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Emotional farewell for Toon legend

They were saying thank you. Choosing the 37th minute to rise in unison and applaud their longest serving player, Newcastle fans were thanking Steve Harper for never choosing to leave them. Impossible to truly condense a 20-year career in a moment, his time on Tyneside began with Kevin Keegan and 'bright yellow shell-suit bottoms' and ended with a minute of unbridled appreciation that his loyalty deserved.

And for the first time in his career, he allowed himself to get caught up in the emotion of playing for his favourite club, a puff of the cheeks serving as the precursor to a trickle of tears to roll down his cheek. Having already seen his Dad, a miner, wobble before kick-off, he knew he had cart blanche to indulge in a moment of sentiment.

That same watering of the eyes returned moments later when Lukas Podolski fired a shot at what Harper described as his 'family allowance' - a wry smile coming across his face as he remembered his last big save for Newcastle United, a large roar following seconds after his block. After two decades, promotion, relegation and everything in between, Harper is finally making his way off the roller-coaster that is Newcastle United. Highs and lows not quite in equal measure, witnessed by a man who is stitched into the very fabric of a club that has baffled many a visitor.

"I will miss the intensity of this club," he said in reflection. "It is the city. It is a heavy shirt to wear, an amazing club to play for if you can handle it.

Many of his former team-mates couldn't. He never shirked the responsibility bestowed upon him. Detractors will call him unambitious, a man happy to collect his wages at his boyhood club. What those people tend to forget is that for many (self included) playing for your club is the dream. It's better to play a minute with your own than an hour with someone else - regardless of what division that may be in.

Games against Juventus in the Champions League are polarised by midweek trips in the Championship on Newcastle's ascent back to where they belong. More than just experience at the back during their brief stay in England's second tier, Harper was also a member of the players committee that under Chris Hughton dragged Newcastle back to the Premier League.

A game short of 200 appearances, he could and should have earned more, but by his own admission, Harper had the unfortunate luck to be managed by Sir Bobby Robson. A master tactician, Sir Bobby could sell ice to Eskimos: "I'd enter his office like a bear with a sore head and leave it giving him a hug," he told the Independent last week.

He did receive the occasional loan spell, but he would always return home. Competing with Shay Given for the number one spot, it was fitting that for so many of his seasons on Tyneside, Harper inhabited the number 13. Luck always evaded his gloves.

Just as he seemed to have finally defined himself as a Premier League number one for Newcastle - through no fault of his own - he suffered a dislocated shoulder at Goodison Park. Few could have predicted the form of his replacement that day, Tim Krul, with not even a tinge of bitterness held by Harper in his programme notes: "I couldn't have wished to hand it over to anyone better," he said as he reminisced about a gangly 17-year-old who, in Harper's opinion, "worked his socks off".

Allowed to walk out on Sunday with his young children, emotions were high. "We paid our own tribute to him in the dressing room," Alan Pardew said afterwards. Allowed to captain the side in place of Fabricio Coloccini, his admittance that playing the game still appeals means Harper will not take up the coaches role that Pardew has said is always open to him.

It means Newcastle will lose a significant and composed voice in the dressing room. Having almost completely deconstructed the team that brought them back to Premier League, as another leader prepared to leave, he spoke of the big characters in the dressing room. Yet as Harper will know all too well, exuberance and leadership are two very different traits.

Understated in his appraoch, he always brought a calm to the pitch. As Pardew noted last week, with the club's Premier League future in the balance at Queens Park Rangers, the solution presented itself: "We had Harps, who came on as if it was a Sunday afternoon and he was going down the pub with his dog," he told the Evening Chronicle.

Still it felt like more than just a safe pair of hands was leaving St James' Park on Sunday. A one club man, Harper embodies many aspects of football that are fading away. Sir John Hall once spoke of his desire to name an eleven comprised of local players, never has that dream seemed more unlikely than when looking at the current squad. A career that gained its beginnings at local side Seaham Red Star, his journey from nearby Easington in Co, Durham and rapid ascension to reserve team football was not without hiccups.

"My Dad told me not to leave the club house until I had the £25 they [Seaham Red Star] owed me," he remembered fondly. When that was achieved, he had another decision to make, a deferred university course in Sports Science the victim of Kevin Keegan's decision to offer him a one year contract. It was from there the crazy journey began. 18 managers (if you include the 6 caretakers) have worked with Harper since he began at Newcastle. "It's too many," he said to the Times last week, and he's right.

In many ways, Harper has remained the bastion of stability against a wall of uncertainty that is so often Newcastle. Now the club must untether itself from his relaxed grip, knowing that a repeat of his final season on Tyneside is unacceptable.

As for Harper, the immediate future holds more playing time, with a view to coaching. Sampling the life of management with Red House Farm Hawks under 10s, the team of his young son James, Harper has binders full of notes on games and training sessions. The indexing of a 20-year-career that will serve him well in the future.

Sharing a post-match joke or two with the journalists that have chronicled his life for two decades, he was able to keep his emotions in check, before allaying fears of those who may themselves have begun to indulge in an emotional moment. "It's the end of the chapter, not the book," he said, before calmly departing stage left.


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