Hughton expects experience to help Harper come back firing

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The Independent Football

Newcastle United manager Chris Hughton is convinced goalkeeper Steve Harper will return as good as ever after his lengthy injury lay-off.

The 35-year-old is facing 12 weeks on the sidelines after damaging a ligament in his shoulder during the 1-0 Barclays Premier League win at Everton on 18 September.

However, Hughton is confident Harper will be back to play a key role once again. He said: "Particularly with goalkeepers, I don't think the age aspect comes into it. What you perhaps lose a little bit in age, you gain in experience, as Steve showed last season when he was outstanding. We would expect Steve to come back firing and looking into get straight back into that goalkeeping spot."

In the meantime, young Dutchman Tim Krul will deputise with Swede Ole Soderberg providing the back-up as Fraser Forster continues his loan spell at Celtic.

Krul took over from Harper at Goodison Park and was between the posts for the 4-3 Carling Cup third-round win at Chelsea last Wednesday evening, although he tasted defeat on Sunday when Stoke City became the second visiting side in succession to leave St James' Park with all three points.

Hughton has refused to get carried away by either success or failure so far this season, and although he admitted his disappointment in the immediate aftermath of James Perch's decisive own goal at the weekend, he knows last season's Championship title winners will have their ups and downs as they attempt to establish themselves back in the top flight.

He said: "We know every game that we now enter is a tough game than can go any way, and if we are not at our best, where potentially we can win football matches, then we know there can always be an upset."

Meanwhile, Hughton is hopeful that Sol Campbell, who made his senior debut for the club at Chelsea, could be available for Sunday's tough league trip to Manchester City.

The 36-year-old returned from Stamford Bridge with a slight thigh strain and failed a fitness test ahead of the Stoke game, but he is expected to be available for selection this weekend.

Gabriel Agbonlahor is Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier's main injury concern ahead of Saturday's Barclays Premier League match at Tottenham.

The England striker has been suffering from calf and now groin problems this season.

Agbonlahor missed the first three games of the campaign because of a calf injury and had to be substituted after half an hour of last week's Carling Cup win over Blackburn with a similar setback.

Houllier admitted: "My concern is Gabby because he again has felt his groin. We will have to investigate a bit more. The calf problem has gone now. Now it's gone up his body. I hope it doesn't get much higher."

Houllier has received encouraging news regarding central defender Richard Dunne and striker John Carew. The duo are making good progress after knee and back problems respectively and should be in contention for the trip to White Hart Lane.

Caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald had indicated Carew was struggling to play back-to-back matches because of his back complaint before he was replaced by Houllier.

Dunne suffered his setback in the match at Stoke just over two weeks ago. But Houllier admits the form of Carlos Cuellar as his replacement has given him a welcome selection headache. He said: "That sort of headache I can take. A bad headache is when you've not got enough players. Carlos looked strong and solid and reminded me of Jamie Carragher. He goes for everything in the air and is brave."

Birmingham City have awarded new improved contracts to first-team coach Andy Watson and goalkeeping coach Dave Watson. The duo have put pen to paper in the aftermath of Blues manager Alex McLeish signing a new deal 10 days ago.

The Watsons have played an integral part in City gaining promotion from the Coca Cola Championship and establishing themselves in the Barclays Premier League.

England No 1 Joe Hart has constantly praised Dave Watson for the part he played in improving him as a keeper during his season long loan at St Andrew's from Manchester City.

Andy Watson said: "First and foremost, everything revolves around Alex and once the club came to his agreement on his contract, then we could move forward together.

"Myself and Dave were delighted the owners looked at our contracts. I think that was a recognition of the work we are all trying to do here and what we have done as a group over the past couple of years. We came back up from the Championship and are trying to get established as a Premier League side, as difficult as that is, and will continue to work hard to achieve that."

Birmingham have made a solid start to the season with seven points from six games but have only picked up the one victory despite being difficult to beat.