Mossend, Lanarkshire born inside forward Alex James was one of the supreme talents of inter war football and the playmaking lynchpin behind Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal revolution. A boyhood friend of Hughie Gallacher, he started his football career with Brandon Amateurs in 1917 and played for Orbiston Celtic in 1918, Bellshill Athletic in 1919 and Glasgow Ashfield in 1920 before signing for Scottish League Raith Rovers in 1922. With James in the side they finished fourth in the Scottish League in 1924, and after scoring 27 goals in nearly 100 appearances at Starks Park he was sold to Second Division Preston North End for £3,000 in the summer of 1925.
He made his Football League debut at Middlesbrough in September 1925, soon followed by his international debut for Scotland playing against Wales in a 3-0 win at Ninian Park in October 1925. He was a member of the famous “Wembley Wizards” Scottish team that thrashed England 5-1 at Wembley in March 1928, scoring twice in the game. But remarkably he only won 8 caps for Scotland, scoring once more, his final cap coming two and a half years after his previous appearance when selected in a 5-2 defeat by Wales at Tynecastle in October 1932.
With him being a regular feature for his country in the late 1920’s, he soon fell out with Preston over wages and over being released for internationals, and in the summer of 1929 Arsenal signed him for £8,750 after 53 goals in 153 games. In order to circumvent the maximum wage rules, Arsenal arranged it so that his employment at the club was supplemented by a £250-a-year “sports demonstrator” job at Selfridges, the London department store. In his first season he scored the winning goal in the 1930 FA Cup Final against Huddersfield Town at Wembley, but he became a master creator of goals for the likes of Jack, Bastin, Drake and Lambert.
With James pulling the strings they won the League Championship four years in the next five between 1931 and 1935, being runners up in 1931-32, when they also lost in the FA Cup Final to a controversial Newcastle United goal, and he captained Arsenal in their 1936 FA Cup triumph over Sheffield United. He retired from football aged nearly 36 in the summer of 1937 as injuries also took their toll, after scoring 27 goals in 262 appearances for The Gunners, but his contribution to the team’s success simply can’t be underestimated, he was the creative genius behind Arsenal’s period of unrivalled success. James was described by Tom Finney as “an inspiration” and “pure magic”, with his style of play eventually leading to comparisons with Dennis Bergkamp, with his game famed for his high level of footballing intelligence, outstanding ball control and supreme passing.
In the summer of 1939, James went to Poland, invited by the Polish Football Association (PZPN). He spent six weeks there, working with Polish coach Józef Kałuża and members of the national team. He taught them modern tactics and led several training sessions. James also played in one or two friendly games with Warsaw’s teams. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Artillery. In 1949 he was invited back to Arsenal to coach the club’s youth sides. However, he died quite suddenly from cancer in 1953 at the age of 51.
James was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition of his contribution to the English game.
NB in the photograph taken after the 1936 FA Cup triumph over Sheffield United at Wembley, James holds the Cup, flanked by (l-r) Tom Whittaker (trainer), Eddie Hapgood, Joe Hulme, George Allison (manager) and Alex Wilson.