Five years on from his final Newcastle appearance, Steve Harper opens up on life after football
It was third time lucky for Steve Harper. And, by the time retirement finally came, he was ready.
It’s five years, to the day, since Harper made the last of his 199 appearances for Newcastle United.
The goalkeeper got an unexpected farewell appearance against Arsenal at St James’s Park following Rob Elliot’s dismissal the week before.
With Tim Krul sidelined through injury, Harper started one last game.
There was applause in the 37th minute for the club’s No 37.
Speaking at the time, an emotional Harper said: “The 37th minute was just incredible – it was mind blowing, and I was struggling a bit.
“Then (Lukas) Podolski smashed the ball into my family allowance, and pulled me out of it!”
Spells at Hull City and Sunderland followed. Leaving Hull was the “hardest time” for Harper, who has spoken about his own experiences with depression.
A year later, he was ready to hang up his gloves.
“It’s fine,” said Harper, now 43. “I was ready for it. I’d basically retired three times! I left Newcastle at 38 and didn’t have anything lined up.
“I got a call from Hull, and had a couple of great years down there. Again, finished. That was probably the hardest time, because I played the last seven games of the season at 40 and did well.
“I kept a few clean sheets and thought ‘I can still do this’. Then the phone doesn’t ring. I’m 40, and you get one or two phone calls, but it’s ‘hang on, I just proved I can still do this’.
“The opportunity came to go to Sunderland for four months. Even there, at 41, I missed one day’s training.
“I was fortunate that I stepped out at the time I had opportunities to do other things like charitable foundations and the masters degree I’m doing at the moment, so I didn’t get to the stage where my brain was writing cheques that my body couldn’t cash any more.
“Actually, I was talking to Shola (Ameobi) about it. He’s in the dilemma now.
“He loves it. He loves playing, but it’s the training element of it, so I just said ‘nobody can tell you what to do, only you will know’.
“I’ve spoken to lots of players. Some have taken six months to get over it. Some took 18 months, and some still haven’t got over it.
“I was ready. I was fortunate. I think the average career is eight years, and I did it for 23.
“I missed the keeping fit and the crack, but if you asked me to dive over there and tip one round the corner, I wouldn’t welcome it.”
Harper has done some coaching and media work since leaving Sunderland two years ago, and is co-owner of underwear firm Oddballs.
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He’s also a trustee of the Newcastle United Foundation, which is looking to build a multi-million pound sporting and education hub close to St James’s Park. It’s an ambitious project that could transform many lives.
Harper and Shola Ameobi, his former Newcastle team-mate, spoke earlier this year at a House of Lords lunch which celebrated the Foundation’s first 10 years.
“It’s important to emphasis the success of the Foundation in its first 10 years,” said Easington-born Harper.
“It’s been a successful 10 years, but we want to accelerate what we do and the way to do that is through this pitchside project by the stadium.
“It’s spectacular, but it’s not cheap. We’ll need a lot of external funding.
“The people of the North East are very generous, but the Newcastle United brand travels worldwide, and London is a key part of that.”
One area Harper is particularly focused on is mental health, having been diagnosed with depression while at Newcastle.
He again sought help after leaving Hull, when he felt himself “slipping into that dark hole” as he waited for offers.
Speaking two years ago while at Sunderland, Harper said: “I was diagnosed with depression in my early thirties at Newcastle.
“I spoke to good people. I had a mild case. Not being in the side, it got on top of me. I was in a bad place for a while.
“That experience undoubtedly helped me (after leaving Hull), because I could feel myself slipping back into that dark hole, where life feels as though it is closing in on you. I think that prevented it happening again.
“A lot of players aren’t so lucky. I was in a position to do the necessary things to stop it engulfing me, but there was a gaping chasm in my life and I needed to fill it.”
Harper hopes the Foundation will reach out to others in the community who are suffering from depression and help them seek the help they need.
“I have personal experience of that,” he said. “It’s becoming more acceptable to talk about it now, but there’s still a reluctance among men to talk about that.
“It’s becoming more acceptable to talk about it, and the taboo side of it is disappearing. When I suffered myself, you try to deal with it yourself, and you can’t compute what’s happening and understand what’s happening.
“It was 12 or 13 years ago for me. Once I opened up to a doctor, it was almost as if a weight had been lifted. You can’t see the good in anything if you let it go on too long.
“To provide facilities and access for people to get to those services will hopefully help as well.”
Harper joined Newcastle from non-league side Seaham Red Star as a teenager. He went on to play Premier League and Champions League football.
Will Harper’s legacy at United be those 199 career appearances? Or the work of the Foundation at a purpose-built venue?
“Hopefully, what we can achieve with this pitchside project, moving forward, is about leaving a legacy,” said Harper.
“Twenty years at Newcastle is not a legacy. That’s a time served, which I enjoyed, but this is opportunity to be part of a Foundation and a project which will leave a legacy and improve the lives of people for generations to come.
“It’s incredible the amount we’re trying to get into one building. We know the effect it could have on so many lives.
“To be in that project and see it through to fruition would be pretty special. It’s powerful stuff.”