West Derby, Liverpool born inside right John Brearley began his football career with Liverpool & District League side Liverpool South End from where he joined Kettering in 1895, playing a single season before he was signed by Second Division Notts County, unusually making his senior debut in a Football League Test Match at Burnley in April 1897 when he scored the only goal of the game. However with Notts County promoted to the First Division he only played once more for The Magpies, in a 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers that October.
A move to Chatham followed in 1898 and onwards to Millwall Athletic in 1899. Brearley played 51 games and scored 13 goals for Millwall Athletic as he helped them win the Southern League District Combination and reach the semi final of the FA Cup in 1900 in March 1900, where they lost in a replay to Southampton at Elm Park, Reading after a drawn first match in front of 60,000 spectators at The Crystal Palace, before he returned to Notts County in the close season, making 8 appearances in their 1900-01 campaign.
Before the 1900-01 season was over Brearley joined Second Division Middlesbrough, making his ‘Boro debut against Grimsby Town at the end of April. The following season he was Middlesbrough’s top scorer with 23 goals in the campaign from 33 games, including a four goal salvo in a 7-2 demolition of Barnsley at Oakwell as they won promotion to the top flight as Second Division runners up. His form attracted the attention of hometown First Division Everton, who signed him towards the end of April 1902.
He made his debut in a rather sad set of circumstances. Several weeks prior to Brearley joining Everton, England had met Scotland in an international match at Ibrox Park in Glasgow. The game had been in progress for 30 minutes when part of the wooden terracing collapsed sending the spectators crashing to the ground below. The game continued but, when the final analysis was revealed, 25 people had lost their lives while hundreds more were injured.
The SFA, along with the FA, decided that Celtic and Rangers, along with Everton and Sunderland, would play in a specially arranged tournament to raise money that would go to help the families of the victims. Everton and Rangers met at Goodison Park, the game ending in 0-0 draw, and the replay took place at Ibrox 3 days later. Brearley took part in the game and scored as Everton were beaten by 3 goals to 2.
His League debut for Everton followed at the start of September in a defeat at West Bromwich Albion and scored his first goal four weeks later in a 3-1 win over Liverpool at Goodison Park. Despite a hat-trick for The Toffees against former club Middlesbrough in January 1903, Brearley lost his place to Sandy Young the following month after 8 goals in 24 appearances and never regained it. He was then signed for Tottenham Hotspur by former Evertonian, John Cameron and went on to score 7 goals in 78 Southern League and FA Cup games for them over the next four seasons, and having featured across the forward line in his career it was at Tottenham that he converted to being a half back.
In January 1905 he played for a Professionals of the South XI against an Amateurs of the South XI during an England trial at White Hart Lane and the following month he was called into the England squad for the match against Ireland at Ayresome Park but was not included in the final eleven, being held in reserve, and never won a full England cap.
In the 1907 close season Brearley moved to Crystal Palace where he scored 3 times in 77 appearances during his two seasons with The Eagles, before a return to Millwall Athletic in 1909, where he became the club’s player-coach, retiring from playing in 1911.
Brearley subsequently worked as a coach at BFC Viktoria 89 Berlin in Germany. During the First World War he was interned at Ruhleben, the civilian detention camp in Germany. Brearley was one of several former professional footballers at Ruhleben. Among them were his former Everton teammate, Samuel Wolstenholme, and his former manager at Tottenham, John Cameron. Others included former England internationals, Fred Spiksley, Fred Pentland, and Steve Bloomer and a former German international Edwin Dutton.
The camp contained between 4,000 and 5,500 prisoners. Gradually a mini-society evolved and football became a popular activity. Cup and league competitions were organised and as many as 1,000 attended the bigger games. On 2nd May 1915 an England XI featuring Brearley, Pentland, Wolstenholme and Bloomer played a World XI captained by Cameron. Brearley also captained the Barracks 10 team that won a cup competition in 1915. He was eventually repatriated to England in November 1918.