Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The first player to score 40 goals in a top-flight season: Ted Harper

One of the most radical changes in the rules of football took place at the start of the 1925-26 season when the offside trap was reduced from three to two players. One man benefitted more than anyone - Ted Harper!

The Golden Boot: Football's Top Scorers by Mark Metcalf http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1445605325/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_Poc3vb1094VJD via @AmazonUK

Season: 1925-26 
Goals scored: 43 (out of 91) 26 home, 17 away 
Percentage: 47%
Runner-up: David Halliday (Sunderland) 36 
Blackburn Rovers finished twelfth

Born in Sheerness, Kent on 22 August 1901, Ted Harper arrived at Ewood Park in 1923 from Sheppey United on the strength of his goalscoring record in the Kent League. Critics said he looked clumsy and had no ball control but as a goalscorer there were few better. He was quickly off the mark with 18 goals in his first season. 

In February 1925, Rovers signed Syd Puddefoot from Falkirk for £4,000. Despite being aged thirty, the ex-West Ham United favourite was a gifted playmaker whose vision and passing ability would - particularly in light of the new rules that reduced the offside trap from three to two players - carve out the sort of chances Harper could happily put away. The result was that in their first full season, Harper was to become the first player to crash through the barrier of forty goals in a League season. It remains a record no one at Ewood Park has seriously threatened since. 

Harper’s season hardly started with a bang, but after failing to be selected for the first three games of it - all of which Rovers lost, including a 6-2 thrashing at Roker Park - he scored a stunning five goals in his first match, aiding his side to a 7-1 win at Newcastle United. The home side had beaten Notts County heavily in the previous game and were in a confident mood before kick-off. 

Few could have predicted how wonderful the away side would play as a team, yet by half time they were already three goals up. Long before the end Harper joined the select band of players who have scored five goals in a top-flight match. He did it by staying well up the field, constantly seeking to break through Newcastle’s continued use of the offside trap that a few short years earlier had been the best in the business, but was now unable to come to terms with the law changes. With Puddefoot inside him, and wingers Joe Hulme and Arthur Rigby outside Harper was presented with numerous chances and did his best to grab as many goals as possible. In the event, five wasn’t too bad. 

Back at Ewood, Harper then scored his first of the season there with a penalty against WBA. Two days later, at Bramall Lane, the Kent lad got his seventh of the season in a 1-1 draw. 

There was a large crowd inside Ewood for the return fixture with Sunderland. They witnessed some of the qualities that had brought Rovers success at Newcastle. Puddefoot, given a roving commission, pulled the Wearsiders' defence apart and after Rigby opened the scoring, Harper added two more in the second period in a 3-0 success. Harper’s nine League goals in just four matches rose to 12 in five in the next game as Cardiff were beaten 6-3 at Ewood Park. 

Two more in his next two games meant it was fourteen in seven. Newcastle arrived much better prepared than in the first game and shocked the home support by winning 2-1, and also stopped Harper scoring for the first time in the season. Bolton repeated the feat at Burnden Park, but Notts County were unable to and his two goals, one a penalty, took Harper’s record up to sixteen in ten starts. 

This rose to nineteen in eleven and as the hat-trick was at Turf Moor, there was extra joy for the Rovers fans that were able to make the short journey to Burnley. With the game tied on 60 minutes at 0-0, Harper pounced when Harold Hill and Jerry Dawson dallied over who should clear the ball. It was a typical opportunist goal, one of many the Rovers man happily picked up during his time with the club, and on 80 minutes he was again in just the right place to accept Puddefoot’s pass and make it 2-0. Just before the end, he again scored to ensure his side won 3-1. A penalty at home to Leeds the following weekend made it twenty in twelve games. 

At home to Everton on Christmas Day, Harper got another couple. The first, reported the Liverpool Echo, was ‘a brilliant equaliser, Harper, after a run of many yards (In which he thrice mastered efforts by McDonald to stop him) leaving Hardy helpless with a fine shot.’ It was now twenty-five in nineteen games. Three more followed in his next four matches before a temporary blip in form saw him score just twice in Rovers’ next five games. 

Nevertheless, with seven from the next eight games it meant that prior to kick-off against Manchester United on 10 April, he had notched thirty-seven League goals and needed just two to overtake Everton’s Bert Freeman and Bolton’s Joe Smith, whose thirty-eight in 1908-09 and 1920-21 respectively remained a League record. Furthermore, a hat-trick and Harper would also overtake David Brown as the top scorer in any league, the Darlington man having scored 39 in the previous season’s Division Three North. 

Despite his successes in front of goal, the Rovers man was not even assured of finishing as Division One top scorer.  Sunderland’s David Halliday had already scored thirty-eight and with Harper certain to miss Rovers’ penultimate game of the season to  represent his country in his debut match against Scotland then he really needed to find the net.

He certainly did so, hammering home four goals in a 7-0 win. Each of his goals was greeted with special cheers, especially the second that took him on to thirty-nine for the season. 

The first was another piece of opportunism and cheeky skill, pouncing on the ball after Alf Steward had saved to drill it just inside the post as he fell backwards. Then after beating Charlie Moore for pace, he cleverly placed the ball beyond the ‘keeper. His third was similar, a brilliant run and a powerful shot, and when he touched home his fourth the crowd roared its approval. Coming off he then learned that Halliday had failed to score against Arsenal, to leave him three ahead of the Sunderland man. 

It was the perfect boost prior to his first international, but with Puddefoot alongside him it was to prove a disappointing afternoon as Scotland won 1-0 at Old Trafford.  Never selected again for his country, it meant Harper never played at Wembley because when Rovers got to the FA Cup Final in 1928 he had already left the previous year to join Sheffield Wednesday.

Back home for the final League game of the season Harper struck a further two goals against Aston Villa to take his seasons record to a remarkable forty-three goals in thirty-seven games. 

At Sheffield Wednesday Harper scored thirteen goals in eighteen games and helped the Owls, with five goals in six games, capture the First Division title in 1928-29. He moved to Spurs in 1929 and scored sixty-two goals in sixty-three League games before returning to Lancashire with Preston in 1931. He saw out his career back with the Rovers in November 1933 before joining the club’s backroom staff until 1948. He broke individual goalscoring records at Blackburn, Tottenham and Preston during his career. His Rovers record reads 177 League and FA Cup Apps, 122 goals. Ted died in Blackburn on the 22 July 1959.