BIRMINGHAM ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 15: Obafemi Martins of Birmingham City gets a pat on the head from Steve Harper of Newcastle United during the Barclays Premier League match between Birmingham City and Newcastle United at St Andrews on February 15 2011 in Birmingham England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
The Newcastle reserves beat their counterparts from the Bolton Wanderers 3-0 on Tuesday. There's a ton of encouraging news to come out of this one, including the play of Sylvain Marveaux and the fact that the reserves are on top of the North Division now. However, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to focus on a negative, and that is that Steve Harper played 90 minutes in goal.
On the surface, that doesn't really seem like much of a problem at all. He's getting playing time after all, and he played well, according to reports. To me, though, it's symptomatic of a troubling development: Steve Harper is being pushed out of Newcastle. Let me explain.
Before the season started, most of the Newcastle supporters I asked wanted Tim Krul in goal. I wanted Harper, for reasons I've stated repeatedly and therefore won't go into here. I bring this up because while the overwhelming choice seemed to be The Flying Dutchman, I think even the most vehement of Harper's detractors would have admitted that the discussion was at least worth having. Even if Krul was The Man, Harper was a more than capable backup, enough that most didn't even bat an eye when Fraser Forster was once again loaned out to Celtic.
Of course, we're all aware by now that Alan Pardew made Tim Krul his Number One, and all indications are that he always intended this to be the case, despite some public preseason waffling. That's great; I'm not here to dispute Krul's status with the club. What is troubling is the way Harper has been treated since then. He was named as a sub only twice - against Sunderland, when there was essentially no other option, and against Blackburn. In every other match, it's been Forster, Ole Soderberg (!), and Rob Elliot, who in my mind was brought in so Pardew didn't have to answer questions every week about why he rated Soderberg over his most-tenured player.
And that's the rub. Pardew can't just sell Harper. Not only would there not be much of a market for him, but the Toon Army wouldn't allow it. Andy Carroll's sale made financial sense, Jose Enrique forced himself out, and Joey Barton is volatile enough that the club knew all they had to do was let him go and he'd stick his foot in his mouth. Kevin Nolan's departure is really the only one that made sense from a football perspective (though there's still an inexplicably large number of supporters who refuse to admit it). Selling Steve Harper on top of all that would have caused a riot, and there's no defense that the club would have been able to come up with that would have been acceptable.
Harper has always put his head down and put the club first, whether that meant sitting behind Shaka Hislop or Shay Given or Tim Krul. His only crime, as far as we the public know, is that he was a member of Chris Hughton's fabled player committee. Pardew has spent his entire tenure making thinly veiled public statements against that committee. It's hard to argue with the results, but it seems as if Harper's prior locker room presence has contributed to his present exile.
At first, speculation about his surgically repaired knee was an easy out for the front office. Perhaps they went and found a League One goalkeeper simply as a temporary replacement for their backup. Now we know that Harper is healthy and capable of playing well (if he wasn't all along), and he still finds himself third choice. When Pardew named Elliot as his backup for Newcastle's recent trip to Wolverhampton, he cited his new #2 as a "different voice in the changing room," a clear swipe at Harper.
Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Maybe Harper is as much to blame for this as anybody. However, if he's healthy, there's no excuse for relegating him to reserve duty. Rob Elliot had his chance to impress in the Carling Cup, and if that's what he offers, the Magpies are going to be in a lot of trouble if Krul were to go down. Player loyalty is becoming more and more rare as time marches on, and any player that spends 18 years under the big top deserves better than being pushed passive-aggressively out the door.