Hands on: Steve Harper worked with Shay Given for 12 years and is full of admiration for him

Steve Harper runs through the back streets of his memory of a childhood in the County Durham coalfield village of Easington. We are on the brink of the 25th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike, which went national on 12 March 1984, and Harper remembers it well. One of modern British history's most convulsive periods is part of him, and he of it.

That makes Harper a different sort of football man, and at Newcastle United, 20 miles north of Easington, the goalkeeper has had a different sort of career. It could be said to be upside down. Soon to be 34 and into his 16th season at St James' Park, Harper has just seized the No 1 spot at the club, rather than having just relinquished it. He has longevitybut "low mileage", and though his chance has ome late due to Shay Given's 12 years on Tyneside, Harper'sdetermination is apparent.

"The big thing I got from my upbringing," he says, "from my parents, from the miners, was the work ethic. I broke my thumb and ruptured ligaments in my first year as a pro, and only my attitude got me through, I think. I'll be impressing that upon my children."

Harper was almost nine when the miners' strike began in 1984, that Orwellian year. He was almost 10 when it ended. His father, Alan, worked at Easington Colliery. The strike lasted a year; Alan Harper was out for a year.

"I just remember what a tough time it was," he recalls. "I was a young lad who used to go down to the mine at four in the afternoon and wait outside for my dad to come out of the doors. I can picture it vividly even now. It was up the end of the street, through the allotments and I was there; I'd see him coming out and walk back up with him. A lot of young lads did the same.

"Easington was a very productive mine and in a town like that, to lose the colliery, the main income – for a year – hit very hard. I don't think it was so much the strike itself but the fact it went on so long that made it very hard for families."

"People were very resourceful, they went down to the beach to gather the coal that had washed up there, and the miners were very protective of the children. You weren't really aware of it all, you'd see the pictures of the confrontations and of picket lines on the TV but the miners, the NUM, kept the children away. The NUM was a powerful union, the miners protected their own.

"But you knew you were part of it. Easington Colliery Club had a very good Sunday morning team, and still do by all accounts, but in that football team, without naming names, there were miners and there was a policeman. I remember it being very divisive. It divided communities and occasionally families. People were called "scabs" and, again not naming names, people who were labelled that at the time would still be tarred with that. Feelings are running nowhere near as high as at the time, but if someone's name was to crop up, then you would definitely get someone saying he was a scab – 25 years later."

When the strike ended, Harper says he remembers "a sense of relief", but Easington Colliery, like the rest, was soon wound down and closed forever in 1993. Alan Harper has had caretaker jobs and Harper's uncle and aunt still run the Colliery Club but Easington, like many former pit villages, has struggled. Official statistics have declared it the most deprived place in England. Obesity is on the increase.

"Shay was a big one for taking the mickey," Harper says of his friend Given. "When we went down the A19, he would say to the lads, 'There's where all the benefit people are'. We had a lot of banter about that. I've not been to Donegal."

For 12 years Harper and Given worked together. There were spells when Harper was selected ahead of the Irishman, and Harper played in the FA Cup final defeat by Manchester United in 1999. In 2002 he also played when Newcastle beat Juventus 1-0 in the Champions' League at St James'.

But Given was an obdurate, gifted team-mate. "You had to sit back and admire him, but that could be very hard. I did go and see managers – all of them – and ask to play, here or on loan. That opportunity was not afforded, but because I didn't spout my mouth off people assume that I was just happy to be sitting there."

Harper wasn't. But he understands the question about his perceived lack of ambition. If Given had not left for Manchester City in January then Harper would be preparing to leave Newcastle this summer. Yet he remains, a new deal signed 16 years after the first.

Although Harper says Newcastle are "of course in a relegation battle", the improved mood within is reflected in three games unbeaten. Bolton Wanderers today and Manchester United on Wednesday will test that sentiment. Hard times could beckon yet, though Harper knows about those.