DAVID DOCHERTY looks back at the ca­reer of Ar­se­nal leg­end Alex James…

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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