Newcastle on a par with Bobby Robson era, says Steve Harper

 

The Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper has admitted the club's fight for Champions League qualification this season has taken everyone by surprise.

The 37-year-old, a veteran of the club's last adventure on the biggest European stage under Sir Bobby Robson in 2002-03, started the campaign along with his team-mates targeting the top 10 in the Premier League.

However, a blistering start, barring the odd blip along the way, has continued largely unabated and they head into Sunday's final-day trip to Everton still in with a chance of finishing third.

"Sir Bobby built a young, counter-attacking, real threat of a team and you could see it happening with Sir Bobby, whereas this season, the club was set up for the top 10," Harper said yesterday. "To be knocking on the door of a Champions League spot is real credit to everybody, and what a fantastic season it's been."

Harper has had to take a back seat this season, with the 24-year-old Netherlands international Tim Krul having fully justified Alan Pardew's decision to install him as No 1, but the manager had praised Harper on more than one occasion for his contribution in the dressing room.

The Easington-born goalkeeper, who spent a decade as Shay Given's under-study at St James' Park, did play in the Champions League – perhaps most memorably in a 1-0 home victory over Juventus – and, having spent almost 19 years on Tyneside, is well-placed to assess the current situation.

As a result of Chelsea's 4-1 defeat at Liverpool last night, Newcastle can finish no lower than fifth and, at worst, will play in the Europa League next season. That is a remarkable achievement, considering that they finished 12th a year ago at the end of their first campaign back in the top flight.

Robson guided the club from 11th place at the end of the 2000-01 season into fourth 12 months later and, while the gap bridged is similar, he had the likes of Given, Rob Lee, Gary Speed and Alan Shearer within his squad.

The former England manager was fondly remembered at the weekend as the club he managed for five years between 1999 and 2004 unveiled a statue in his memory.

Harper's recollections of Robson are many and colourful. "Whenever people ask you about Sir Bobby, the first thing you do is smile because you think of the enthusiasm, the love he had for the club, for football in general and for his players," the goalkeeper said. "He really bought into his players and got the best out of them.

"We played Barcelona at home in pre-season and we were 3-0 down after an hour and he said, 'You are going on, son, you are going on'. As I stood there waiting to go on, just as I was about to enter the pitch, he said, 'Steve, don't let any more goals in, son, we are getting murdered.' We were 3-0 down against Barcelona and I was running on with a smile on my face. That's the way he had of relaxing players and putting them at ease and making them feel comfortable on the big stage. He was that type of man, and is sorely missed."

Papiss Cissé's 13 goals since joining Newcastle in January have led to speculation that potential buyers could come calling for the £10m man this summer, but the club have insisted the Senegal international has not issued a "come and get me" plea to Real Madrid in an interview with the French newspaper L'Equipe.

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