Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper: My darkest times
As the popular Newcastle goalkeeper bows out after 20 years at the club, he tells Martin Hardy about the private battle with depression that threatened his career
Dark times, Steve Harper calls them as conjures the image in jolting words. He is good company – a loyal club man and a miner's son holding court on the 20 years' service he has given to Newcastle United. With that about to end on Sunday afternoon, in the Premier League against Arsenal, a reflective conversation turns to a spell in his career eight years ago.
"I was struggling, really struggling," he says. Between the start of the 2001 season and the end of the 2005-06 campaign, Harper played just 16 games of first-team football. Only two were in the Premier League. He calls them the wilderness years, and then tells of how dark that period was, of how he had to turn to medical help because of the scale of the depression that struck.
"There have been times when it has been anything but comfortable," he adds. "The way I got through it was with the support of my family and particularly Lynsey, my wife; by going to see a little old lady, a counsellor, and with medication from the doctors. It helps you through it because it was very tough and the more you try to fight it yourself, it gets a hold of you.
"They were tough times. It seems to be a bit more open now about these things but I probably was a little bit depressed back in that time. It's only right that players admit to suffering. I was about 30 at the time, and it was really tough. You need help. You can't fight it yourself. You have to speak to people and get help.
"Having had that tough time, I like to keep an eye on players now who I think are struggling. I have gone up to somebody and said: "Are you alright?" And they've gone: "Yeah, yeah." And I've said: "No, are you alright? Listen, I've had a hard time once, let me know if you're struggling. I'm here for you."
Harper's tale begins nearly a decade before that period, in 1993. That was the day he deferred a place at John Moores University in Liverpool, just for a year. There is still a picture kicking around Harper's house of the day he signed as a professional footballer, sat next to Newcastle's most successful manager of modern times, Kevin Keegan, who was wearing a pair of yellow shell suit bottoms. Harper felt out of place in a shirt and tie. On his first day, he met John Burridge, his goalkeeping coach. Burridge was so hard he was brought up in Concrete Street and suffice to say that by the time Harper returned to his mum and dad's house in Easington that night, he thought Burridge wanted him dead.
"We were training at Maiden Castle and I thought I was going to die," he says. "I thought he was trying to kill me. He went, 'You're too good looking to be a goalkeeper you Italian looking so and so.' I was hurting that day. I think he did it on purpose. I'd come straight from college and I've not been up and down as much in the last 20 years. I was sore. How did it feel driving into work as a professional footballer? It felt surreal."
Much water has flowed under the Tyne Bridge since then. Harper has played under 18 different managerial reigns at Newcastle in that time, 12 permanent, six would now be termed interim. "Too many," he adds. His other club – aside from six loan spells – was Seaham Red Star, from the Northern League, who he left to move to St James' Park. A sense of humour has helped in the 20 years that followed, as has determination and stoicism. They do not serve bacon sandwiches in the canteen at Newcastle's training ground any more.
There have been other blows. It took six years for his debut and he would have left on loan but for Sir Bobby Robson's enthusiasm. "I'd enter his office like a bear with a sore head and leave it giving him a hug."
There was a spell when he ousted Shay Given, an FA Cup final appearance, talk of England, starts in the Champions League, relegation and then promotion with the most clean sheets in a season in the club's history. He played against Arsenal in 2011, when Newcastle trailed 4-0 at half-time. "I went into the dressing room and said, 'Lads, if we put up the white flags, we'll lose 10-nil.'" They famously came back to draw 4-4.
"I think rollercoaster is the word," he says, smiling. "It's almost a bi-polar football club, You're either heading for the stars, like the Champions League, or you're going to be relegated. There is not enough middle ground. Everything is rosy or the world is caving in. It's a great club to play for, but the Newcastle shirt can be heavy and you need to stand up and be counted.
"The best player I've played with would have to be Alan Shearer. The daftest? Steven Taylor, or Tino Asprilla. And of course Budgie [Burridge]. He was crazy. He used to ring my house when I lived at home and my dad would answer, and Budgie would say, 'Is Stevie there? Tell him it's his dad.'"
Management seems a natural follow on. There has to be something else now. After two decades, Harper will be a free man this summer. That vocation – he is doing his coaching badges – appeals. He is a qualified referee. His media work, asking the questions this time, has increased in recent months. There has to be something because there will not be another appearance in a Newcastle shirt after Sunday.
He calls it karma that Rob Elliot was sent off with nine minutes to go at Queen's Park Rangers last weekend. Alan Pardew said it was like a man walking his dog on a Sunday afternoon as Harper strolled off the bench for the biggest nine minutes of the season. "Those final minutes probably dragged on for Newcastle fans, but the time flew by for me," he says.
Twenty years have flown by. Harper's karma is that Tim Krul is already injured. It means he will get a final hurrah on Sunday, at St James' Park. His three children, James, nine, Olivia, seven and Leo, two, will be mascots. "No," he says definitively. "I haven't thought what I'll feel like when I walk out of the ground for the last time on Sunday. Will there be tears? Possibly."
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