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Sir Bobby Robson talks to local hero Steve Harper about Newcastle's day of reckoning

23 May 2009 19:40:56

Sir Bobby Robson talks to local hero Steve Harper about Newcastle's day of reckoning

The Sir Bobby Robson suite at St James' Park is a homage to happier times. On the back wall, there is a giant canvas of Sir Bobby waving to theToon faithful before his first home game in charge, an 8-0 win againstSheffield Wednesday in which Alan Shearer scored five goals. Hanging to the right is a picture of Sir Bobby and his squad beamingas they pose in Barcelona's Nou Camp before a Champions League game. In tune: Sir Bobby Robson and Newcastle keeper Steve Harper agree on the importance of today's clash  NEWCASTLE UNITED FC: All the latest news from across the webManchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson demands Premier League scrap 'best team' rulingTaylor has double vision: We've beaten Villa already this season and we can do it againIt is hard to believe it was less than seven years ago that Newcastle were mixing with Europe's elite. Today, Sir Bobby is not interested in looking back and wondering where it all went wrong for his beloved club. This is no time for recriminations as Newcastle, with Shearer in charge, go to Aston Villa for arguably the most important game in the club's history. Lose at Villa Park and Newcastle will be relegated from the Premier League, resulting in an immediate financial hit of £30 million and a potential cost to the club which could last years if, like Leeds United, they continue to plummet. More than ever, the club needs a hero. At 76 and fighting cancer for a fifth time, Sir Bobby is no longer a man who can save the club himself, but he knows a man who can: goalkeeper Steve Harper, who can make himself a true Toon legend if he can keep Newcastle in the top flight this afternoon. There is a special bond between Sir Bobby and Harper. Both are from County Durham mining stock, born 15 miles apart; Bobby in Sacriston, Harper in Easington. Harper rates Sir Bobby as the best of the 10 managers he has played in his 16 years at Newcastle. In turn, Sir Bobby believes Harper would have played for England had he not been so unselfish and stayed at Newcastle as Shay Given's understudy. 'Big match on Sunday, son,' are Sir Bobby's first words as they greet each other. 'That's an understatement,' says Harper. Toon legend: Kevin Keegan playing in his debut game for the club Harper was in goal for Sir Bobby the afternoon Shearer put five in the Wednesday net, and when Newcastle beat Juventus 1-0 in one of St James' Park's most famous European nights. 'You told the world's media before that game that I had to be absolutely faultless. I was sitting there thinking "no pressure, then!", recalls Harper. 'Aye, and you will have to be faultless against Aston Villa as well. Completely faultless,' replies Sir Bobby. 'Your time has come. You have waited patiently for years for an opportunity. Now you have the best chance of your career to be a hero. One save might be crucial, the difference that keeps Newcastle in the Premier League. 'Steve, I think an important area is set-plays. Villa are fantastic in the air with Emile Heskey and John Carew. You have to keep everybody in front of you alive and awake, switched on. Newcastle need leadership at the back. It's your responsibility.' Harper is in agreement with his former boss. 'We've worked on it in training this week. Villa are also a very quick team, good on the counter-attack. They have a lot of pace and width in the side, like we had when we were in the Champions League with Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert. 'I know James Milner at Villa very well - you signed him for Newcastle and we became good friends. I've been texting him this week, telling him to put all his crosses in Row Z! 'We need 11 heroes, maybe 14. It is a strange situation. We could win and get relegated, or we could draw and stay up. Our problem has been scoring goals. We haven't scored five in our last seven, but you can be sure every player knows how big the game is for Newcastle. Anyone who doesn't shouldn't be at the club.' The permutations in the drop-zone this weekend are enough to give Stephen Hawking a headache. Newcastle will definitely go down if they lose. If they draw, they can only survive if Hull lose at home to Manchester United. If they win, they will stay up unless both Hull and Sunderland (at home to Chelsea) also win. Harper says it is important to understand the scores in other games, particularly in the closing stages. 'Every player must be aware of what is happening. If we are drawing the game, we have to know if we need to get a winner or if it's better to hold on to what we've got. 'I'll definitely go up for a corner if we need a goal in the last minute. I was a striker until I was 17. In fact, I played up front for 12 minutes in a friendly at Celtic a couple of years ago and set up a goal for Milner!' Harper has seen Newcastle rise and fall since joining from local club Seaham Red Star in 1993. But it is only since January, when Given left for Manchester City, that he has become the undisputed No 1. 'What made Sir Bobby stand out was his man-management. He knew intuitively which players needed an arm round the shoulder and who needed a kick up the backside. I will go round the other players just making sure they are all OK, giving them a pat on the back. It is important because it's such a massive game.' Sir Bobby has not given a team talk since he was sacked in 2004, after finishing fifth in the Premier League. But he knows what he would say if he was in the dressing room at 10 to four today. Shear pressure: How Newcastle could do with Alan Shearer's goalscoring prowess on the pitch 'I would tell the players to win their individual battles. Win your one-on-one battles. If you are Steven Taylor, make sure you stop their centre forward getting chances, beat him in the air. There are 10 outfield individual battles. If you win seven and lose three, you win the game. If you win three and lose seven, you lose the game. 'On top of that, Steve has to be up for it every single second. There is more pressure on the goalkeeper than any other position. One mistake from the goalkeeper and the whole team plan goes out the window.' Harper concurs: 'I know what Sir Bobby means about goalkeepers. My son is six next month and every time he wants to go in goal in the garden, I won't let him! He should try and score goals - there is more money in it! I know I have to play part on Sunday, but we all do. It is not about individual glory; it is about Newcastle United being united. I'd rather win 7-6 and stay up, than play a blinder, win 1-0 and go down.' Frail health means Sir Bobby will not be able to travel to Birmingham to watch his team play. Instead, he is contemplating an outing to Sunderland for their game against Chelsea. The role of Shearer will be crucial for Newcastle today. Sir Bobby has been enthusiastic about his former ace striker taking charge. 'He has great football knowledge and the pressure won't bother him,' he says. 'I'm sure if Newcastle are winning near the end he will want his strikers to protect the ball in the corner -he was good at that himself.' 'The older he got, the earlier in the match he did it!' quips Harper, in a flash. 'I call him Gaffer now. It was strange the first time I said it, I'd always known him as Alan. But it seems right now - he is the gaffer.' Sir Bobby, the former gaffer, nods in approval. Newcastle's future is no longer in his hands, but it could be in Steve Harper's.  NEWCASTLE UNITED FC: All the latest news from across the webManchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson demands Premier League scrap 'best team' rulingTaylor has double vision: We've beaten Villa already this season and we can do it again


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