Shay Given and Steve Harper

By Dan King - Newcastle United Club Reporter

On Thursday morning, when it was confirmed that Steve Harper would be leaving Newcastle United after 20 years, the 38-year-old spent the day playing golf with Shay Given. It was fitting that the pair were together on the day Harper's time on Tyneside finally came to an end, for they both played such a big role in each other's footballing lives.

For well over a decade, the duo battled it out for the number one jersey at St. James' Park and here they were, two great club pros together on the golf course as the curtain came down on Harper's long Magpies career.

They were fierce rivals but close friends from the moment Given arrived from Blackburn in 1997. They even looked a little bit alike and countless managers struggled to choose between them - although ultimately it was Given who got the nod more often than not.

But, as he spoke exclusively to, Given explained that the presence of Harper at the Club served to push him onto greater heights as he established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the country and arguably the world.

"When I first joined Newcastle, Harps was there with Shaka Hislop and Pavel Srnicek so there were a few keepers at the time," Given recalled.

"We're a similar age - he's just a year older than me - and from day one we just hit it off. We worked really well and worked hard together as a group of keepers. When you work with goalkeepers you've got to work closely every day in training, and to be fair we had a good relationship the whole time we were there - for many, many years.

"It was a great relationship we had and we helped each other as much as we could. We worked together hard and we helped each other and shared a bit of advice.

"If you've got someone of Steve's calibre pushing to get in the team as well, you've got to work really hard to stay in the team. He was performing really well in training so you've got to be on your toes every week to stay in the team. He's a top keeper and if you slip up and make mistakes then they can always change it and put him in the team. That was important, to have someone like Steve to keep pushing me every week and pushing me hard.

"He kept his head down and just worked hard and got the same treatment every day. We always said, it wasn't me who picked the team - it was the manager - so we never really had an argument about anything. It was probably tough for Steve because he wasn't playing - it's always easier for the guys in the team because you want to play, obviously."

For the 1998 FA Cup final against Arsenal, Given was preferred to Harper but a year later, Harper was chosen to face Manchester United at Wembley. It was perhaps the highlight of Harper's career but for Given, it was a taste of what his mate had tasted so many times before.

"It was disappointing for me because I'd played all the games up to the final and then Ruud Gullit changed the team for the final, so that was frustrating from my point of view," Given said. "But obviously it was an opportunity for Steve.

"It was heady heights for Newcastle - two cup finals two years in a row, albeit we lost out on both occasions, but both of us had that experience of playing at Wembley in the FA Cup final."

Despite both men fighting for one place in the team, however, Given insists it was never difficult to maintain their close relationship.

"Not really," he said. "We probably had a couple of rows about two touch or head tennis or something like that, but there was nothing major kicked off. We were just two down-to-earth lads from a working class background.

"We were both from a similar background and we both knew how lucky we were to be at a Club like Newcastle - the size of the Club, the stature, and we just felt privileged to play for the Club and tried to do our best for it. Growing up as a kid in Ireland - and I'm sure for Steve growing up in Easington - it was a dream come true.

"And I'll always remember his one liners. It doesn't matter who it was, it could be the manager or it could be the kitman, he's really sharp. Was I ever on the wrong end of them? All the time. All the time."

In January 2009, Given ended his own association with Newcastle when he signed for Manchester City. Harper became the number one for the second half of that season but couldn't prevent relegation at the end of the campaign.

However, he was a virtual ever-present as Chris Hughton's side stormed to the Championship title the following term and began the following season as first choice in the Barclays Premier League.

The emergence of Tim Krul over the past two-and-a-half seasons as an international class goalkeeper again saw Harper kept out of the side but, as Harper seeks new employment for the first time since 1993, Given believes there will be no shortage of takers.

"Even last year when he came in he did really well," he said. "I still think there'll be all manner of clubs hoping to take him in the summer. He's 38 and you look at someone like (Brad) Friedel who's 42 and just signed another year's contract.

"Steve's definitely got a couple more years left, I think, and he'll bring experience and time in the game, so it'd be a good signing for any club."