STEVE Harper is backing Newcastle United for a grandstand finish to the season after his own campaign was brought to an early end.
The Easington-born goalkeeper today underwent surgery after a niggling knee problem flared up last month.
Captain Kevin Nolan has also been ruled out of the Magpies’ final two games after having an operation on his ankle yesterday, the pair joining a lengthy list of absentees for Sunday’s visit to Chelsea.
Injuries have restricted Harper to 18 Premier League appearances this term, with Tim Krul the beneficiary.
And Krul and his colleagues face Chelsea looking to secure a top-10 finish.
Few will fancy Newcastle to upset the odds at Stamford Bridge, though, having already exceeded many expectations by securing safety well before the end of the campaign, Harper is upbeat about their chances against a Chelsea side whose title dreams evaporated with defeat at Manchester United last weekend.
“Chelsea will be angry at what happened last week, and looking to go out on a high,” Harper said.
“They had a strong team out when we beat them in the cup down there. I was on the operating table while the lads won at Stamford Bridge.
“We know we can go there and win, but we’re under no illusions – it’ll be a very tough game.
“Hopefully we’ll get a positive result and celebrate a job well done against West Brom.
“To get 44 points with a couple of games to go is fantastic, and we’ll be trying to get 50.
“Sunday will be very tough, but if we can get to 47 or 48 points, we’d have taken that before the start of the year.”
Harper’s main focus now is ensuring he is fully fit for pre-season, when he faces competition from Krul and Fraser Forster, on a season-long loan at Celtic, for the goalkeeper’s jersey.
The 36-year-old had a lengthy spells on the sidelines earlier in the season after damaging shoulder ligaments at Everton, and he knows he’ll have to be at his best if he’s to continue as first choice at St James’s Park.
“The shoulder thing was massive,” Harper added. “At my age, I didn’t need that. It was on my dominant side as well. “They told me I’d be out four months, and I was back in 11 weeks.
“I got back in the team and we had a really good spell. I’ve had the injection I have every six months, and it’s flared up again unfortunately.
“I had a chat with the manager when we were safe, and he said he’d put Tim in and have a look at him, and I had no problem with that. So far, he’s done very well in the team.
“I’ve got to get my knee right now and come back pre-season firing on all cylinders, as the two young lads behind me are champing at the bit, and ready to take the jersey from me.”
Newcastle are chasing a first league win at Chelsea in almost 25 years – when reserve-team coach Peter Beardsley was on the scoresheet in a 3-1 victory.
Beardsley recalled: “That was a long time ago, but to win at Chelsea any time is special.
“I remember all my good days. When I look at it, playing for Newcastle, it was very rare that we won in London in those days.
“To actually do that was special. You always remember good things. Chelsea weren’t what they are now, but it was still nice.”
Newcastle are aiming to maintain a top-10 spot, and Beardsley added: “I never had any doubt we’d be safe. It’s been a great team effort. “I know it sounds silly, but both teams can relax. Chelsea, I’d imagine, will finish second, so they can relax.”