Harper out to end his wait for a gold medal
STEVE HARPER is hoping to double his medal collection in the next six days by adding a Championship winners' award to the FA County Youth Cup memento he picked up in 1993. While Newcastle United were claiming the Division One trophy 17 years ago their last piece of silverware unless you count the muchmaligned Intertoto Cup an 18-year-old Harper was representing Durham in the final of English football's premier amateur youth competition. The Easington-born goalkeeper helped his side to a 4-0 win over Liverpool Schools, but more than a decade-and-ahalf on, he is still waiting for a second taste of success. His career at St James' Park has seen him play in an FA Cup final and grace many of the leading stadia both at home and abroad, but a place on the victory rostrum has eluded him. Until now. If Newcastle win at Reading this evening, they will need just one point from their final three matches to guarantee the Championship title. And Harper will finally have a second winners' medal to accompany the relic from his youth. I haven't won anything since that County final when I was 18, said the shot-stopper. That's half my life ago, but it's still my only winners' medal. I played five County Cup finals in senior school, lost them all. Then I finally won it with Durham in 1993. I've done some good things since, but obviously getting to the Cup final and having a runners-up medal doesn't look quite as good as a Championship winners' medal. Needing four points realistically three to win the league, it feels close, and winning it would be special. People are saying about how great it would be to lift the trophy in front of a full St James' Park against Ipswich, but we've got two tough away games before that to earn the right to be presented with it at home. With the Ipswich game on April 24 representing Newcastle's only remaining home fixture, the target for this week's away games at Reading and Plymouth is to ensure that the Championship trophy is presented in front of a packed St James' Park. This month's promotion party against Sheffield United became a somewhat muted affair when Newcastle's place in the Premier League was confirmed before kick off, and with an open-topped bus parade having been ruled out, the club's players are determined to ensure the Ipswich match becomes a fitting endof- season celebration. Last week's decision not to repeat 1993's parade around the city has been criticised in some quarters, but Harper feels it is right to retain a sense of perspective about everything that has happened this season. I think open-topped buses are saved for winning Premier Leagues and cup competitions, he said. I'd love to think we'd be on an opentopped bus winning a cup competition before I leave here, but winning the Championship is something we set out to achieve and if we can do that, it's great. The last game of the season will be special anyway. Celebrating firstly promotion, and hopefully a title, with 52,000 packed in to St James'. The players can show their appreciation to the fans, and vice-versa. That'll be special enough. A refusal to over-indulge on triumphalism reflects a desire not to get too carried away by a promotion that many supporters would have viewed as a minimum requirement at the start of the campaign. Newcastle boast by far the biggest wage bill in the Championship, and retained a core of seasoned internationals in the wake of last season's relegation, but Harper feels it would be wrong to belittle the extent of the club's achievements in the last nine months. Other teams have entered the Football League in a similarly strong position to the Magpies, only to disappear without trace. I think there's an expectation on teams who come down from the Premier League to bounce straight back up, and being Newcastle and an established top-flight club for so long, people said relegation was just a reality check, said Harper. People can say we were expected to go up, but this is a very, very tough league. We've had massive expectations every home game and played 23 cup finals away from home. Sometimes you hear people knocking the Championship, but there are some very good players in this league. It's tough, especially away from home. Even if clubs don't normally have full houses, they've had full houses against us.
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