Tarbrax, Lanarkshire born goalkeeper Bill Harper enlisted in the British Army during the First World War and served with the 5th Brigade of The Scots Guards on the Western Front. Harper, an all-round sportsman, was Brigade heavyweight boxing champion and captain of The Guards rugby union team when they won a Brigade championship. During the War years he began his football career with junior clubs Winchburgh Thistle in 1916, Winchburgh Violet in 1917, Broxburn St Andrew’s in 1918 and Edinburgh Emmet in 1919 before joining Scottish League Hibernian in 1920.
Harper made his Scottish League debut for Hibernian against Airdrie on 1st September 1920. He spent five years at Easter Road, making 205 appearances, 178 of which were in the League. He also played in two consecutive Scottish Cup Finals, in 1923 and 1924, but finished on the losing side on both occasions, losing to 1-0 to Celtic and 2-0 to Airdrieonians respectively. Harper made his international debut for Scotland in a 1-0 win against Ireland at Windsor Park on 3rd March 1923. He subsequently played in all three games of the 1923, 1924 and 1925 British Home Championships. While with Hibs he also won nine of his 11 Scotland caps and represented the Scottish League XI on three occasions, in 1922, 1923 and 1925.
In November 1925 Harper became one of Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman’s first signings, joining the club for £4,000, then a record fee for a goalkeeper. He made his Football League debut against Bury on 14th November 1925, a match Arsenal won 6-1. Harper became Arsenal’s first choice keeper straight away, displacing Jock Robson and young Welshman Dan Lewis. Harper finished 1925-26 and started 1926-27 as Arsenal’s first choice keeper, during this period he also won his final two Scottish caps in the 1926 British Home Championships, but Chapman blamed Harper for a 4-2 defeat in a North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur on 18th December 1926 and ruthlessly dropped him in favour of Dan Lewis, and in 1927 Harper left Arsenal to play in the nascent American Soccer League having made 49 appearances for The Gunners.
Between 1927 and 1929 he made 79 League appearances for Fall River Marksmen. He also played a further 3 games in the National Challenge Cup and 6 in the Lewis Cup and helped the Marksmen win the League title during the 1928-29 season. Harper’s time in the ASL coincided with both the Great Depression and the Soccer Wars, a power struggle between the ASL and the US Football Association. During this era many clubs relocated, merged or folded. Towards the end of the 1928-29 season Sam Mark, owner of the Marksmen, took over the struggling Boston Soccer Club and Harper then switched from the Marksmen to the Boston team. By the time the Fall 1929 season started they had become The Boston Bears. When the Soccer Wars were resolved, new League rules forbade the ownership of two or more clubs and Mark decided to sell Boston. However, unable to find a buyer, he was forced to dissolve the team after just 4 games of the Spring 1930 season. Harper then joined New Bedford Whalers for the remainder of the season, making 31 League appearances. He also made a further 4 cup appearances, two in the National Challenge Cup and two in the Lewis Cup. During the summer of 1930 Harper re-joined Fall River Marksmen and played in friendlies against Rangers and Kilmarnock and was a member of the Marksmen squad that toured Central Europe.
After three years playing in the American Soccer League, Harper rejoined Arsenal in the 1930 close season. Dan Lewis had by now left the club, and Harper became first choice over Charlie Preedy and Gerard Keizer. In his first season back at Arsenal, Harper won a League Championship winners’ medal, as the club won their first ever League title in 1931. He also played in a 5-3 win over The Corinthians in the Sheriff of London Shield in April 1931. However, during the 1931-32 season Harper was dropped once again after only the second match of the season, an away draw with Blackburn Rovers on 31st August 1931. During both his spells with Arsenal, Harper made 74 appearances for The Gunners.
In December 1931 Harper signed for Plymouth Argyle and went on to make 82 appearances in all competitions over the next five seasons, all of which were in the Second Division. When he lost his place in 1934, Harper was named as the team trainer, but the club retained his registration and he made occasional appearances up to and including the 1940 wartime South West Regional League. After the War he returned to Argyle where he served as a trainer, groundsman and even laundryman. Such was his contribution to the club that he was awarded a testimonial match against Arsenal in October 1972 to mark his long service to The Greens. Plymouth’s training ground, Harper’s Park, is also named after him.