Steve Harper admits he might have had to leave Newcastle had it not been for close friend Shay Given's injury misfortune last season. The 32-year-old has spent most of the last 10 years providing the back-up to the Irishman, whose legendary powers of recovery had limited his absences to a handful of games. However, a freak bowel injury suffered in a collision with West Ham striker Marlon Harewood, and a troublesome groin problem handed Harper his chance during the last campaign. The 25 appearances the Easington-born keeper got under his belt rekindled his determination to oust his 31-year-old team-mate on a regular basis, and the thigh injury Given picked up in pre-season has seen his deputy start each of the club's four Barclays Premier League games to date. Manager Sam Allardyce stuck with Harper even when the younger man was fit for the visit of Wigan to St James' Park on September 1, and faces a tough decision ahead of Monday night's trip to Derby. Harper, however, is intent on making life as difficult as possible for the Republic of Ireland number one after remaining remarkably patient over the years. He said: 'It's been incredibly hard. The four or five-year period I had out of the side was probably the hardest part of my life professionally. 'It was very tough and frustrating. When you don't get a game for such a long time, it's very much out of sight, out of mind, people tend to forget about you. 'You keep your head down and work hard, but it's tough. All I ever said was I want to play first team football here, and to play 25 games last year came at the right time for me because if it had not happened last year, then who knows what might have happened. 'That was important. It came at the right time for me, and the start of this season has been great and a big boost.' There is a school of thought which suggests that had Harper taken up one of the offers to move which have come his way over the years, he could have forced his way into the England squad. Paul Robinson's unconvincing display against Germany reopened the debate over the national squad's relative lack of depth in the goalkeeping department and saw 37-year-old David James recalled to the squad as the alternatives were considered. Harper is flattered by the attention, but insists he has never allowed himself to think of what might have been. He said: 'No you don't think that. I have seen people throwing my name in there, which is great. 'Like any little boy who ever player football, you would love to play for your country. 'There are a few ahead of me in the queue at the minute, but if I play week in, week out at Newcastle, that would give me a great opportunity, so it is up to me to try to do that.' Two clean sheets in four games is testament to Harper's performances and those of a rapidly improving defence in front of him as Allardyce's Tyneside revolution starts to take shape. Victory at Derby, who lost 6-0 at Liverpool last time out, would cement that positive start and increase optimism that a summer of change, which has seen a new owner, chairman, manager and players installed at St James', has paved the way for a bright new future. Harper said: 'It's been a big summer on the pitch, off the pitch, upstairs - the whole club is having an overhaul. 'It's not going to happen overnight, but the start has been very encouraging. There are a lot of new faces in, a lot of people out at the end of last year and the club is changing from top to bottom. 'It's going to take time, but it has been a very encouraging start.'
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