Simon Smith

By Dan King - Newcastle United Club Reporter

Sir Bobby Robson's trusted goalkeeping coach, Simon Smith, believes only Steve Harper's loyalty to Newcastle United prevented him from winning an England cap.

Nowadays, Smith works with the national team's best young goalkeepers - including Newcastle's Freddie Woodman - as well as running his own coaching school but was at St. James' Park between 1993 and 2004.

And he has no doubt that Harper could have played for his country but for the presence of Shay Given, who was such a formidable barrier in more ways than one. This week it was confirmed that Harper's 20-year spell on Tyneside was over and Smith joined the queue of former coaches and players to pay tribute to the 38-year-old.

"I first came across Harps when Terry Gennoe was the goalkeeper coach and I was working at the Academy," Smith told nufc.co.uk. "Then when I stepped up to the first team, that's when our working relationship started so to speak.

"I appeared at a strange time. Ruud Gullit was manager. I got the job in the summer and both Shay and Harps were injured. During that time we had several trialist goalies.

"I don't know if it's common knowledge but one of the first things Ruud said was 'I'm looking for a new goalie.' So I ended up, in my first couple of months doing the job, looking for a goalie - which I never found, really. We got Tommy Wright on loan and then Ruud Gullit left, Sir Bobby came and the rest is history as they say."

Given showed himself to be one of the very best goalkeepers around, but Smith has no doubt that Harper was also deserving of such recognition - even if he only occasionally got the chance to prove it.

"People say all the time now, 'we've got the two best goalkeepers in the Premier League'. We didn't have the best two goalies in the Premier League: we had the best two Premiership goalies.

"I don't think Harps ever considered himself as a number two goalie so he came with that attitude every day for training - that he was as good as Shay. When I first got the job, they had different strengths and weaknesses. Harps is a terrific 'games player' - his reading the game, sweeping up and distribution is absolutely fantastic.

"Shay had other qualities: a great shot-stopper, very quick and agile, and as a pair they actually learnt off each other. What Harps couldn't do, Shay could and vice versa so as a working environment it was fantastic and they really did work off each other.

"Shay then got in the team and was so consistent that it was difficult for Steve to get in. But then when he did get in for the odd game, he played as though he'd been playing every week. That's special, I've got to say. I've not seen anyone else since who can do that.

"The Champions League game against Juventus in 2002 is one great example of him coming in from the cold and putting in a great performance but he did it on so many occasions. When Sir Bobby wanted to give Shay a rest - even though Shay never wanted a rest - he knew that Harps was just going to come and play with the same level of consistency that Shay had.

"I have nothing but admiration for Harps for the way that he's kept his level of commitment, training and attitude going through what, for him, must have been a massively frustrating time.

"I said this to Shay recently, but looking after Shay was easy because he played every week; the real key role of the job was looking after Harps and keeping him going. I think during my time Wolves came in for him, and Southampton, but because he was classed as a first-team goalkeeper we didn't not want to let him go.

"I have so much admiration for the way he managed to keep going at the highest level for so long. That's the thing that will stick with me.

"At the time, if he had got in the team - and this is an awful thing to say - he'd have possibly had a chance of being in the England squad because it was in that time before Joe Hart. A couple of other people got selected who were a surprise and I think if Steve had played every week, because of the level that he could play at, he would have been in with a shout."

Harper is keen to continue his playing career at the age of 38 but has previously spoken of his desire to become a coach and Smith said: "He's also one of those people who are willing to talk about an experience, which for people doing their coaching awards or fellow goalkeepers is absolutely invaluable.

"I think he'd make an excellent coach for two reasons. One, that the lad himself as I said before was a teriffic games player and his reading of the game, so from that side of it.

"But also, through his career at Newcastle United he's worked with so many different people - managers, first team coaches and goalkeeping coaches. He's the type of lad who will have picked up something from everybody whether it's good or bad. That's an experience that you really can't buy.

"It'd be nice if he went into management or coaching and had a really successful career doing that as well."