Date: 18th May 2008 at 5:13pm
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If ever a man’s standing in the game was entirely at odds with his physical appearance, it was ‘Wee’ Alex James. James’ lack of inches were humourously offset by his trademark baggy shorts, which covered his legs. James suffered from acute rheumatism in his ankles and the shorts concealed the long johns he wore to keep warm. If Charlie Buchan was Arsenal’s first ever star signing, Alex James was the Gunners’ first ever bona fide icon. The swagger and unstoppable verve with which he played was a huge draw for crowds. James was the first footballer of his generation to be considered an artiste, his passing relied not only on devastating accuracy, but unrivalled vision.

James began his career at Raith Rovers as an inside forward, before securing a move to Second Division Preston North End. James earned rave reviews as Preston’s creative force, but fell out with the management over wage demands and their refusal to release him for international duty. James proved to be something of a maverick. But Herbert Chapman signed him in 1929 and demonstrated his shrewd man management acumen. To circumnavigate the £8 a week maximum wage, Arsenal secured him a £250 a year contract as a ‘sports demonstrator’ in London’s Selfridges department store. James endured an average first season as he struggled to overcome injury, rheumatism often extended his recovery period. But James did score in the 1930 Cup Final to ensure Arsenal’s first ever trophy. In 1931-32, ‘Wee’ Alex became the spearhead of Arsenal’s attack, revolutionising the game by becoming the first centre forward to drop deep and provide the ammunition for his teammates. James spearheaded the James-Bastin-Jack maxim. Arsenal’s miserly defence would win possession back, feed the deep lying James, who would in turn use his vision and accuracy to weave the ball between wing half and centre half to one of Arsenal’s pacy wingers, Bastin or David Jack. James was essentially the world’s first ‘number 10’ inventing the position known as ‘the hole.’ The likes of Zidane, Bergkamp and Totti owe James a debt.

In 1930-31, Alex was the Gunners star turn, as they won the league. His importance to the side was never more elucidated than when he got injured in the run in to the 1931-32 season and Arsenal finished second to Everton. James endured a much publicised race against time to be fit for the 1932 Cup Final against Newcastle. Such was the interest that a huddle of photographers gathered to watch. James was passed fit, but a late running journalist pleaded for one more photograph, Chapman agreed and James was tackled heavily, falling and straining knee ligaments. He missed the final and Arsenal lost. James was the hub of the side, its pivot. He returned to fitness for the 1932-33 season in which Arsenal won the league at a canter, scoring a record 127 goals. No official records exist, but James is thought to have chalked up in excess of 50 direct assists in that season. Indeed, James, much like his modern day equivalent Dennis Bergkamp, was never much of a goalscorer, clocking up a meagre 27 goals in 261 games. But his assist record would likely be astronomical. He simply made Arsenal’s greatest ever side tick and is widely considered by those that saw him as Arsenal’s greatest ever player. Both of my Grandfathers concur!

James was injured on the opening day of the 1933-34 season, missing more than half of the campaign. The Gunners still won the title, but scored only 75 goals without James’ exerset passing. In 1934-35 James was again the hub of Arsenal’s title win, supplying most of Ted Drake’s 42 goals that secured Arsenal’s third consecutive title won. By this time, age was beginning to tell on James, together with his debilitating rheumatism, his appearances became less frequent. As did Arsenal’s trophies. Though he did captain Arsenal to their 1936 F.A. Cup win. He retired in 1937 due to injury, but served in the Royal Artillery in the Second World War. He became a journalist thereafter before coaching Arsenal’s youth team in 1949 until his death from cancer in 195 at the age of 51. Alex James was inducted into the British Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

It was not only James’ extraordinary swagger displayed on the football pitch that set him apart. He was one of the first footballers to inspire awe in football fans, in the days when players would go drinking with supporters post match, James had a star quality. Though by all accounts an incredibly approachable and down to earth man, he was something of a socialite, often seen drinking into the wee small hours of the morning on matchdays, he numbered Fred Perryand transatlantic flier Amy Johnson amongst his drinking buddies. Despite his scruffy on pitch appearance, he had a penchant for tailored suits and wore sandals in a time when gentlemen would be typically seen in polished hush puppies. Chapman risked resentment from the rest of his squad due to the leniency that he did not show to other squad members, James openly refused to track back and defend and was often allowed to sleep in on matchdays. But Chapman understood he had a star and would need to manage the rebellious Scot with kid gloves. It worked and due to James’ sterling performances on the pitch, the other players sense of envy dwindled. Wee Alex James was the first footballer to break free from the working class straitjacket and played with the liberty and majesty of a virtuoso, one of football’s first true entertainers. Were he around today, Wee Alex would likely fit Arsene Wenger’s vision to a tee. So my Grandad used to tell me anyway.LD.