Alex James

Football Pioneers: Alex James

Professor Dilwyn Porter from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture recalls the career of Alex James, a superlative talent in the interwar years who played for the all-conquering Arsenal sides of the 1930s.
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We like to think that all players wore baggy shorts in ‘the old days’, but no one’s shorts were baggier than those worn by Arsenal’s midfield genius. They were very much his trademark.

James, born and raised in Lanarkshire, began his professional career with Raith Rovers in 1922 before heading south to join Preston North End after three successful seasons. Soon after arriving at Deepdale, James won the first of his eight caps for Scotland.

He deserved far more but Preston were reluctant to release him for international duty, one of the factors that eventually soured his relationship with the club. Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on your point of view – they did let him play in 1928, when the famous ‘Wembley Wizards’ exposed England’s defensive frailties in dazzling style.

Scotland won 5-1, James scoring twice. ‘All of Scotland should have been there to see it’, proclaimed the Athletic News, Britain’s leading sports newspaper. ‘Never has sheer ball-skill and artistry gained a greater triumph'.

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Alex James
Alex James

James turned out for Raith Rovers and Preston North End before joining Arsenal.

In 1929, James joined Arsenal, whose manager, Herbert Chapman, thought he had the skills and vision to turn the Gunners into an effective counter-attacking side. He was an expensive signing and needed careful handling.

Chapman faced stiff competition from Liverpool and Middlesbrough for his signature and, for a few months, probably wondered if he had invested wisely as James struggled to fit into his new role and complained that he was suffering from rheumatism.

Eventually, Chapman dropped him, sending him home to rest for a week before suddenly recalling him for a cup tie against Birmingham. Arsenal won and James never looked back, suppressing his individualism – he loved to dribble and was releasing the ball too slowly – for the sake of the team.  

At Raith and Preston, James was very much an attacking inside forward, averaging a goal every three games. His role at Arsenal was to pick the ball up from defensive positions, shake off the opposition and feed flying wingers Joe Hulme and Cliff Bastin.

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Alex James
Alex James

He moved into a deeper position during his time at Highbury.

He did not score as often – 26 in 231 appearances between 1929 and 1937 – but his assists helped to make Arsenal the pre-eminent force of the 1930s, winning the league championship four times and the FA Cup twice while he was at the club. James was very much the star of English football, a household name whose superlative skills attracted big crowds and earned the admiration of fellow professionals.  

Bernard Joy, who played with him towards the end of his career recalled that, though he was not noted for his speed, ‘few were faster over the first 10 yards, which are the most important in soccer'. Sadly James lost his edge, struggling with injuries in his last two seasons at Highbury before retiring as a player at the age of 36.

After service in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War he returned to Arsenal as a coach in 1949. James died with cancer in 1953; he was only 51.

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