Premier League

The story of the keeper who went from non-league to play for Arsenal

The story of the keeper who went from non-league to play for Arsenal

Lee Harper went from being a non-league goalkeeper at Sittingbourne to David Seaman’s understudy at Arsenal in 1994 – and, remarkably, he even played in the Premier League.

To play once but never again in the top flight might sound like something of a failure, or at least a missed opportunity, but in our One-Game Wonders series we’ve spoken to many players who see it as anything but.

Most of us grew up dreaming of running out on to the field in front of a packed house for a Premier League game, and these One-Game Wonders actually achieved that dream. Rather than focus on what they didn’t do, we should feel nothing but envy. It’s Roy of the Rovers stuff.

That is particularly true of Lee Harper. Signed by Arsenal from Sittingbourne for £150,000 as a 22-year-old in the summer of 1994, the Londoner had always dreamed of becoming a professional, but the realities of the sudden change in his life came as a surprise.

“I found myself in a Roy of the Rovers-type story, which was just being in the right place at the right time,” Harper says. “I started in non-league at Eltham Town, where I asked then to sign for Sittingbourne after playing against them.

“The next thing, Arsenal were watching our centre-half, Neil Emblem, as Sittingbourne were producing a lot of footballers at the time – four left for league clubs that year.

“I remember the day Arsenal came to watch me at Moor Green. Then they watched me again at home and invited me down for a trial – two games against Charlton and Crystal Palace.

“They saw enough to give me that contract, so it was an honour and a dream. I always believed I could do it and it paid off in the end.”

Making the step up

His former Sittingbourne manager John Ryan was soon talking Harper up to the press, but the young goalkeeper quickly realised how much he had to learn.

However, working alongside Seaman under the legendary Bob Wilson, Harper adapted to life at the top and eventually got his chance in the Premier League against Southampton.

“The first year was quite difficult as I remember John Ryan putting a story in one of the local papers saying ‘you’ve got a helluva ‘keeper here’ and ‘he can rival Dave Seaman’,” Harper says.

“I didn’t quite realise that as I had this desire and passion and natural…

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