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Distinguished cast provides plenty glamour on a big night for Harper and the charities close to his heart; Tonight St James'Park will play host to a testimonial with a difference. No wonder the region is buzzing about Steve Harper's star-studded charity match, says chief sports writer Mark Douglas.

Byline: Mark Douglas

IT IS the sort of match to whet the appetite of any Newcastle United supporter: AC Milan under the lights at St James' Park.

Add a stellar cast list that includes some of the best players ever to lace up a pair of boots and enough subplots to fill a Dan Brown blockbuster, and there really is no excuse for not feeling a pang of excitement at the prospect of Steve Harper's charity match.

Unless, that is, you're Harper himself. "I am officially the most stressed man in the world at the moment," the former United goalkeeper quips.

Pulling together the marquee match that will take place at 7pm tonight has been a challenge for Harper, who has had to pull in favours accrued over his decades of service to United.

He owes a couple now, not least to Steve Wraith - whose contacts with the former players' association have helped to pull in a roll call of black-and-white greats past and present.

Alongside Harper himself - who will play through the pain barrier - there is Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Rob Lee, Faustino Asprilla, Andy Cole, David Ginola, Nolberto Solano, Brian Kilcline, Peter Beardsley, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton (among others).

They will take on a breathtaking AC Milan Glorie side playing in England for the first time that includes Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Mark van Bommel, Christian Vieri and Alessandro Costacurta.

The prize on offer is the Sir Bobby Robson Shield but the bigger aim is to raise a huge amount for local charities handpicked by Harper. "It is absolutely brilliant that they have all agreed to come and play for this game. I'm honoured and overwhelmed, and to even have my name mentioned in the same breath as them is something else," said Harper.

This is no normal testimonial though. As Harper freely admits, it is not really about his unstinting and loyal service at all: "I had my farewell on the final game of last season - this isn't really about me but it's good that I've been able to do something for these causes that feel very close to my heart.

"And it will be a very competitive game.

"They have a very, very competitive team and if you look at those defenders we will have a job getting a shot in. Someone asked me the other day if we get a penalty in the last minute will I take it? "I said to them, 'Looking at that team, do you really think we'll get a penalty? Those Italian defenders won't let us get close!" There is more than just a final chance to indulge in a bit of nostalgia that is encouraging fans to snap up tickets in their thousands though. With more than 40,000 sold - and a sell-out a very real hope - there are a few intriguing returns in the pipeline.

Sub-plot numer one: Paolo Di Canio will return to the stadium for the first time since he led Sunderland to a 3-0 victory at the last Tyne-Wear derby.

"I just think it's fantastic that he's agreed to play. When I heard that he was going to play I was delighted," Harper says.

"One of the charities that we're raising money for is the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and Bobby was a North East football man.

"I'm sure that everyone remembers that he watched the final game of the season in 2009 at Sunderland.

"Sir Bobby was a watcher of North East football and I think he would appreciate the gesture of the Sunderland manager to come and play. These charities reach across the entire region and they don't discriminate based on who you support.

"Many Sunderland supporters will have been fortunate to use the facilities that they fund so it is fantastic that Paolo is going to play and support them.

"Obviously he is the Sunderland manager, which everyone has picked up on, but don't forget he was a fantastic footballer and I can't wait to see him play.

"He is another topclass footballer in the AC Milan Glorie team."

Sub-plot number two: Joey Barton returns to Newcastle United for the first time since his departure in 2011.

He will share a dressing room with Shearer, the man he enjoyed a topsyturvy relationship with when they worked together as manager and player.

"There are some great players coming back for this game but there won't be any scores settled," said Harper.

There is a bigger narrative at play here.

At a time when Newcastle supporters are despairing of their club, this is a great chance to indulge in some unabashed and also unpolitical celebration of all the things that are great about United - while also helping some fantastic causes.

A sell-out would reinforce all the terrific things about North East football that we cling to in the face of a lack of tangible trophies or success. Harper hopes one final push could edge the crowd closer to capacity. "North East football fans are special. I think the response to this shows you that," he says.


Steve Harper >cannot wait to welcome AC Milan legends such as Paolo Maldini (top) to St James'Park tonight

Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio, pictured above taking on Newcastle's >Nikos Dabizas for West Ham in 2001, will play in the AC Milan Glorie side tonight. Controversial former Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton, left, makes a return to St James'Park in the Newcastle United line-up
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 11, 2013
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