now. It was up the end of the street, through the allotments and I was there; I'd see him coming out and walk back up with him. A lot of young lads did the same.

"Easington was a very productive mine and in a town like that, to lose the colliery, the main income – for a year – hit very hard. I don't think it was so much the strike itself but the fact it went on so long that made it very hard for families."

Harper is at pains to point out that he is no victim. For that he thanks his parents, and the NUM.

"I was fortunate that my mum, Hazel, was a nurse working a couple of nights in Hartlepool General. So although we'd lost the main income, we still had an income, and as an only child I was better off than most.

"I can't remember getting a food parcel but I know it was really tough for others. I remember seeing queues outside the Miners' Hall at Christmas time, where other unions, other countries and charities, had banded together to provide presents for miners' children. That showed the support that was there. That's nine months in, when it's really biting hard into families.

"People were very resourceful, they went down to the beach to gather the coal that had washed up there, and the miners were very protective of the children. You weren't really aware of it all, you'd see the pictures of the confrontations and of picket lines on the TV but the miners, the NUM, kept the children away. The NUM was a powerful union, the miners protected their own.

"But you knew you were part of it. Easington Colliery Club had a very good Sunday morning team, and still do by all accounts, but in that football team, without naming names, there were miners and there was a policeman. I remember it being very divisive. It divided communities and occasionally families. People were called "scabs" and, again not naming names, people who were labelled that at the time would still be tarred with that. Feelings are running nowhere near as high as at the time, but if someone's name was to crop up, then you would definitely get someone saying he was a scab – 25 years later."

Alan Harper declined to join us. The miners did not enjoy the press coverage of the strike and, 25 years on, he has not forgotten.

"I think all miners were angry," says his son, "and if you got talking to a miner about it now, then the hairs on the back of his neck would stand up in passionate defence – especially at Easington, with it being a productive mine. Feelings would still be like that. Whenever I speak to my dad about it he is still passionately defensive."

When the strike ended, Harper says he remembers "a sense of relief", but Easington Colliery, like the rest, was soon wound down and closed forever in 1993. He remembers shaking the hand of Neil Kinnock, the then leader of the Labour Party, at the Durham Miners' Gala around 1985. Harper is "not militant" now but politics is an interest, and he has just finished Barack Obama's autobiography.

Alan Harper has had caretaker jobs and Harper's uncle and aunt still run the Colliery Club but Easington, like many former pit villages, has struggled. Official statistics have declared it the most deprived place in England. Obesity is on the increase.

"Shay was a big one for taking the mickey," Harper says of his friend Given. "When we went down the A19, he would say to the lads, 'There's where all the benefit people are'. We had a lot of banter about that. I've not been to Donegal."

For 12 years Harper and Given worked together. There were spells when Harper was selected ahead of the Irishman, and Harper played in the FA Cup final defeat by Manchester United in 1999. In 2002 he also played when Newcastle beat Juventus 1-0 in the Champions' League at St James'.

But Given was an obdurate, gifted team-mate. "You had to sit back and admire him, but that could be very hard. I did go and see managers – all of them – and ask to play, here or on loan. That opportunity was not afforded, but because I didn't spout my mouth off people assume that I was just happy to be sitting there."

Harper wasn't. But he understands the question about his perceived lack of ambition. If Given had not left for Manchester City in January then Harper would be preparing to leave Newcastle this summer. Yet he remains, a new deal signed 16 years after the first. "I've got a picture of me signing that [first] contract and Kevin's wearing yellow shellsuit bottoms."

Kevin is Keegan. Harper has been present for both of Keegan's managerial eras at St James', one long, one short. The club are still reeling from Keegan's departure in September and, with a legal case pending, the issue is sensitive.

"All I could say about Kevin Keegan is that it's disappointing," Harper says. "He lights this place up and it's unfortunate what has happened, whatever the circumstances." But Harper senses a thaw in the acrimony that surrounded the club post-Keegan, when fans rebelled and the owner, Mike Ashley, put Newcastle up for sale. There is affection for Joe Kinnear, shock at his illness, and Ashley's increasingly frequent appearances at the training ground are welcomed.

"There's a presence of people from upstairs daily at the training ground," Harper says. "Some have moved on-site, I think Joe has played a big part in that. He [Ashley] came and said hello to me when I was waist-deep in an ice bath, which was a surprise. It's good to see him around the place because he is very enthusiastic."

Although Harper says Newcastle are "of course in a relegation battle", the improved mood within has been reflected in three games unbeaten. Bolton Wanderers away today and Manchester United at home on Wednesday will test that sentiment. Hard times could beckon yet, though Harper knows about those. "People just keep on expecting us to fold, to crumble. But we've responded pretty well. We're responding."

Life and Times

Name: Stephen Alan Harper.

Date of birth: 14 March 1975.

Height: 1.88m (6ft 2in).

Early life: Grew up in Easington, a mining village in County Durham. Was a Liverpool fan, with goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar his idol, and watched his first match at Anfield in the 1982–83 season.

Career: In 1993, signed for Newcastle from local club Seaham Red Star. In his 16 years at the club he has been a perennial understudy although he did play in the 1999 FA Cup Final, which Newcastle lost 2–0 to Manchester United, and in the Champions' League in 2002, keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 home win against Juventus. Signed a new contract in January 2009 (when Shay Given moved to Manchester City) which will keep him at the club until 2012.

Other interests: An FA-approved referee who may take up the whistle when he stops playing. Has a social sciences degree from the Open University, enjoys reading and plays golf with Alan Shearer.

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