Ultra-reliable, ultra-loyal Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper talks to FourFourTwo all the way back in May 1998, when he was 23 but had already spent five years with the Magpies.
There are all sorts of reasons for becoming a goalkeeper. Some opt for a career between the sticks because they're really tall. Others because their chronic absence of foot/eye co-ordination renders them an insupportable liability anywhere else (less of a reason now that keepers have to be nearly as handy with their feet as they are with their mitts). Steve Harper took up keeping because... wait for it... the big kids made him.
"Like most goalkeepers I'm a frustrated centre-forward," says Newcastle's current third-choice keeper. "But when I was a kid I used to play with my older cousin and his mates. I wanted to play upfront but they made me go in nets because I was younger."
As it happened, he was a bit of a natural. Hell, before Harper knew it he actually started to enjoy it, gradually learning to appreciate the subtle nuances of the role. Or, as he puts it: "It was better than doing all that running around." Within a few months of standing between the sticks full-time he was snapped up on schoolboy forms by Burnley... only to be released at 16 for being too small. "I was only about 5ft 6in at the time, so you couldn't really blame them," he says with commendable generosity.
The next couple of years were spent studying for A-Levels back in his native North-East. And growing: by the time he was 18 Harper had shot up to a respectable 6ft 1in and was spotted by Newcastle's scouts playing for Northern League outfit Seaham Red Star. He was invited for a trial at St James' Park, did enough to earn himself a regular spot in the youth team and was eventually offered a pro contract by Kevin Keegan.
To date, Harper hasn't yet been given the nod for a first-team start and has had to content himself with gathering league experience in a number of loan moves. So far he's had spells at Bradford, Hartlepool, Stockport and, most recently, Huddersfield, where his consistency and penchant for breathtaking reflex saves – most notably against Wimbledon in the FA Cup – have shot him to national prominence.
In light of which, is he not growing tired of Newcastle's reluctance to give him a start? "Obviously it's a bit frustrating," he admits. "But I'm only 23 so I've got plenty of time. I still believe I have a future at Newcastle. Evidently the feeling's mutual; in November, Harper signed a new contract that will keep him at St James' until 2001. You can bet he'll get a shot at the No.1 jersey way before then.
Interview: Scott Morgan. From the May 1998 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!