John Napier – Soccer In San Diego In The 1980s When The Original San Diego Sockers Ruled
John Napier is a former professional soccer player who represented his country of birth Northern Ireland at every International level. He had a distinguished seventeen year professional playing career, starting with Bolton Wanderers in 1961-67. Napier also played for Brighton & Hove Albion and Bradford City in England as well as the NASL in America for the Baltimore Comets and the San Diego Jaws. Napier has coached at the professional level in England, and since the 70’s, the multiple time MVP Napier has shared his expertise developing youth players. A highly respected youth soccer coach, Napier coaches with the San Diego Soccer Club and also identifies players, and coaches for Cal South ODP and has had numerous National Championship winning teams. Napier is a regular columnist sharing his insights on player development and the joys of soccer.
Last month as I reached a milestone in my life, sixty-five years old, I began reflecting on the last thirty two years since I moved into San Diego County to continue my life after soccer (so I thought). Little did I know that today I would still be coaching and enjoying this great game more than ever.
That was not always the case. In December, 1979, I arrived at the San Diego airport with a young family, turning my back on professional soccer in England where I had been playing and coaching professionally for over 20 years. I was burned out on the professional game and was trying to break away and start a new venture (so I thought).
My new venture was to be a successful businessman, and with the help of friends in Escondido we opened a soccer store, named The Soccer Locker. This was to be my future in the game (so I thought).
Well things don’t always go the way you want them to, as I found out the hard way. There was not too much interest in soccer in 1979.
There were very few soccer organizations, it was just a growing sport, and certainly a specialty soccer store was not a good investment at that time. Back then soccer goods were few, and we had some difficult times just finding gadgets to fill our glass display cabinet. It was very frustrating as a business person to spend long hours waiting for a customer to walk through the door.
One day in walked a man named Bob Gaines. I had never met him before, but he worked for the local Times Advocate in their sports department.
I was trying to keep a low profile (so I thought) but Bob had heard there was an ex-professional soccer player in town, so he was all over it. He wanted to start a soccer magaz
ine, and I would do monthly columns on different areas of the game. I was up for it, as I had written a weekly column for the Bradford Evening News, when I was manager of the professional club there.
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 nonexistent. I was really ready to return to England and the professional game after a not very prosperous outlook in California for the first six months.
Changes had to be made and I needed to get back doing something in the game to survive with a family to support, otherwise our big business venture was about to go under pretty quickly.
Unlike today’s soccer players who can walk away from the game with large bank accounts, and probably not have to worry about the next 30 years of their life, the game was not that way back when I was playing.
We did alright for the time, but most of my generation had to make a second career after the game.
Dr. Terry Roberts, who was a big supporter of the San Pasqual soccer program and also a shop customer, asked me to coach the high school team. I must say that was an adventure in itself. At that time high school was not a very good standard, and it was very frustrating for me coaching as it was almost back to basics each day.
The boys always tried hard, but they had no formal coaching in their younger years and it was very hard for them in high school. Needless to say, one winter was enough for me. I did coach high school one more year in 1986 at Orange Glen in Escondido, but not since then.
The San Diego Sockers were going strong at that time, I got to know head coach Ron Newman, and he offered me a position with the Sockers as their youth coordinator, with a one-year contract. I had a small office at Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium), as the Sockers were playing outdoor at the time. Each day I would come to the office and set up 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.
I would load the Sockers mini van up after practice, and we would travel to all parts of the County, visiting as many of the local schools as possible to promote soccer and the Sockers.
We had Kaz Deyna, Gert Wieczorkowski, Jean Willrich, Julie Veee, Volkmar Gross, Hugo Sanchez, Leonardo Cuellar, Martin Donnelly, Ty Keough, Eric Geyer, Guy Newman and many more; all the greats at that time and household names in San Diego soccer forever.
We also did a lot of Kamp Kick Soccer Kamps. The players were always involved in some kind of promotion because Ron always insisted the players be involved in the community. Ron was not only an excellent coach, but also knew how to handle a group of very talented individuals.
Those were good days for the Sockers, and for me as a retired player it was good to be around the game again at a higher level.
Things were starting to look better. I was doing a lot of clinics for teams – men and women, youth groups, referees – and my own kids were in the local NCYSA (North County Youth Soccer Association) soccer program. I had gotten involved with them to help their organization and we started getting more business from youth groups needing uniforms and equipment.
I was also coaching an U23 team based in Escondido called the Escondido Royals. We would play our home game at Escondido HS and travel all over LA, Orange and SD Counties playing at a pretty high level against teams like LA Aztecs, California Sunshine, Burbank Lyons and other good teams. We were under the CYSA flag and the nearest league to the professional level. In fact, some teams were using professional players on their roster, and it was great competition for that age level.
Local soccer leagues were growing all over San Diego County in the eighties; it was a slow growth, but soccer was growing. Unfortunately, the growth was not enough to save our soccer store and that was liquidated in 1985. Click here for great old pictures.
For me, personally, it was an opportunity to once again be involved in soccer.
Getting back to the grass roots was challenging, and it was also very exciting to be able to be part of it.
Because soccer as a sport had been somewhat easy for me as a player, it had become very frustrating to teach. Nevertheless, it was something I wanted to do and try to help, especially with the younger players.
As a young player up to the age of 14, I had no formal coaching. Most of our play was self taught with small-sided street games or pick up games with other groups and village teams.
The San Diego Sockers were now kings of the indoor, as the outdoor game had faded away in the early eighties. The Sports Arena was packed every time the team played a home game.
In Escondido at that time we had NCYSA, one of the biggest organizations in the county with over 2,400 kids in the league. We had a small competitive group called Escondido Heat, (not FC Heat as it is known today), later to become the Earthquakes.
I was really involved now and was doing as many as 10 to 12 weeks of summer John Napier Soccer Camps. These where widely popular, and I was all over the county and as far north as Palmdale and Lancaster. I and Mike Hovenic were the pioneers of this type of summer activity for the children.
I am still running my camps today after 30 years, and I believe Mike is still involved with some camps. We have children of former campers coming back each year. Not sure we will reach the grandchildren of former campers, which would be a long stretch, but you never know.
I am very proud that we have been able to sustain our program and it remaining so popular. I guess we must be doing something right!
As the eighties passed and the nineties approached, the future of US soccer was beginning to look bright…
and now in 2015 it is even brighter.
Originally published in 2011 and updated for SoccerToday