Some players are great. Some – a few – are beyond greatness. We may think in the current era of Bergkamp and Henry. In the 1930s they would think of Alex James. Even today in any list of great players of Arsenal we would expect to see him in the top 5.
– Andy Kelly
The quote from Andy Kelly (who was extremely helpful in writing this article) I think underlines Alex James better than I could ever say. The title “legend” is given away far too cheaply these days, but with Alex James maybe I think it has been given too rarely. Ironically, some fans will know Alex James as a member of Blur but Arsenal’s Alex James was more a virtuoso player though.
With the recent unveiling of Dennis Bergkamp, I was wondering who should be next to be enshrined? Should it be Frank McLintock for his captaincy in the 1971 double team? Ian Wright for his goal scoring exploits in the 1990’s? Or even the great Joe Mercer of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s who captain us to a league title and F.A cup when he had age against him and a successful grocer business in Liverpool;meaning he’d only come down for games and trained with Everton? All certainly deserving of it, but for me? Alex James all the way. This man changed Arsenal into one of the most successful teams of the thirties. A man who lived the high life and never saved for a rainy day and the man scored our first goal in our first trophy in our new stadium, Highbury. Alex James. Most likely the best Scottish player in an Arsenal team, if not maybe in England.
Alex James was born in Mossend, Lanarkshire in Scotland in 1901. As a child (the youngest of 6) he was always playing football, with his older brother Charlie constantly pushing him forward — even buying him proper football boots as a youngster to improve his technique. A diminutive figure who played inside forward, he also played with another Scottish legend of Hughie Gallacher as a child. As a small figure, many teams refused a punt on James and he was forced to get a ‘proper job’, although he often end up sacked because he was too busy looking forward to a game on a Saturday afternoon. Finally, Raith Rovers came in for him and he was later transferred to second division Preston North End in 1925 for £3,000.
James was a quality player and certainly knew his worth at the Preston team, especially as the F.A had a maximum wage of £8 per week [good money, but not great]. This often lead to James falling out with the board over payments. For example, when he was being transferred to Manchester City in 1928-9 for £15,000 he felt there was the chance of an under the table payment to him. So he’d asked his wife to say she didn’t like Manchester and they wouldn’t go. As recounted in John Harding’s “Alex James: Life of a Football Legend“, she refused. Alex James arguing over money was something Arsenal and Herbert Chapman would hear about a lot of in the future.
Prior to joining us, most Arsenal and English fans would know Alex James when Scotland came to Wembley and battered England by a record victory of 5-1, with what was termed the Wembley Wizards. James scored twice and Alex Jackson got a hat trick. Also in the team was his old friend Hughie Gallacher. The Atlantic News said of the game:-
Real football at last! Clockwork passing. The ‘triangle’ – prettiest of all tunes football can provide – tinkling for an hour or so on both sides of the field…..James! He needs no inspiration. But he got it and, taking the game though, was the mastermind of clockwork.
When Alex James did finally sign it came down to the money. As a Southern team, Arsenal had been seen as pretenders in the league. Prior to James joining, Arsenal had come second in the league and lost the 1927 cup final in Herbert Chapman’s tenure. If you want to know why Arsenal are hated, just look at the 1920’s and 1930’s. Here was a club that had never won trophies but spent £14,500 for David Jack, started building the new parts to Highbury stadium, and how we had become what was known as the bank of England. We had also had our chairman Henry Norris and his dodgy deals. Let’s not forget no Southern team had won the league until the 1930’s and Spurs were the only London team to win the F.A cup in 1905.
London though was financially on the rise, whilst northern England (and its press such as the Manchester Guardian) were suffering from the depression but still believing they were better than the south. Then buying Alex James changed everything. James was the quality signing we needed to make us better than the rest and hated. To underline the hatred often felt towards Arsenal, a Middlesbrough fan recalled in the 1930’s playing Arsenal :-
I saw thousands of men climb over the barriers and pour onto the field…..intending to do damage to the Arsenal team, wearing pristine red-and-white kit. This was the final explosion of hatred. I still remember the spectacle with feelings of fear and horror.
Again, signing James came down to money. Previously, Herbert Chapman (via Henry Norris as chairman) was alleged to have paid Charles Buchan under the counter payments to join us in 1925. With James, Arsenal paid him £8 per week [the maximum wage for all players], win bonuses plus expenses (he often used a taxi, much to Chapman’s anger). James being James still wanted (and deserved) more money. Arsenal, being a forward thinking club, gave James a two year contract at Selfridges as a ‘sports demonstrator’ for £250 per year. This was to circumvent the ‘illegal inducements’ the F.A was always trying to stop. This though didn’t stop the F.A investigating the transfer, and although unhappy ‘with certain things that had been said’ could prove nothing. James was signed for £9,000.
James’ beginning at Arsenal as an Arsenal legend started badly. Not only had he come with a huge transfer, in a new division, new team and new style but also with an injury. The injury had meant that his performance were below par at best and ended with him being dropped for the third round game against Chelsea in the F.A cup. Chapman asked him to say he was injured. James refused, telling Chapman :-
‘If I’m dropped say i’m dropped’ was my reply to that.
Although James came back into the squad, he had to get used to a new system. Herbert Chapman is often seen as the man who created the W-M formation. Wikipedia describes it thus:-
The WM system was created in the mid-1920s by Herbert Chapman of Arsenal to counter a change in the offside law in 1925. The change had reduced the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two. This led to the introduction of a centre-back to stop the opposing centre-forward, and tried to balance defensive and offensive playing. The formation became so successful that by the late-1930s most English clubs had adopted the WM. Retrospectively, the WM has either been described as a 3–2–5 or as a 3–4–3, or more precisely a 3–2–2–3 reflecting the letters which symbolised it. The gap in the centre of the formation between the two wing halves and the two inside forwards allowed Arsenal to counter-attack effectively. The W-M was subsequently adapted by several English sides, but none could apply it in quite the same way Chapman had. This was mainly due to the comparative rarity of Alex James in the English game. He was one of the earliest playmakers in the history of the game, and the hub around which Chapman’s Arsenal revolved.
The 1930 F.A cup was the beginning of James being held in such high esteem. After a Semi-final in which Arsenal had been 2-0 down against second division Hull to come back 2-2 and win the replay 1-0, Arsenal faced Huddersfield in the final.
Alex played and famously got the opening goal in the final. In his book “Football Ambassador”, Eddie Hapgood noted:-
Alex was fouled somewhere near the penalty area, and, almost before the ball had stopped rolling, had taken the free-kick. He sent a short pass to Cliff Bastin, moved into position to take a perfect return, and banged the ball into the Huddersfield net for the all-important first goal. Tom Crew told me that James made a silent appeal for permission to take the kick, and he waved him on. It was one of the smartest moves ever made in a big match and it gave us the Cup. I contend that it was fair tactics; for if Alex had waited a few seconds for the whistle, the Huddersfield defence would have been in position, and the advantage of the free-kick would have been lost.
Bob Wall in his book said of the goal James had told Cliff Bastin:-
‘If we get a free-kick in their half Cliff, I’ll push out a quick pass to you. Let me have it back immediately and I’ll have a shot at goal……Alex was essentially a creator rather than scorer of goals, his suggestion caused some amusement among the rest of the team.’
Arsenal went on to win the cup 2-0. Afterwards James said of the Wembley win:-
It was a glorious and pulsating from start to finish an entirely different atmosphere from that of of two internationals in which I have participated at Wembley.
The 1930 F.A cup was Arsenal’s first trophy, thanks to Alex James. In the next seven years we would win 4 league titles and another F.A cup with James captain in 1936*. James was the focal point of the team (his replacement Bryn Jones never reached James heights). His international career consisted of a mere 8 games with 4 goals. In that time he played only against home nations teams (England, Wales and N. Ireland).
If you want to see the importance of James in the team, look at the season of 1931-32 when Arsenal were going for a league and cup double. Unfortunately, in a 1-1 game against West Ham in the league James was carried off with an injured knee. The injury meant that he missed the final, even though he told Chapman (and the press) he was fit to play. Trainer Tom Whittaker had been trying to get James fit:-
ALEC JAMES TO PLAY IN FINAL?
Unfortunately prior to the game :-
Trainer Tom Whittaker, however, in order to be certain, lunged at ‘Wee Alec’ with a fierce tackle, which he was unable to withstand and from which he came away hobbling.
Arsenal lost the final 2-1 to Newcastle to a controversial goal, when the ball was seen to go out of play for Newcastle’s equalising goal:-
Arsenal won their next three games they had in hand to catch up with Everton, but James did not play until the following season. But by the end of the season came up two points short and won nothing.
Also, it would be wrong to say James was a loyal and obedient player. Chapman and James often argued. Famously in 1931, when Selfridges had not extended his two year contract, James refused to sign a new contract with Arsenal unless there were added ‘inducements’ to his new contract. In a fit of anger Chapman said he was sending James on a cruise in August, and proceeded to put him on a banana and general cargo boat to Bordeaux. Within a few weeks Selfridges had extended his and he’d signed for Arsenal. James said after Chapman passed away in January 1934:-
He [Chapman] was to my mind the only real genius football has ever seen. Picture a middle aged man,genial and smiling, shirt-sleeves rolled up, jacket off. Bubbling over with dynamic personality. A leader of men…[but] I did not like the way Chapman did certain things: he didn’t like me either. So we bickered on, neither giving way, both too obstinate to consider the other fellow’s point of view.
For me, James deserves that statute. He got our first trophy winning goal. He was the focal point of our team. He also brought the dapper look always dressed well off the pitch and remembered for his long shorts on it. But to me I think Cliff Bastin** sums it up well in his biography:-
Whenever the conversation turns , amongst sports lovers, to great players of the past, his name is always mentioned. And among followers of Arsenal, memories of a shuffling, Puckish little figure, trousers down to its knees and shirt-sleeves flapping hose, will be treasured to the very end.
Finally, my main reason for James as a statue? Well, like many of our top players (Bergkamp, Henry, Adams and Chapman outside the stadium) James won nothing in his first season. It took Chapman 5 years alone to win a trophy. But James, as a star player, brought our first trophy, the F.A cup to Highbury. He was dropped and lambasted at times by the press. Arsenal were seen as a team of expensive parts and that was all.
Fast forward 84 years? Arsenal, at a new stadium, no trophies, an expensive team, and an often criticised Mesut Ozil? Wouldn’t it be great if Ozil scores first for our first trophy at the Emirates and underlines to the press we are a great team, just like Alex did?
Alex James passed away from cancer in 1953, having never managed a side (accept briefly in Poland in 1939 and after the war he came back and did some coaching at Arsenal), a succession of failed businesses (a sweet shop near the Highbury stadium and a football pools business). But where he failed outside the club, he was always fondly remembered by Gooners. If any player deserves a statue its Alex James. The man who helped create a dynasty.
*This is open to debate as whether Hapgood or James were captain
**Big thanks to Andy Kelly for lending me a copy of Bastin’s book and help on the article.