Harper surprised by extent of Magpies magic

The Northern Echo: MEMORIES: Steve Harper was part of the last Newcastle squad to play in the Champions League under Sir Bobby Robson MEMORIES: Steve Harper was part of the last Newcastle squad to play in the Champions League under Sir Bobby Robson

LONG-SERVING goalkeeper Steve Harper has admitted Newcastle United's staying power in the pursuit of a Champions League place has surprised everyone on Tyneside.

A reminder of this season's Magpies success story was further highlighted last night when Frenchmen Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye edged closer to playing in this summer's European Championships.

And Harper was around St James' Park when Sir Bobby Robson transformed the club from relegation contenders to Euro hopefuls following Ruud Gullit's departure in 1999.

After lifting Newcastle up to 11th in 2000-01, Robson managed to lead them to fourth in the Premier League, securing European football in the process.

Fast-forward more than a decade and Harper, now an understudy to Tim Krul, has witnessed Alan Pardew achieve similar results. From securing 12th place in his first six months last season, Newcastle have guaranteed fifth place and could end up as high as third after Sunday's final trip to Everton.

Harper said: "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 ten. To be knocking on the door of a Champions League spot is real credit to everbody, and what a fantastic season it's been."

Chelsea's defeat to Liverpool on Wednesday has meant that Newcastle are assured of finishing ahead of the men from Stamford Bridge, where hundreds of millions have been invested in trying to achieve domestic and European greatness.

The Magpies' proud position means they are assured of playing in the Europa League at least next season, although the hope is that the biggest European stage in club football could still be on the cards.

It was under Robson in 2002-03 that Newcastle last played in the Champions League, when the likes of Alan Shearer, Shay Given, Rob Lee and Gary Speed formed the bedrock of the team.

Newcastle unveiled a statue in Robson's memory at St James' Park last weekend. Harper said: "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. He really bought into his players and got the best out of them.

"I remember 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, bearing in mind we were 3-0 down and getting battered, 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 he is sorely missed."

Newcastle will head to Everton on Sunday sitting a point behind fourth-placed Tottenham and two adrift of third-placed Arsenal.

The success story has been built on an effective unit capable of defending well and proving dangerous at the other end.

And two of those to have made big contributions took huge steps towards playing in this summer's European Championships - against England.

Both Ben Arfa and Cabaye have been included in a 12-man preliminary squad named by France boss Laurent Blanc yesterday for Euro 2012.

Newcastle, meanwhile, have reacted angrily to deny claims that Senegalese striker Papiss Cisse has issued a 'come and get me plea' to Real Madrid in an interview with French newspaper L'Equipe.

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