Harper harbouring dreams of reprising Wembley appearance

Hull City manager Steve Bruce
Hull City manager Steve Bruce
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HAD Newcastle United won the FA Cup final in 1999 and not Manchester United, Steve Harper believes he would not have had to buy a drink again on Tyneside.

He is probably right, such is the fervour that the Toon Army bring to their club’s hunt for a first major trophy in a generation.

As it was, United claimed the second part of what turned out to be a historic treble as Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes fired past Harper.

Within a few months, the Cup’s reputation had taken an almighty battering as the holders, at the behest of the Football Association as they tried to curry favour to bring the World Cup to this country, announced they would not be defending the trophy.

Since then, the world’s oldest knockout competition has suffered further hammer blows with the latest coming just this week when Paul Lambert, the Aston Villa manager, admitted he could “do without” the distraction from the much more important fight for Premier League survival.

No doubt, this weekend will bring further negative publicity as a host of managers opt to field what will effectively be second XIs.

Steve Bruce is likely to be among those choosing to rotate his squad ahead of Hull City’s trip to Middlesbrough, meaning Harper, now 38, will get a chance to shine.

“I am very much a traditionalist,” said the veteran goalkeeper to the Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s third-round tie.

“I remember, as a kid, getting up and watching FA Cup Grandstand from 9 o’clock in the morning. I would watch the coverage from the team hotels and all that.

“It is sad that it is no longer the same. The FA Cup is similar to the UEFA Cup, which back in the day was a very prestigious competition. I played in the Europa League as well but the Champions League has pretty much swallowed it up.

“The Premier League is heading that way with the FA Cup as well, though it would still be a fantastic day out for any Hull City supporter.”

Considering the riches on offer for staying in the top flight, Bruce’s pragmatic approach to knockout football – he made 11 changes for the Capital One Cup second-round win at Leyton Orient, for instance – is an understandable one.

Even so, there will no doubt be many Hull fans heading to the Riverside today dreaming of a good Cup run.

“It would be great to win silverware,” admits Harper. “But the priority for a newly-promoted team is to try and stay in the Premier League.

“People also shouldn’t forget that it has been a very hectic schedule. Some of the lads will get a well-earned rest.

“When these games come along, it gives those of us who haven’t had as much action as the other lads to get up to speed.

“As we have seen already this season, we could be needed at any time.

“This season has been a case of so far, so good. But there is still a long way to go.

“We have got a very tough January, with Chelsea at home (a week today) and then two huge away games against teams below us (Norwich and Crystal Palace). So, it is important that the squad is all up to speed.

“We will go to Middlesbrough with a very good team and we have shown in the Capital One Cup that we can give it a good go.”

Harper’s move to the KC Stadium was one of the more surprising transfers of last summer.

By leaving Newcastle after 20 years, he had, it seemed, called time on a career that had included spells on loan with Bradford City and Huddersfield Town.

A phone call from Bruce, though, changed that and Harper has already made seven appearances, including four in the Premier League, for the Tigers.

“When I arrived in the summer there was Allan (McGregor) and Eldin (Jakupovic) who hadn’t played in the Premier League,” said the Hull goalkeeper, whose team-mate Sone Aluko yesterday signed a new two-and-a-half year deal. “So when I came down I did think there might be more opportunities to play.

“But Allan has been excellent, he really has. It is a good group we have got working together under Walshy (goalkeeping coach Gary Walsh). It is very good competition.

“I enjoyed my time in the team earlier in the season. You look forward to these opportunities when they come along and hopefully it is enough to get us through and keep the Cup games coming because I am really enjoying it here.

“The change in clubs has done me good. It has almost given me a new lease of life. A new club, a new dressing room, new people.

“It was just what I needed at this stage of my career because I am really enjoying it. It is a fantastic bunch of lads, a terrific spirit and camaraderie.

“Everyone gives the banter but takes it too. I get my fair share, telling me I am the granddad of the group and things like that. But I can give it back as well.

“I hope I am helping in the dressing room. A lot of the lads coming up haven’t been in and around the Premier League so I suppose I try to be a level head. I just try and keep an eye on people.

“It is not just footballers here; footballers in general are quite complicated individuals. I have been in teams and been out of them so I know how hard it is to keep people ticking along.

“I suppose I have been there and got the tee shirt. So, I try and help people however I can.

“You have to do that day-in and day-out at the training ground too because it is a very competitive group. You should see the old versus young games.”

As for a career highlight, Harper is in no doubt as to what it could have been – winning the 1999 final.

“It would have been life-changing if we had have won,” he says. “I don’t think I would have bought a drink in Newcastle for the last 15 years if we had won it. So, it probably cost me a few quid.

“The final was early in my career and it would be nice to go back 15 years later.”