DAVID DOCHERTY looks back at the career of Arsenal legend Alex James…
An Arsenal legend
COMPARING footballers from different generations is a pretty pointless exercise. None more so than at Arsenal where a website I looked at recently has Thierry Henry as Arsenal’s greatest ever player, Lee Dixon at number 21 (what!!!!), Champagne Charlie Nicholas at No.28 and Alex James at number 46.
The criteria I would adopt is what did these players do for the club? Unquestionably, Henry was a class act who did so much for club and country, although his blatant handball in a French shirt against Ireland will forever call into question his sportsmanship.
Dixon was a good full-back but certainly no Paolo Maldini, Charlie Nick was loved by the fans but to say that he underachieved whilst at Arsenal is no understatement.
So for Alex James to be 46th in this particular list is an absolute joke, considering the fact that he was the player who put the club on the football map.
Arguably the finest British inside-forward of all time, Alexander Wilson James was THE superstar of his day. He, more than anyone, was responsible for Arsenal becoming the most talked about team of the 1930s, a decade which saw the Gunners totally dominate the English scene. Others such as George Male, Eddie Hapgood, Herbie Roberts, Wilf Copping, Bob John, Joe Hulme, David Jack, Ted Drake and Cliff Bastin played their part but it was James who conducted the Arsenal orchestra.
Born in Mossend, Lanarkshire, in 1901, James first made a name for himself with the famous Glasgow junior club, Ashfield, before stepping up to Raith Rovers – then leading lights in the Scottish First Division.
It took him some time to establish himself at Starks Park but by March 1925 his prodigious talent had begun to emerge and he was selected for an international trial match at Tynecastle, Edinburgh.
At that time Raith boasted the Scottish international centre-half and captain, Dave Morris, amongst their ranks.
Preston North End had always enjoyed strong links north of the border and in an effort to regain their First Division status they made a wholesale raid on the Scottish transfer market during the early part of the 1925-26 season. They signed James for £2,750, team-mate Morris for £4,700, Willie Russell, Airdrie’s international forward, for £3,650 and three others. Within weeks of joining his new club, James made his international debut in a 3-0 win over Wales in Cardiff. The scorer of spectacular goals, primarily during the early part of his career, two such specials in the 5-1 demolition of England at Wembley in 1928 were to immortalise him. The story of how James came to be associated with the long knickers he used to wear when playing is typical of the man. After a match against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a cartoon appeared in the Daily Mail the following Monday which depicted him as a wee figure with baggy pants reaching down beyond his knees. He had never worn shorts as long as that before, but, as quick to spot a gimmick as he was an opening in an opposition defence, he decided to let life imitate art and the legend was born there and then. Having topped the club’s scoring list for three successive seasons, he became frustrated by Preston’s continued failure to win promotion during his four-year spell at Deepdale and early in 1929 was transferlisted. James was a man who knew his own worth. He reasoned that as an entertainer whom the public paid a lot of money to watch, then he himself was entitled to some of that money. When the Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman approached him to sign for the Londoners, James was quick to point out that it was not to his advantage to uproot his family and move south where the cost of living was so much higher.
The resourceful Chapman was not to be beaten, however, and found a loophole in the League regulations which entitled a player to both work and play.
He fixed James up as a football demonstrator with the big London store, Selfridges, while an evening paper agreed to take a weekly ‘ghosted’ article from the tiny Scot and pay him a salary for the privilege of using his, by now, famous name.
The monetary problem solved, he signed for Arsenal on Derby Day 1929 for a fee of £8,750.
Former Arsenal colleague Bernard Joy recounted the episode in his book, ‘Forward Arsenal’: “While Chapman was satisfied that James was the man he wanted, many at Highbury had serious misgivings.
“Without doubt James was a brilliant forward. He had been one of the stars of the dazzling ‘Wembley Wizards’ attack against England a year before and Preston North End was described as ‘Alex James and ten others’.
“But he was an individualist and a goalscorer at that. In four seasons at Deepdale he had notched sixty goals and now Chapman was asking him to step out of the limelight in order to concentrate on making goals for others. “One of his new duties was to drop back to help defenders. James regarded the prime duty of the defence to feed to forwards and he was reputed to have said, “I am never going to chase an opponent in possession of the ball!” James despised authority and took great delight in challenging Chapman at every turn. Both strong characters, they kept an uneasy peace throughout their association. Typically, he reserved his first goal for his new club for a very special occasion – the 1930 FA Cup final against Huddersfield Town. Fouled 40 yards out, he took the free-kick instantly. He passed to a colleague who slipped the ball back inside to him and then proceeded to slam an unstoppable shot past the bemused keeper. His quick-thinking and allimportant first goal set Arsenal well on their way to their first ever Cup triumph and later in the match his pinpoint accurate 30-yard pass to Jack Lambert set the seal on a famous victory. That heralded the start of one of the most amazing runs of success any League club had ever known – four League titles and two FA Cup wins in only seven seasons.
The brightest star in the Highbury firmament, James was the key man throughout the whole period. Prior to his arrival, Arsenal had won nothing. That statistic says it all.
The fact that James won only eight Scottish caps throughout his career only serves to underline the parochial attitude of the Scottish selectors.
Having missed the 1932 Cup Final through injury (a match Arsenal lost in controversial circumstances), “wee Alex” captained the side to a second Wembley victory - over Sheffield United - four years later.
Alex James played his last match for the Gunners in June 1937 and, after spells as a pools promoter and a reporter on a Sunday newspaper, he eventually returned to Highbury after the War, at the behest of manager Tom Whittaker, to coach the club’s youngsters.
Whittaker called him one of the finest judges of the game he had ever seen.
In 1953 he fell gravely ill with cancer and his death at the age of 51 on Coronation Day, just two months after he had celebrated Arsenal’s record seventh League Championship triumph, shocked the whole of football.
His funeral took place at Golders Green Crematorium where the 300 mourners sang the football hymn ‘Abide With Me’ and a solitary piper played a Highland lament.
It was a fitting farewell to one of the alltime greats.
No.21: Lee Dixon Top: Thierry Henry
Superstar: Alex James, left scoring for Arsenal
No.28: Charlie Nicholas