Once again I am indebted to Darren for letting me reproduce my work for Arsenal-Land. I wrote this piece about the late, great Alex James five years ago. He was one of the players ‘holicdad held in huge regard and so was something of a legend for me too, even though I have only ever seen grainy images of him. I hope you enjoy it.
Alexander Wilson James was born in Mossend on 14th September 1901, the son of a railway worker. A small lad, he was destined to emerge from the steelworks he joined from school to become one of the finest inside-forwards the game has seen.
Considered by many to be too small to make the grade, James did not earn a professional deal until Raith Rovers signed him in 1922. In only his second season James was to score winning goals against both Rangers and Celtic as the Kircaldy club claimed fourth place in the Scottish top flight.
In 1924 James married Peggy, daughter of the Raith trainer Dave Willis, at a ceremony in Edinburgh. A year later the couple were off to Lancashire. James, keen to provide for his family joined Preston North End for a fee of around three thousand pounds, no small sum in those days.
At around the time James moved to Deepdale Herbert Chapman was taking charge at Highbury. The offside law was changed to favour the attacking side with the number of defenders required between the leading attacker and the goal being reduced from three to two. Creative inside-forwards, attacking midfielders we would call them today, would come into their own and few would outshine James.
In his four years at Preston the Lancashire club twice came close to promotion to the First Division. James was clearly the catalyst and it was no surprise when he was called up for the Scotland team that beat Wales 3-0 in 1925. His participation in the Scotland team at Wembley in 1928 established him as a supreme talent. The ‘Wembley Wizards’ destroyed England 5-1 and James scored twice.
Astonishingly he made just eight appearances for his country. In those days the clubs could refuse to release their players, and once Preston worked out they were a pale shadow without James they often refused to play ball with the Scottish FA. Relations between player and club soured, so when Herbert Chapman came calling in 1929 James was a willing convert to the Arsenal cause for a fee of £8750.
Chapman had struggled to replace Charles Buchan who had retired a year earlier. James was precisely the playmaker to bring trophies to Highbury, he reckoned, but the little Scot was looking for ‘inducements’ to move. Arsenal, reeling from the banning of Sir Henry Norris for alleged financial irregularities, came up with a novel solution. The new signing was employed by the department store, Selfridges, as a ‘sports demonstrator’.
James was not an immediate success at Highbury, and the crowd were soon on his back. Little did they know that Alex was carrying injuries from his treatment at the hands of second division defenders. In the new year James was dropped for the third round FA Cup tie with Chelsea and ordered to take two weeks bed rest.
After the fourth round tie at home to Birmingham had ended in a draw Chapman surprised James by calling on the Sunday morning. ‘On with your clothes and come to Brighton with the boys’. James played in the replay and Arsenal won 1-0. James left wing partnership with Cliff Bastin turned around the fortunes of both player and club.
At the end of that first season in London James and Arsenal found themselves in the FA Cup Final against Chapman’s former club, Huddersfield Town. The Gunners had never won a major trophy. At the pre-match lunch it is said that James hatched a plan with Bastin. The first attacking free-kick would see James pass to the winger who should return the pass for James to strike at goal. The plan raised a chortle from the rest of the team. A prolific goalscorer James was not!
Fifteen minutes in the plan was executed – to perfection. James had given Arsenal the lead. When the wee Scot set up Lambert for the second with just seven minutes remaining Arsenal clinched their first major honour. Just two years after destroying England at Wembley, James was once again the star of the show at the national stadium.
A year later and Arsenal became the first southern club to lift the Football League Championship. Determined to force Arsenal to circumnavigate the maximum wage of £8 per week the scheming James quit his job at Selfridges and told Chapman he would declare himself a free-agent. He had seriously misjudged the Arsenal manager.
By the time the 1931-32 season was about to start James fortunately found himself the beneficiary of an improved offer from Selfridges and of a ghost-written newspaper column. At the end of the season Arsenal were runners-up in both League and Cup, but James had missed the Cup Final through injury.
1932-33 saw James and Arsenal capture the first of three consecutive League titles as the Gunners set about establishing themselves as the greatest club side in world football. In the middle of that incredible run came the last fallout between manager and star player.
In November 1933 the injury-stricken playmaker was sent on holiday by his manager. It was not a luxury cruise, as James had thought, but on a cargo boat destined for Boulogne! In January 1934, however, Chapman passed away. James was as shocked as anyone.
By 1935-36 James was missing more and more games through injury. It wasn’t just the regular kickings he took that led his legs and ankles to swell almost constantly. He also suffered from rheumatism, and his trademark baggy shorts hid long johns designed to keep him warm. At the season’s end Arsenal won the FA Cup for the second time and as captain Alex proudly lifted the trophy. It was clear that the following season would be his last.
In retirement Alex wrote for the News of the World until the outbreak of war saw him serve with the Royal Artillery. He returned to journalism at the end of hostilities and rejoined Arsenal in 1939 to work with the youth team. It was a fitting appointment for the Liam Brady of his day.
Sadly, James was diagnosed with cancer in 1952. A year later he died, just a day before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Arsenal had lost the man who, next to Chapman, had been a founding father of the modern Gunners. It is a testament to his ability that he remains revered today by the offspring of those who witnessed him at his peak, those of us who have been force-fed wondrous tales of his achievements. I wish I had seen him.
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