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Alex James (Arsenal F.C. 1929-37)

Alex James

Alex Leaving Manchester City defenders for dead

Alex James in Statto's Corner

Alex James : A classic player in baggy shorts                 

Alex James was one of the games greatest players and almost certainly one of the best-known Arsenal players of all time. No player between the wars attracted more attention, more press coverage or caused more discussion, other than perhaps 'Dixie' Dean. In his time at Highbury James was readily recognisable by his famous baggy shorts and his flapping shirt- sleeves. The baggy shorts had been adopted whilst with Preston after he saw a cartoon of himself by Tom Webster in the Daily Mail in which he was featured with shorts down to his knees. Thereafter Alex decided to live up to this caricature by wearing shorts which almost reached the top of his stockings. He wasn't only famous for his baggy shorts though, in eight seasons at Arsenal his tally of two FA Cup winners medals and four League Championships, not to mention his amazing ability to control a ball and do the unexpected with it, helped make him a Club legend.

Alex and his shorts

Alex and his trademark baggy shorts

He was born in Mossend, Lanarkshire in September 1901 and bought up in the small village of Beshill. This was a mining and industrial area hit hard by both the ravages of WW1 and the depression. Alex was one of the lucky ones to obtain a job at the local steelworks. He played initially for local junior clubs Bellshill Athletic, Brandon Amateurs, Orbison Celtic and later joined Ashfield of Glasgow when he was just nineteen. James was a great pal of Hughie Gallagher, another fine footballer, who like Alex would later become one of Scotland's immortals.

Whilst at Ashfield James was spotted by Mr Morrison, a Raith Rovers director, who signed him for the start of the 1922-23 season. Following an indifferent start he settled into the side and did well enough to earn an invitation to play in a Scottish trial match along with his close friend Hughie Gallagher. As a forward he scored 27 goals in 100 games before being transferred to Preston North End in 1925 for a fee of £3,000. At Deepdale his 53 goals in 147 matches, together with some very fine performances, earned him international honours. It was almost certainly his major contribution to the 'Wembley Wizards' 5-1 win over England at Wembley in 1928, a game in which he scored twice, that had a major influence on Herbert Chapman signing him in June 1929 for £8,750.

Alex James's relationship with Preston had turned sour when their manager Alex Gibson refused to release him for a Scottish International match at the end of the 1928-29 season. There were a number of top Clubs who were trying to sign James at this time but Alex was looking for something over and above the minimum wage. Exactly how Chapman contrived to secure James much sought after signature, when so many others were chasing it, may never be revealed. Certainly lining up a job as a sports demonstrator in Selfridges progressive West End store played a not inconsiderable part. The maximum wage a player could receive was just £8 per week, so the additional £250 pounds a year James received from Selfridges almost certainly helped Arsenal avoid any problems with illegal under-the-counter payments to boost his earnings.

The role of a midfield linkman or schemer was what Chapman had in mind for Alex when he signed him although it took him a time to settle into that role at Highbury, where he received early criticism from the crowd and press alike. David Jack at least was pleased with James arrival because it was Jack who was previously taking the brunt of the crowds displeasure. At the start of the season Chapman was continually changing the players' positions and the team line-up which obviously didn't help James. Much more difficult for Alex to contend with though was the legacy of badly bruised ankles and shins that had taken such heavy punishment in Second Division football. Being a class act James had not been prepared to deliver pointless balls to players who were not in suitable positions and had subsequently taken a lot kicks as he maintained possession. Things went badly for Alex initially and only began coming good after he was dropped for his lack of fitness. Whether the team adapted to James or visa-versa is still open to debate but with the speeding Bastin joining the Club in December the classic Arsenal team of the Thirties was taking beginning to take shape.

The concept of a deep lying creative player taking the ball from the defenders and hitting long or diagonal balls inside the full backs to two of the fastest wingers in the League namely Bastin and Hume was still not as yet established. At the start of his first season under Herbert Chapman, James was just an injured player struggling in a new team whilst bearing the brunt of a fickle Arsenal crowds displeasure. By the end of his first season however James had scored for the winning team in the F A Cup Final and a decade of Arsenal dominance in English football had begun.

The Cup Final itself was one of those classic turning points in the history football. Arsenal who had won no major honours to date were playing against Huddersfield, Chapman's old Club, a team who's pedigree was unequalled since the war. Huddersfield had won a hat trick of championships, had twice been runners up and had also appeared in three Cup Finals. They also had a host of English Internationals playing for them. Aside from the appearance of the Graf Zeppelin over Wembley that day in 1930 it was undoubtedly the Alex James Final.

It was a James goal that set Arsenal on their way to a historic first major trophy. With fifteen minutes gone a foul on Alex resulted in quick free kick and a pre-planned one-two with Bastin, a move that had been discussed on the team bus by James and Bastin prior to the match. From Bastin's perfectly paced return James deliberately sliced the ball with the outside of his right foot to beat the keeper. One-nil to the Arsenal, although they didn't sing that particular song back in the Thirties. James had controlled the first half but Huddersfield attacked relentlessly in the second and had Arsenal pegged back for long periods with Alex doing his share of defensive duties. With seven minutes to go James held the ball up and finally hit a decisive through ball to Lambert, Lambert let the ball run past him and slipped it past the advancing Turner in goal. One paper called it 'James's Joy Day' and it was apt that he should be in possession when the final whistle went. In the days that followed it was Alex James who grabbed all the headlines.

James continued to hit the headlines throughout his time at Arsenal and was perhaps the nearest thing the Club had to a playboy in those days. He certainly exploited publicity far beyond other players of his generation. Alex was a celebrity at Selfridges, he had his own 'ghosted' newspaper columns and was very much a man about town. He was a frequent guest at parties and night clubs often at such hours, in his own words 'when any footballer ought be fast asleep in his bed'. An elegant dresser James became even more fashion conscious in London and unusually for a footballer of his era he enjoyed wearing silk shirts and suits made by his favourite tailor.

Arsenal's league triumph in 1930-31 was achieved with a team that differed only marginally from the cup-winning team of the previous season but must be considered one of the classic football elevens of all time, and James was at it's hub. Losing only four games and winning twenty-five Arsenal racked up an incredible 127 goals. Sheffield Wednesday had expected to win their third consecutive championship but trailed in third. Wednesday finished some 14 points behind Arsenal, and it was remember, just two points for the win back then.

By now Chapman had both the personnel and system in place. In today's footballing jargon it might be described as a 3-2-2-3 or even a 3-4-3. Whatever it was numerically it was a flexible and effective system which was so revolutionary it was described by Bernard Joy thus 'Arsenal changed the functions of every position vitally, except that of goalkeeper, and even he had to adjust his movements to the new alignment of the backs. It was almost as though Herbert Chapman put the players in a box, shaken them thoroughly and scattered them over the field again'.

James was undoubtedly the most important piece in this revolutionary jigsaw and was free to roam wherever he liked, performing a role rather than holding a position, it arguably made him the first truly 'modern footballer'. In the main Arsenal's line-up for their first Championship was as follows:

Keyser or Harper in goal,

Tom Parker, Herbie Roberts, Eddie Hapgood,

Charlie Jones, Bob John,

David Jack, Alex James,

Joe Hulme, Jack Lambert, Cliff Bastin

James played in all but two of these league matches and his influence was apparent to all who saw him play in them. His influence throughout his time with Arsenal can be judged by the fact that in the 200 appearances he made between August 1930 and May 1937 he was on the losing side in a mere 36 games. Alex was a major factor for Arsenal throughout his time with the Club and if Carling-Optica statistics had been available for this particular decade then he would without question have featured at the very top of the assists list most seasons. Although his personal goal tally with Arsenal averaged about one goal in ten games, which can be best be described as meagre, those of the forwards in front of him could be considered quite staggering. The 1930-31 season for example saw David Jack score 31, Jack Lambert 38, Joe Hulme 14 and Cliff Bastin 28 league goals. That's an amazing 111 of the 127 league goals scored for that season netted by forwards. There is a very interesting graph in John Harding's excellent book on Alex James. It shows a remarkable correlation between the number of games played by James and the number of goals scored by Arsenal. To put it simply the more games that James played in during this time, the more goals Arsenal had scored by the end of the season.

There is a classic photograph of Alex James which was taken at 3.46 p.m. on 13th October 1934. It's at Highbury against Manchester City and in the background can be seen not only the famous clock installed by Chapman but also three totally dumfounded City players who include none other than Matt Busby. They had all been left gob-smacked by the Scottish maestro. These players were not alone in being made to look mediocre by Alex James.

James in full flight

Alex James in full flight

Although Arsenal's first choice eleven continued to change throughout the Thirties for most of the time Alex was the lynchpin. He played 40 games in the championship season of 1932-33, 22 in the championship side of 1933-34 and 30 in the side that completed the hat trick of League wins in 1934-35 plus of course another Wembley appearance and winners medal in the 1936 Cup Final. Alex was often in dispute with Chapman and the two of them being strong personalities were invariably at logger-heads. James didn't feel he should have to go on tour at the end of a season and even went on strike one summer to avoid such an eventuality. Chapman continued to refine the team but on his death it fell to Allison to rebuild it. James remained the focal point, his career may even have been extended by the arrival of the powerful Wilf Copping at left half but in the end James couldn't beat the continual injuries and finally bowed out in his mid-thirties

Unfortunately there is very little footage of Arsenal's 30's team for current fans to enjoy. There are obviously very few fans alive who can claim to have seen him play. Granted it is almost impossible to compare players of differing eras but that does not lessen his greatness or his importance to Arsenal's decade of dominance in the English game. His immense influence on the history of our Club is apparent in the reverence in which he is held by any Arsenal fans that have even the flimsiest knowledge of our past glories. The history of our Club may have been very different without the influential contribution made by this colourful wee Scot.

Brian Dawes

© Brian Dawes 2001

Want to know more? Recommended further reading:

Alex James - John Harding

Herbert Chapman : Football Emperor - Stephen Studd

Arsenal Who's Who - Jeff Harris

Arsenal Illustrated History - Phil Soar and Martin Tyler

Arsenal : A Complete Record - Fred Ollier (the Arsenal Statto's bible)

Alex James in Statto's Corner

Alexander Wilson James (1929-1937)

Creative midfield

Born in Mossend, Lanarkshire, Scotland 14th September 1901

Died 1st June 1953

Signed from Preston North End for £8,750 in June 1929

Played for Brandon Amateurs, Orbison Celtic, Ashfield of Glasgow, Raith Rovers to Preston North End (£3,000)

Debut v Leeds United 31 August 1929

Debut goal v Burnley (home)14 September 1929

Played 8 matches for Scotland (4 each with Preston & Arsenal)

League matches played 231 goals 26
F A Cup matches 28 goal 1
Charity Shield 2
Arsenal total played 261 goals 27

4 League Championship medals 1930-31 1932-33 1933-34 1934-35

2 FA Cup Winners Medals 1929-30 1935-36

2 FA Charity Shield Winners Medals 1930-31 1933-34




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