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Newcastle keeper Elliot relishes stepping out of the shadows
THE position of goalkeeping understudy is one of the loneliest roles in football, yet at Newcastle United, it is also one of the most well established.
For more than a decade, Steve Harper played second fiddle to Shay Given, deputising in the first team every once in a while, even playing in an FA Cup final and a Champions League win over Juventus, but spending most of his time warming the substitutes' bench.
Would his career have been enhanced if he had cut his losses earlier and moved elsewhere? Possibly. Speak to Harper now, though, and his affection for life at Newcastle remains as deep-rooted and genuine as ever.
Harper remains on Newcastle's books, although he is now the deputy to the deputy as his playing days wind to a close. Since the middle of the season, the role of Tim Krul's understudy has passed to Rob Elliot, a 26-year-old shot-stopper who made his name at Charlton Athletic before moving to the North-East in the summer of 2011.
Prior to Sunday, his only senior appearances for the Magpies had come in the cup competitions. They were a hint of what might be possible, but only provided a fleeting taste of life in the first team.
Yet as a goalkeeping number two, you are only ever one injury away from a promotion. In Elliot's case, that injury came last Thursday when Krul damaged his ankle in the Europa League win over Metalist Kharkiv.
No longer the substitute who never got on, Elliot finally found himself making his Premier League debut in Sunday's 4-2 success against Southampton. Suddenly, the endless waiting was at an end. It was time to step out of the shadows and embrace centre stage.
"It's been a year and a half roughly," said Elliot, who should retain his first-team place for at least the next month as Krul's damaged ankle recovers. "I've played a few games this year in Europe and the cups, which has been nice."But to play in the Premier League is the top one, the one you want to put against your name. I've finally got the opportunity and I want to make the most of it.
"I'm gutted for Tim, he's been fantastic this year. That's the way it goes with goalkeeping.
"I just wanted to show everyone what I could do. The gaffer said to me, 'Make sure you play your game and don't try and do anything you normally wouldn't'. It paid off."
Elliot's eye-catching display against the Saints was all the more impressive for its inauspicious start. Just three minutes had elapsed when he conceded his first Premier League goal, with Morgan Schneiderlin turning in the box before slamming the ball home from close range.
Lesser characters might have panicked, betraying an edginess that could easily have transferred through the team.
Elliot quickly regrouped and made three crucial saves, the best of which saw him turn Rickie Lambert's powerful free-kick around the post.
After the game, Pardew claimed Elliot was "every bit as good as Tim Krul", strong words, but ones the goalkeeper hopes to justify in the next few weeks.
"That was a nice compliment," he said. "I work as hard as I possibly can in training, but the difference is Tim's done it 100 times in the Premier League and at international level. I'm just really proud to have played my first game.
"I didn't even get the chance to pick the ball out of the net at the start because Yohan Cabaye had got it already, so it was about seven minutes before I touched it.
"It wasn't the most ideal start, but as the gaffer said to me at half-time, it wasn't going to get any worse than conceding in three minutes, so I just had to carry on doing what I was doing.
"It was a great performance from the lads to come back, come back again, and go and get that fourth goal.
"If you'd told me six years ago that I would make my Premier League debut for Newcastle at St James', I wouldn't have believed you. It was a good day."
There should be more good days when Elliot lines up in the forthcoming league games with Swansea and Stoke, and a two-legged European tie with Anzhi Makhchakala, but his spell in the limelight will inevitably end when Krul recovers full fitness.
As a fully paid-up member of the goalkeepers' union, Elliot has enjoyed watching Krul excel in the first half of the season. But is there not a pinch of jealousy at the Dutchman's senior status?
"Tim's one of the best keepers around at the moment, not just in England, but also in Europe because he's started playing for Holland too," he said.
"It's great coming to work with him because that's what I want to do - I want to be playing international football and in the Premier League. To train with someone who's experiencing that and going through it at the same age I am is great, we talk and share ideas.
"I'm genuinely gutted about his injury, but finger's crossed it's not too bad. I've never said I wanted Tim to get injured to get a game, but that's the way it's worked out. Tim called me on Sunday morning to wish me luck, and that's the measure of the man."
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