Tuesday, September 17, 2013

So long, Steve

A spectacular send-off for Steve Harper, one of the most unassuming professionals in the game; a parade of famous faces; the prospect of a few spicy encounters (those in black and white v Paolo Di Canio, Alan Shearer v teammate for the night ASBO). Our correspondent Kyle was lucky enough to be there and sent us this report...

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A mild Wednesday night at St James’ Park saw the Newcastle Legends take on Milan Glorie for a testimonial to celebrate Steve Harper’s 20 years of loyal service. A crowd of over 50,000 turned out at a tenner a ticket with all profits being split between various charities, including the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.

The game had a festival feel to it with lots of young kids around and a fairly gentle tempo. Both teams had plenty of faded talent on display, with all-time Milanese greats such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Pippo Inzaghi (as well as panto villain Paolo Di Canio) facing off against a Newcastle squad packed with players from the more recent glory years. Big names like Wor Al and Sir Les were backed up by cult heroes like Ruel Fox and Darren Peacock.

With nothing much of note happening on the pitch, the interest was more in how former players are looking these days. Some have certainly been enjoying their retirement and the reduced physical demands, John Beresford and Alan Thompson both cutting significantly more wind-resistant figures these days. Some don’t look a day older than when they last played, though. Nikos Dabizas in particular looked like he could step back into the first team, showing superb anticipation, strength in the tackle and some decent distribution too – perhaps a masterclass with some of the current defenders wouldn’t go amiss...

On the Milan side panto villain Paolo Di Canio’s every touch was accompanied with a chorus of boos, which to his credit he took well – it may be heresy to say it on this site but he actually looked sharp and was tidy in possession. The biggest cheer of the evening came when, in a populist nod to the crowd, ASBO cleaned him out from behind. The whole Milan team still looked pretty classy, Baresi, Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mark Van Bommel in particular.

It was also a chance for players to pretend to be the player they always wished they were. David Ginola in particular swaggered around like a tiki-taka midfield general, all short passes, little flicks and gorgeous crossfield passes, notably short on dribbling (though the beer gut might have contributed to that too). Some things never change, though – within five minutes of coming off the bench, Tino Asprilla had connected with a glorious overhead kick, sadly blocked on the line, while Inzaghi was flagged for offside on a regular basis. Keith Gillespie still looked a class apart with the ball at his feet and Andrew Cole showed the old instincts are still strong when he hit the post with a clipped shot. In a nice touch Gary Speed’s two sons both got a run out in the last ten minutes to sustained applause.

As for the man himself, one nice diving save aside he didn’t have much to do in the half hour he was on the pitch, spending most of his time soaking up the cheers for his every touch and the sound of his name being sung by 50,000 fans all there for him alone. With the game ending in a 0-0 draw (surely the best way for a keeper to go out), his chance for a moment of glory came in the penalty shoot-out. Sadly, his decision to go for power didn’t pay off as he belted it straight at Massimo Taibi in the Milan goal so hard that he didn’t have a chance to get out the way. Needless to say, Di Canio put his away with Milan winning the shoot-out 2-1.

On the whole a nice evening, a lot of money raised for charity and a fitting send-off for one of Newcastle’s most loyal servants. Twenty years at his hometown club is a pretty decent career by anyone’s standards and though I wish him well in his late career swansong at Hull he’ll always be a Geordie keeper at heart.

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Well, as ways of raising money for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation go, Harps' method was a lot less arduous than running from John O'Groats to Land's End with a 42.5 kg fridge strapped to his back...

Photos from the game are available here.

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