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Harper’s night to remember
TO a standing ovation and the chanting of his name, Steve Harper headed for the St James’ Park tunnel after waving farewell and saying thank you for a night he will never forget at St James’ Park.
After 20 years of sterling and commendable service to Newcastle United, the heroes and villains, the good, the bad and the ugly, all turned out in front of a sell-out 50,000-plus crowd to pay tribute to the long-serving goalkeeper.
He shook the hands of every single player to have played a part in his charity match, puffed out his cheeks in an attempt to hold back the tears and then such a special night was over.
Harper’s days at Newcastle might have come to an end in May, but affection for the 38- year-old is clearly still strong from fans and from former team-mates.
From Shearer to Srnicek, Ginola to Gillespie and from Barton to Beardsley. Twentysix of the men to have shared a dressing room with Harper were back on Tyneside to share his night with the fans.
There was even an emotional moment when Gary Speed’s two sons, Ed and Tommy, emerged as substitutes wearing their late father’s No 11.
It did not all go to plan, with AC Milan Glorie’s star-studded line-up winning on penalties after four of Newcastle’s five spot-kick takers – including Harper – missed.
It had been billed as the most combustible charity match ever. With the exception of a cheeky second half kick from Joey Barton in to the back of the calf of Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio, crunching tackles were few and far between.
Crucially, the paying public turned out in force to help Harper raise money, with all proceeds being shared between the Newcastle United Foundation, the Great North Children’s Hospital and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
After the touchline flames blasted into the Tyneside air to greet the arrival of each of the players, including Di Canio, the stage was set for the man of the moment.
Despite sharing the pitch with legends of the black and white and Rossoneri shirts, this was the night for Harper to savour.
He emerged from the dressing room and walked up the halfway line with his children.
Franco Baresi stood, smiling, to his left and both Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer to his right.
There was hardly an empty seat in sight to mark a career which has earned huge respect from every supporter – even if he would have boasted more than his 199 first team appearances during that time had it not been for Shay Given.
Before Given’s introduction 25 minutes in to last night’s exhibition, Harper had his moment to shine and, typically, he prevented his net from bulging – even with Di Canio in front of him.
On three occasions, the shot-stopper from Easington held low crosses from Massimo Oddo and also got down well to gather an effort from Maurizio Gant which was teed up by Di Canio. He also made a diving stop to his right to thwart the Serie A legend that is Paolo Maldini.
The Sunderland manager, playing the pantomime villain perfectly by appearing with waves to the Geordie supporters he incensed with a knee slide on his last visit in April, even appeared reluctant to steal the show.
When he went clean through on goal, faced with just Harper to beat, rather than shoot, the Italian chose to roll a pass to a team-mate which was easily intercepted.
Had that gone in, the Gallowgate End would not have been impressed.
There were a few laughs when Darren Peacock came close to shoving Di Canio into an advertising hoarding, but things calmed down and the substitutions started.
The first, the equally madcap Faustino Asprilla, almost repeated one of the brilliant goals he scored during his time at Newcastle. When winger Ruel Fox, a little older and slower with age, sent in a teasing cross the Colombian’s goalbound acrobatic kick was blocked en route to the bottom corner.
Shortly after half-time the Keith Gillespie-Asprilla combination which once terrorised Barcelona in the 1997 Champions League got the ball in the net. Asprilla, however, was deemed to be offside when he met Gillespie’s inswinging centre and that was the South American’s last contribution before Andrew Cole took his place. At the same time Shearer made way for Peter Beardsley.
Barton made the most of his moment to impress his Newcastle fans in the closing stages, when he left his studs on the back of Di Canio’s calf deep inside the Milan half.
The Italian did well to stay calm. There was a short hug exchanged after the final whistle.
There were also two stunning saves from Massimo Taibi. First from Alan Thompson’s long-range drive and then from Paul Kitson’s flicked header as a goalless encounter threatened to at least have the spectacle of a goal. Cole also hit the post.
Other than those flashpoints, the 90 minutes were played a friendly-like pace, with glimpses of past and present showcasing their twists and turns.
What actually happened on the pitch mattered little, but the occasion provided a fitting end to two decades of loyalty.
There’s only one Steve Harper.
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