Toon success surprises Harper

Keeper admits top 10 was target at beginning of season

Steve Harper: Has been surprised by Newcastle's European bid

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Newcastle goalkeeper Steve Harper admits the Magpies' battle for UEFA Champions League qualification this season has come as a surprise.

The 37-year-old, a veteran of the Toon's last adventure on the biggest European stage under Sir Bobby Robson in 2002/03, started the campaign along with his team-mates targeting the top 10.

However, a blistering start, barring the odd blip along the way, has continued largely unabated and they head into Sunday's final day trip to Everton still in with a chance of finishing third in the Premier League.

Surprise

The Magpies have confounded their critics to exceed all expectations, and perhaps even their own.

Harper, who has taken a back seat to Dutch ace Tim Krul this season, said: "Sir Bobby built a young, counter-attacking, real threat of a team and you could see it happening with Sir Bobby, whereas this season, the club was set up for the top 10.

"To be knocking on the door of a Champions League spot is real credit to everybody, and what a fantastic season it's been."

As a result of Chelsea's 4-1 defeat at Liverpool on Tuesday night, Newcastle can finish no lower than fifth and at worst, will play in the UEFA Europa League next season - a remarkable achievement considering that they finished 12th a year ago at the end of their first campaign back in the top flight.

Robson guided the club from 11th place at the end of the 2000/01 season into fourth 12 months later, and while the gap bridged is similar, he had the likes of Given, Rob Lee, Gary Speed and Alan Shearer within his squad.

The former England boss was fondly remembered at the weekend as the club he managed for five years between 1999 and 2004 unveiled a statue in his memory.

Harper's recollections of Robson are many and colourful.

Enthuasiasm

He said: "Whenever people ask you about Sir Bobby, the first thing you do is smile because you think of the enthusiasm, the love he had for the club, for football in general and for his players.

"I remember we played Barcelona at home in pre-season and we were 3-0 down after an hour and he said, 'You are going on, son, you are going on'.

"As I stood there waiting to go on - bearing in mind we were 3-0 down and getting battered - just as I was about to enter the pitch, he said, 'Steve, don't let any more goals in, son, we are getting murdered'.

"We were 3-0 down against Barcelona and I was running on with a smile on my face. That's the way he had of relaxing players and putting them at ease and making them feel comfortable on the big stage.

"He was that type of man, and he is sorely missed."