Lionel Perez 'refused to go on the bench' against Sunderland – here's why
“I love that, son – you’d get your head kicked off for me!”
Those were the late, great Sir Bobby Robson’s words to Steve Harper after a 2-0 win over CSKA Sofia in the Stadion Balgarska Armia.
The goalkeeper had dived, head first, for the ball during Sir Bobby’s first victory as Newcastle United manager.
That UEFA Cup win in Buglaria was a start, but what the club really needed was Premier League win on English soil, having taken a solitary point from seven games. The team inherited by Robson following the dismissal of Ruud Gullit was 19th in the division.
Twenty years ago today Newcastle, beaten 2-1 by Sunderland on their previous home outing, took on Sheffield Wednesday at St James’s Park looking for that win.
And the 90 minutes that followed changed everything.
United won 8-0 thanks to five goals from Alan Shearer and strikes from Aaron Hughes, Kieron Dyer and Gary Speed. Only Manchester United have won a Premier League game by a bigger margin.
Harper was in that goal that day, having recovered from injury in time to play in the European tie in Sofia.
“I was injured,” said Harper. “I two badly swollen elbows, so I was struggling. I couldn’t dive without causing myself a lot of pain.
“I wasn’t due to be involved in the Sunderland game, but when Lionel Perez found out that Tommy Wright had been brought in on loan, he refused to be on the bench, and Ruud Guillit got me out of the treatment room and I had to sit on the bench for the Sunderland game even though I would have struggled to dive.
“If you remember I think Niall Quinn slid in and smashed Tommy into one of the goalposts. There was a monsoon. I was thinking ‘I’ve got to go on here, and I can’t even dive!’.
“The Chelsea game was Bobby’s first game, and my elbows were improving. Tommy played. We lost 1-0, but did quite well. The signs were there of the Sir Bobby Robson effect.
“We had the game at Sofia, where I was back in the team, and we won 2-0. I remember there was a loose ball in the box, and I dived in head first for it. Bobby said to me after the game ‘I love that, son – you’d get your head kicked off for me!’. It was just little things like that made you feel special. He appreciated that I was willing to stick my head in and was prepared to get hurt for the team.
“Then, obviously, there was the excitement and anticipation of a Newcastle fan coming back when we needed him most for the Sheffield Wednesday game … the city was buzzing.”
Sir Bobby had done something no other manager had with Harper after taking over at the club.
“I was impressed with him on the first day or two when he spoke to every player, just five or 10 minutes,” said Harper, who made 199 appearances for the club during his two decades at St James’s Park.
“He probed them, quizzed them, and found out a little bit in the first couple of days. He’s the only manager that’s ever done that in my 23 years as a professional. He was brilliant, he gave himself a jump start finding out about people’s characters, whether they needed an arm around the shoulder or a kick up the backside.”
After a lengthy teamtalk, Robson’s side took to the field on September 19, 1999.
“We were all just riding the wave of excitement,” said Harper, Northern Ireland’s goalkeeping coach. “He loved the 45-minute teamtalks. He was always flipping between languages. He was always very in depth with his work leading up to the game.
“What people forget about that game is that they started quite well and scored a goal which was disallowed for offside. We were quite fragile at the time, and it could have been a different story.
“We scored the first goal, and it went quickly from there. It was incredible. If Carlsberg did first home games, that was it for Sir Bobby. We were off and running.”
Harper, however, couldn’t help but feel for Kevin Pressman, his opposite number.
“With the goalkeepers’ union, I felt a bit of sympathy for Kevin Pressman,” said Harper. “Alan was brilliant. It was a big turning point for Alan from Gullit not getting the best out of him. Sir Bobby made him feel special. Everybody remembers Paul Robinson wanting to take the penalty when Alan had scored four goals already and being told ‘no, no, that’s my job!’.
“It was a special day, but when you’re a goalkeeper, you’re always conscious once it gets to five, six, seven or eight … while you’re delighted, you feel a bit of sympathy for the opposition goalkeeper.”
Newcastle went on to finish 11th that season, and after a challenging first full season at the club, Sir Bobby guided the team to third, fourth and fifth-placed finishes.
“He stabilised us,” said Harper. “From being rock bottom, we finished 11th. Then came the transition to get legs and energy in the team. Mick Wadsworth was there, and we were changing formations at home, conscious of other teams. When Mick left and John Carver became assistant, we were a bit more of an attacking, front-foot side.”
And the rest is history.