By Dan King - Newcastle United Club Reporter
Victoria Park is a long way from the glamour of St. James' Park, Anfield, Old Trafford and Wembley but one night at Hartlepool United's unfashionable ground proved to be an important step in what was to become a glittering career for Steve Harper.
For that was where former goalkeeper coach Terry Gennoe ran the rule over the Easington-born shot-stopper, who had yet to make his Newcastle debut, and made a huge decision.
The date was 24th July, 1997, and Harper was on loan with Hartlepool, who were facing Motherwell in a pre-season friendly. "It only seems like yesterday," said Gennoe, speaking to nufc.co.uk as it was confirmed that the 38-year-old was leaving St. James' Park after 20 years.
"The Club wanted an assessment as to whether I felt he would make it or not. He had a fantastic game and it was decision made. I had no doubt at all that he was a valuable asset for the Club at that stage and that he could play in the top flight."
Gennoe, now with Aston Villa, had two spells at Newcastle, the first between 1997 and 1999, and recalled: "I had a fantastic group of four goalkeepers - Steve, Shay Given, Pavel Srnicek and Shaka Hislop - and I don't think any goalkeeping coach in the country had a better group than I did.
"It was a fantastic group to work with and the two for me who were very similar were Shay Given and Steve Harper.
"Steve was always wanting to push himself, as everybody did in the group, so it was a great learning environment for him to look at other keepers, to improve his game and above all else, bring 100 per cent to training sessions because it was always very competitive."
Gennoe left Newcastle for Celtic but returned in 2006 and noticed a difference in Harper. "He was more assured the second time because he'd obviously played a few games," he said. "And he was always very supportive; he was brilliant at that.
"It was very difficult for him; Harps would play a game and then Shay would be back in because he was regarded as the number one and that's very, very difficult to accept because if he'd have made the step he would have been number one at a lot of other clubs in the Premiership. It was just unfortunate that Shay was in front of him and probably just had that edge.
"Because of Steve's loyalty to Newcastle United, he's not played as many games in the Premiership as he would have done but Steve was definitely one of the best I've worked with and would have graced most teams."
On the afternoon of what proved to be Harper's final appearance, on the final day of last season against Arsenal, Gennoe was involved with Villa's match against Wigan but said: "It must have been very emotional because I know just how much Steve Harper thought of Newcastle United. It was a big part of his life.
"And it was nice for me to be there that day when he played in the FA Cup final in 1999. Even though Newcastle lost, it's still a fantastic memory to have and to walk out for an FA Cup final must have been a highlight for him as well."