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Bill Harper, an Arsenal man in the USA

By Tony Attwood

This article is part of a growing series about the men that Herbert Chapman brought to Arsenal, or in a couple of cases, inherited from his predecessor, and who went on to take Arsenal to greatness in the 1930s.

This piece is about Bill Harper, but to give an overall context here is the complete series that we are looking at:

Player 1st league season No of games in 1930/1 Most appearances Year of most appearances
Bob John* 1922/3 40 41 1926/7
Jimmy Brain 1924/5 16 41 1925/6
William Harper 1925/6 19 23 1926/7
Joseph Hulme* 1925/6 32 41 1928/9
Tom Parker * 1925/6 41 42 1926/7, 1927/8, 1928/9
William Seddon* 1925/6 18 24 1929/30
Jack Lambert* 1926/7 34 36 1931/2
Herbie Roberts 1926/7 40 40 1930/1
Eddie Hapgood*
1927/8 38 40 1933/4
Charlie Jones 1928/9 24 39 1928/9
David Jack* 1928/9 34 35 1930/31
Alex James* 1929/30 40 40 1930/31, 1932/3
Charles Preedy* 1929/30 11 13 1931/2
Cliff Bastin*
1929/30 42 42 1929/30, 1931/2,
Gerald Keyser 1930/1 12 12 1930/1

Bill Harper was the son of a Scottish blacksmith – a trade that he seemed set to join before the first world war.  However during the war he served with the Scots Guards and became very involved in sports, from heavyweight boxing to rugby union.

Scottish league football continued during the war, and Bill joins Hibs in September 1920 as a goalkeeper, and played for the side for five years, twice reaching the final of the Scottish Cup.  He also played for Scotland and the Scottish League.

Prior to Chapman’s arrival Knighton had been using Jock Robson in goal with D Lewis as reserve keeper.

Jock Robson (also Scottish) had joined Arsenal in 1921 and made 101 appearances for the club.  However he was only 5′ 8″ tall and although he did play nine times early in the 1925/6 season Chapman did not rate him highly and he was transferred to Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic in August 1926.

Dan Lewis had joined Arsenal in summer 1924 and played 167 Arsenal matches in seven years and despite the size of Herper’s transfer fee he continued to play for Arsenal after the new man’s arrival.   It was Lewis who played in the 1927 FA Cup final against Cardiff.

Clearly when Arsenal broke the goalkeeper record by paying £4000 to bring in Harper it looked as if Chapman had no faith in the existing goalkeepers.  For the first games of the season Robson played nine times and Lewis five.    Harper took over but lost his place after a bad defeat at Aston Villa on April 2 1926.  (The story on Wikipedia about Harper at this point is not quite right).

Harper played the first 20 matches but was then dropped again in favour of Lewis, and only managed 3 more games that season, although he did get the minor consolation of winning a London Combination League Winner’s medal.   Not surprisingly Harper then left and went to play in the American Soccer League and made 79 league appearances for Fall River Marksmen (and later the Boston Soccer Club and upon their dissolution the New Bedford Whalers) which left Lewis back in goal until Keyser came in in 1930 (which is another full story in itself).

Keyser played the first 12 games of the league winning 1930/1 season but then was replaced by Harper, who played 19 games (Charlie Preedy made up the rest). Thus Harper proved to have come back at exactly the right time and won his championship medal.

But he only made two appearances in 1931/2 in the first two games (a 0-1 defeat and a 1-1 draw.    Preedy again took over, but then Chapman signed Frank Moss and in December 1931 Bill Harper was transferred to Plymouth, having appeared just 73 times for Arsenal.  He played 82 appearances, stopping playing to work in the Rosyth dockyards.  Bill was then given the honour of a testimonial match against Arsenal in 1972 and had the training ground of Argyle named after him: Harper’s Park.

Woolwich Arsenal, the club that changed football

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