Player profile: the highs and lows of John Napier’s lifetime in football

john napier

FIFTY years ago, Brighton & Hove Albion were struggling to acclimatise to life in the old Second Division having won promotion in front of 30,000+ crowds at the Goldstone Ground.

But they were doing it without a player who’d been a record signing, their captain and a stalwart at the heart of the defence for five years – Northern Ireland international John Napier. The manager, who only at the beginning of that year had lavished praised on Napier, sold him to Bradford City for £10,000.

Before long, like many British players at that time, Napier seized the opportunity to earn some extra cash playing in the fledging North American Soccer League during the summer. By the end of the ‘70s, he had moved to the United States permanently to embark on a new life. Today, at the age of 76, he is still there, and, remarkably, is still coaching the game he has loved all his life.

1966, the year of England’s one and only World Cup victory holds quite different special memories for John Napier.

He too was involved in a football match against West Germany. But his memorable moment was two months before they were beaten 4-2 by England at Wembley.

The Germans faced Northern Ireland as part of their warm-up for the tournament, and 19-year-old Napier lined up against them for what would be his one and only full international.

“Walking out at Windsor Park, Belfast, against West Germany was probably the highlight of my soccer career,” he said. “All my family were there watching, and afterward we had a large dinner and I was sat directly across from Uwe Seeler and Franz Beckenbauer. It was some night I will never forget.”

The match, on 7 May 1966, saw the Germans win 2-0 courtesy of goals by Seeler and Fredy Heiß. Napier had previously played at other age group levels for his country and earned the call-up as a reward for his form with second tier Bolton Wanderers, where he had just been named Player of the Season. But world events (trouble in the Middle East meant a match v Israel was postponed) and club commitments (clubs had the right to veto international calls back then) meant he never got to play for his country again.

Born in Lurgan on 23 September 1946, Napier was football daft from a young age.

“Looking back at my childhood, I always wanted it,” he said. “It was my dream. I had two uncles that played at pro level in Northern Ireland and they worked with me at a young age. They toughened me up. I was never afraid to try new things. I left home at 15 to pursue my dreams, and it worked out. It was not easy, but you must keep at it. Failure was not an option in those times.”

Napier played for his country’s schoolboy side at under 15 and under 16 level, and was the youngest Irish player, at 17, in the youth side that reached the final of the UEFA European Under-18 Championship tournament in April 1963.

In front of a crowd of 34,582 at Wembley, he had the misfortune to score an own goal with his head after only five minutes and England went on to beat the Irish 4-0.

Remarkably, Northern Ireland’s greatest ever player, George Best, only played in two youth internationals for his country. Napier was in the same side as Best when the Irish drew 1-1 with England at Boundary Park, Oldham, on 11 May 1963.

A week later they were selected together again and Best scored his country’s goal as they drew 1-1 with Wales in Aberystwyth.

john napier

Under the tuition of George Taylor, George Hunt and the legendary Nat Lofthouse, Napier rose through the youth ranks at Bolton Wanderers alongside the likes of Brian Bromley (who later took over the Brighton captaincy from him), Dave Hatton and future England and Manchester City star Francis Lee.

The boots of the longstanding centre-half Bryan Edwards were big ones to fill, but Bolton boss Bill Ridding was happy to give Napier the opportunity to stake his claim, and he made his first appearances in the senior side in the final two games of the 1964-1965 season.

Napier helped the side keep clean sheets against Leyton Orient and Cardiff City as the Trotters just missed out on promotion, finishing third. Newcastle went up as champions along with runners up Northampton Town.

Bolton at that time had a side that included Welsh international striker Wyn Davies (often Napier’s roommate for away matches), England international goalkeeper Eddie Hopkinson and Gordon Taylor, who went on to become chairman of the PFA.

For 18 months, Napier was a regular at the heart of the Bolton defence, missing just three games in his first full season and playing in the game at Burnden Park against Charlton Athletic on 21 August 1965 which saw the Addicks’ Keith Peacock become the first substitute used in English football when replacing goalkeeper Mike Rose.

The Ulsterman himself was involved in the first ever Bolton substitution when, following injury, he was replaced in the 3-2 defeat at home to Southampton by the aforementioned Taylor.

Although Napier had been in and out of the side towards the end of the 1966-67 season, it was something of a surprise when, at the start of the new season, Brighton manager Archie Macaulay made Napier a record signing for the third tier club, securing his services for £25,000.

“£25,000 was a lot back then,” Napier recalled.

“Brighton had come in with a £20,000 first offer which Bolton refused. I don’t think at the time that Bolton wanted to let me go, so I was told, so they kept refusing offers from Brighton. There were a couple of other clubs in at the time, so that is why the fee went to £25,000.”

The Irishman continued: “It was a difficult decision because I was still young and ambitious. But, at the same time, I felt I needed to break from Bolton for a fresh start.”

Napier quickly established a formidable partnership with Norman Gall in the middle of Brighton’s defence.

“We hit it off straight away and played many times together and so consistently. We were tough and could read and feed of each other. I was good in the air and was able to master tall number 9s, as we had a lot back then. Norman was quicker than me and could handle speedy players alongside the big guys, so it was a good combination.”

The Irishman received Albion’s first-ever Player of the Season award for his consistent performances in the 1968-69 season, when he played in all 52 matches

“I was very proud of getting that award especially as it came from the fans at the Goldstone Ground. I had a good rapport with the fans; I felt that they respected the way I played, always giving my best. I also did a lot of work in the community at the time, as did most of the players. We were always out somewhere. I remember coaching a local team in the evenings.”

Napier was also popular in the boardroom: comedian, actor and musician Norman Wisdom, an Albion director in the ‘60s, declared the Irishman his favourite player. “He was always at our games and brought a laugh into the dressing room even if we lost,” said Napier. “A great character.”

It was Macaulay’s successor, Freddie Goodwin (the former Manchester United and Leeds United player), who made Napier club captain.

“I wanted to be that person, to be a leader and to continue to try to bring success to the club,” he said. “I always felt that Brighton was a sleeping giant back then.”

He continued:

“I personally had some of my best spells under Freddie. When he left to take the Birmingham job, it was disappointing for the players. We knew it was because he was doing such a great job with us, but it was still hard to swallow.”

Napier added:

“For me he was the best man manager I had the pleasure to play for. He brought different ideas to the club. He had been a good player and also had coached in the USA. He was a coach that would be able to lift you as an individual, both as a person and as a player. We had a good group that felt very comfortable with his playing style.”

Napier recalled Goodwin introducing the players to a new powder he brought from America called Gatorade to dilute in water and drink for energy. “That was the first time Gatorade was seen in the UK,” he said. “Now look at it today!”

john napier

He continued:

“Also, he would bring in fancy-coloured boots from companies for us to try out instead of the old black and white ones. That was so funny: we would wear bright blue boots in training but I don’t think anyone wanted to wear them in a game in case the crowd got on to them. How times have changed!

“I loved them; they were softer and very comfortable.”

Such was Napier’s prominence at Brighton, 106 of his nearly 250 appearances for the club were made consecutively. That was until March 1972.

“I was lucky with injuries, which normally keeps players out. Mine were mostly cuts around the head area or a broken nose – but nothing serious to keep me out. Nothing is for ever, for sure, but you always wanted to be on the field.”

As winter turned to spring in 1972, Albion’s chances of promotion from the Third Division looked ever more promising as they vied for one of the top two spots with Aston Villa and Bournemouth.

Manager Pat Saward had even gone public with his thoughts about his ever-present captain, suggesting to Goal magazine that he should be recalled to the Northern Ireland team.

john napier

“The way he is playing, he ought to walk into the side,” said Saward. The article described Napier as ‘the kingpin of the Brighton defence’ and went on to say at 25 he formed ‘one of the best pairings in the Third Division with 28-year-old Norman Gall’.

But, on the back of two defeats, Albion prepared to face Villa at the Goldstone on 25 March in front of the BBC Match of the Day cameras.  Saward – a former FA Cup winner with Villa – mysteriously and controversially dropped his ‘kingpin’ for what was undoubtedly one of the biggest games of the season.

Napier found himself replaced by Ian Goodwin, a rugged but injury-prone defender who had played under the manager during his coaching days at Coventry City. Regular right-back Stewart Henderson was also left out.

“A manager must always make decisions for the good of the club as a whole,” wrote Saward in his column for the Evening Argus. “There can be no room for sentiment. There are times when a player who has given his all, and fallen under severe pressure, has to come out of the side for a rest.”

Saward’s decision was vindicated when Albion won the match 2-1 and Napier’s fellow Irish international, Willie Irvine, scored a terrific goal, still available to watch on YouTube, that was judged by legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein to be Match of the Day’s third best goal of the whole season.

But, all these years later, Napier still can’t shed any light on exactly why he was dropped.

“I still am not sure why that happened,” he said. “I know it is all part of the game. There were no signs that I was playing any different. I was the club captain when Pat arrived, and he did not change that. I played many games with him as the manager. He had me in the office the week before the Villa game and we talked about a lot of things as we were right in the promotion mix with a good chance of going into the Second Division. I should have probably realised when he wanted to talk in the office. That was not too common with Pat, it was usually a full team meeting. He did say he was leaving me out. Obviously, I was not happy and told him so. I really did not get an explanation as to why, and that is the part that was difficult.”

Napier played no further part in the side as Brighton went on to win promotion as runners up to Villa, and he said: “I had been in that promotion side for mostly all the season and felt I did not get the recognition for being part of our success. We were barely on speaking terms at the end of the season.”

Napier continued:

“I asked Pat for a transfer. I thought about it deeply as I loved the area and my home on Shoreham Beach. My daughter was born in Hove, but I did not see me getting back in the team whilst the management remained, so I felt it was best for me to try to move my family back to the north of England. I worked hard every day in training hoping maybe there would be reconciliation, but it was not to be, and I was still on the outside looking in. I wanted to play and realised that was not going to happen. Pat did say he would help but would want a decent size fee for me to move on. We were both hotheads and I wasn’t a very patient person and wanted it to happen as quickly as possible.”

He did, in fact, return to the first team line-up for a 2-1 home win over Exeter City in the League Cup and as a substitute in a 1-1 league draw at Villa. Then, when Goodwin was hospitalised for knee cartilage surgery, Napier was restored alongside Gall for a five-game run in September 1972. But his last appearance for the Albion came at home to Hull City on 7 October, when Albion recovered from a half-time deficit to draw 1-1.

“Back then, as there were no agents, you had to try to help yourself as a player and it was not uncommon for players to call other clubs and managers or coaches they knew. But it is not so easy when there is a transfer fee involved. I did get a call from Bryan Edwards who had taken over as the manager of Bradford City in the Third Division. Incidentally, I had taken over the centre-half position at Bolton when Bryan retired as a player.”

Napier continued:

“I did go in to see Pat after Bradford talked to them, but he told me the club wanted the full asking price. I was mad at the time and some heated words were said.” Eventually, a fee of £10,000 was agreed and he moved to Bradford.

He played 107 games for Bradford City across six seasons at Valley Parade, interspersed with loan spells in the USA at Baltimore Comets, playing alongside former Brighton and Bradford teammate Allan Gilliver, and its franchise follow-up, San Diego Jaws (which later became San Diego Sockers).

Following his release by Bradford, and temporary return from the States, Napier joined non-league Mossley in September 1975. But two months later he returned to the Bantams as an assistant coach to manager Bobby Kennedy, the former Manchester City player who had taken over from Edwards in January of that year.

john napier

“When I stopped playing, I really wanted to get into the coaching side. I had worked in the youth system at Brighton and in Bradford, and I just loved being around young players.”

After a seven-game losing streak saw Kennedy sacked in February 1978, Napier took over the hotseat. Unfortunately, his tenure was brief and unpopular. He was in charge when City were relegated from the Third Division to the Fourth.

“It only lasted a year, but I learned so much about what it takes to be in charge and making decisions,” he said.

Fascinatingly, he revealed:

“One of the first things I did as a young manager at the age of 32 was to drive over to Elland Road and sit down with the great Don Revie. We had a great conversation about management; what a gentleman he was. I also made the trip down the motorway to meet with Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at Nottingham: another great experience. I was determined to hear from the best.”

Sadly, it didn’t pay off and after just 34 games in charge (11 wins, five draws and 18 defeats) he was sacked and replaced by George Mulhall, the former Halifax Town manager.

In December 1979, Napier intended to turn his back on coaching and management to start a new football-related venture in America, taking his young family to settle in San Diego.

But a football equipment shop he opened in Escondido ended up being a flop and Napier contemplated packing it in and returning to England. Then he had an upturn in fortunes when award-winning sportswriter and columnist for The Times-Advocate, Bob Gaines, invited him to write a regular column for a start-up football magazine and, having penned some pieces for the Bradford Telegraph & Argus during his time in Bradford, Napier took on the opportunity.

“This was promotion we needed, and it did help, but not a lot. We were still struggling to get by each month and walk-in customers were non-existent,” he said.

However, one of the shop’s customers invited him to start coaching a high school football team. It was below the level he wanted to be at, but it was a step in the right direction.

It led him to meet Ron Newman, a former Portsmouth and Gillingham player, who was the head coach of the local professional side, San Diego Sockers (Napier had played for the forerunner of the Sockers – San Diego Jaws – after that franchise had replaced the Baltimore Comets).

john napier

Newman offered Napier a one-year contract as the Sockers’ youth coordinator running events at local elementary and middle schools.

“The players would visit and talk to the kids and do some exhibition stuff on the playgrounds and school fields. It was a lot of fun, and the players liked it.”

He also began coaching an under-23 team, Escondido Royals, who played decent level opposition in and around Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. From there, he didn’t look back.

“I got my top US soccer coaching licence many years ago and have worked for US soccer as a coaching educator in my area (southern California), getting thousands of young coaches their licence on their pathway to their future in the game. It has been a rewarding experience.”

Fortunate to have played his part in the growth of youth football in America, he said:

“Anybody who was around in soccer during the early ‘80s and was able to watch it develop to where the sport is today has to have an inner satisfaction. I certainly do. Soccer, internationally and domestically, both at the higher professional level as well as at the youth levels, has grown tremendously. I am very, very proud.”

The genial Irishman added:

“I have coached many levels in my time in the USA and have seen the growth of the game take off, especially in the last 25 years or so. There are now more kids playing soccer than any other youth sport, such as baseball and American football. The girls’ programs especially have seen an enormous growth, the success of the national women’s team has raised the roof for girls’ soccer. I have been fortunate to have had some really good players in the past and, even now, I see some former pupils in the US national teams.I am proud of my work in youth soccer. It is very rewarding to be able to give back to the game that gave me so much.”

john napier

Napier, at 76, continues to coach regularly for his club, San Diego Soccer Club Surf.

“My week consists of four weekday sessions of three to four hours daily and, at the weekend, I coach my teams both Saturday and Sunday. As long as I have the passion and desire to enjoy the game and the energy to be involved, I will keep at the game that gave me everything.”