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Born: Saturday 14 September 1901, Mossend, Scotland
Died: Monday 1 June 1953, London, England (aged 51)
Position: Inside Forward
Although his international career was relatively short, Scottish inside-forward Alex James is remembered as a star of one of the national team's greatest victories, at Wembley in 1928. Despite his small stature, he also enjoyed a successful career at club level in England where he was a crucial part of the Arsenal team that dominated much of the 1930s.
Born in Mossend and raised in nearby Bellshill, Alexander Wilson James developed his football skills in local amateur football, appearing for Brandon Amateurs, Orbiston Celtic and Glasgow Ashfield through his late teens and early 20s. He was shorter than many players, only standing about 5 foot 6, but was incredibly gifted with the ball at his feet. He built his game around his dribbling skills, surging runs towards goal and accurate passing. His visual trademark was his extremely baggy shorts which emphasised his short stature, and which were said to hide long underwear which he wore because he suffered from rheumatism.
Never destined to remain in local league football for long, James made his first move into senior football in 1922 when he joined Raith Rovers. In three full seasons at the club, he made 94 league appearances and scored 27 goals. In his second season with Raith in 1923-24, he helped the club to finish fourth in the Scottish First Division, just one position below their highest ever placing which they had achieved in the season before he arrived. Like many of the leading Scottish players of the day, James quickly attracted the attention of English clubs and a few games into the 1925-26 season, he was signed by newly-relegated Second Division side Preston North End.
James was the club's leading goalscorer in his first season but frustratingly Preston could only finish in mid-table. The season did bring a first international appearance in a 3-0 win over Wales on 31 Octobe, but that was to be his last cap for nearly two and a half years. The reluctance of his club to release James for international games was a regular source of conflict during his time in Lancashire. With Preston pushing for promotion in the spring of 1928, he did win a second international cap on 31 March of that year against England at Wembley, and that would be the game that brought him to the attention of England's top clubs.
Scotland were widely expected to lose the game, even by their own media, but James was one of the stars of a remarkable performance which led to the team being immortalised as the 'Wembley Wizards'. Playing at inside-left, he scored the second and fourth goals in a stunning 5-1 victory. When asked to comment on the game afterwards, James remarked that Scotland's performance had been so good they "could have had ten".
With leading clubs now showing an interest in him, James was growing frustrated with Preston, especially as they had collapsed over the final few games of the 1927-28 season to finish fourth and miss out on promotion. After the following season also failed to bring success, he moved on to Arsenal in 1929 but not before his performances with Preston had inspired a young schoolboy who would go on to be the club's greatest ever player, Tom Finney.
At Arsenal, James' wages were supplemented by a job as a 'sports demonstrator' at department store Selfridges, helping him to get around the maximum wage rules of the time, which had been another source of frustration at Preston. In his first season, he helped Arsenal to win the FA Cup for the first time in their history when they beat Huddersfield Town 2-0 at Wembley. James scored the crucial opening goal, taking a quick free-kick and collecting the return ball to give Arsenal the lead.
Manager Herbert Chapman saw James as his ideal 'link man', and utilised his creative abillity as a means of supplying goalscoring chances for his other forwards. This meant that he was never a prolific goalscorer for Arsenal, the six league goals in his first season being his highest total for the club, but James did play a major role in the club's incredible run of success over the next few years. In 1930-31, he missed just two league games all season as Arsenal surged to their first ever league title with a then-record total of 66 points.
1931-32 brought great disappointment, as James suffered a bad injury during a game at West Ham United in March. At the time Arsenal were chasing a league and cup double, but without him they were pipped to the league title by Everton and controversially lost the FA Cup final to Newcastle United. Having recovered in time for the start of the 1932-33 season, James played in his final international early in that season, another game against Wales which Scotland disappointingly lost 5-2. In all, his international career spanned seven years but brought just eight appearances and four goals.
With James restored to full fitness, Arsenal enjoyed even greater glory over the next few years. They claimed a hat-trick of league titles in 1933, 1934 and 1935, only the second team in the history of the English league to accomplish that feat. The contribution made by James to those successes was widely recognised by many of his illustrious contemporaries, with such figures as Matt Busby and Stanley Matthews speaking of him in glowing terms. Although it was his team-mate Cliff Bastin who scored many of the vital goals, his job was made much easier by the accurate through balls that he received from James.
By now he had been made Arsenal's captain, and although the club's bid for a record fourth consecutive league title ended in a disappointing sixth place finish in 1935-36 he did have the honour of leading the team out in the FA Cup final against Sheffield United. Against a Second Division side they were the clear favourites, and although the match was closer than expected Arsenal won 1-0 to give James his sixth major honour with the club. Now in his mid-30s, James' abilities were starting to fade and injuries were beginning to take their toll. He had played just 17 games in the cup winning season, and only 19 in 1936-37, and recognised that his playing career was coming to an end.
James retired from playing in the summer of 1937, and two years later briefly coached in Poland before joining the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. After the war, he worked as a journalist before returning to Arsenal to help coach their youth teams in 1949. Whilst working in that role, he fell ill with cancer and after a short illness, died quite suddenly on 1 June 1953 at the age of 51. His contribution to the great Arsenal team of the 1930s will never be forgotten.
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- Published on Thursday, 15 December 2011 22:03