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Remembering an Arsenal legend - Alex the great

PUBLISHED: 16:36 25 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:06 07 September 2010

GREAT GUNNER . . . Alex James (left) with Cliff Bastin; the two combined for James' goal in the 1930 FA Cup final

GREAT GUNNER . . . Alex James (left) with Cliff Bastin; the two combined for James' goal in the 1930 FA Cup final

He died nearly 60 years ago, and last played for Arsenal two years before Hitler invaded Poland, but Alex James s name still stirs up a rare magic few, if any, have since attained. The legendary Matt Busby described him as one of the all-time greats of s

He died nearly 60 years ago, and last played for Arsenal two years before Hitler invaded Poland, but Alex James's name still stirs up a rare magic few, if any, have since attained.

The legendary Matt Busby described him as "one of the all-time greats of soccer". Liverpool deity Bill Shankly, never one for the understatement, simply called him a "genius", before adding mischievously he was a "nightmare to play against".

His story remains the stuff of legends.

In the pantheon of Arsenal greats he stands shoulder to shoulder - at the very least - with the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Frank McLintock and Joe Mercer.

All a bit odd for a dumpy little Scotsman who was partial to one drink too many and could barely make himself understood due to a thick Lanarkshire accent.

But for Crouch End author John Harding, his story remains one well worth telling.

In 1988 Harding released James' biography- one of the finest, lovingly researched tomes ever to be written on Arsenal Football Club.

Now, updated and even better, it has been reissued with new stories and some exceptional never-before-seen pictures.

"Since the first release I have added lots of new material and have changed my stance on James' footballing role," Harding, 64, tells Ham&High Sport.

"Reprinting my book with new material, especially after leaving Highbury relatively recently in terms of the club's history, seemed like a good opportunity to revisit his story - and to reintroduce him to a new generation of supporters, because we should not forget what Alex James meant to Arsenal.

"I am too young to have seen him play, but, when I first started going to Arsenal back in the late 1950s, many people around me had seen him.

"I grew up on stories about him and he became a hero - James simply struck a chord with me. For me, Alex James was Highbury."

With his slick centre-parting and deliberately baggy shorts, James became one of the first great football stars.

Signed by Herbert Chapman in 1929, the little Scot initially struggled in north London before becoming the fulcrum of Arsenal's all-conquering side of the 1930s, winning two FA Cups - scoring in the 1930 final as Arsenal won their first major honour - and four championship medals before retiring from the game in 1937.

In between were legendary spats with Chapman, and his predecessor George Allison - including a 'strike' and an unscheduled boat trip to France on Chapman's orders - and drinking sessions in the West End, where he would stay after finishing his 'other job' at Selfridge's, where he was a sports demonstrator earning £250 a year - more than his Highbury wage.

"After retiring James coached some of the Arsenal youngsters at Hendon," adds Harding.

"I lived in Cricklewood when I was a young lad and spoke to many people who could remember watching Alex."

Not that everybody wanted to talk about him.

James was also known to be abrasive at times, a recurring theme in his book, and although he was generally popular, the Scot could also rub some colleagues up the wrong way.

"He was an exceptional talent and quite a character - most Arsenal players back in the 1930s were pretty straight guys, who bought into Chapman's vision for the club. They did not rock the boat.

"But Alex was his own man. He was a bit of a spiv - his own son, for example, saw another side to him - and I remember writing to the late, great Cliff Bastin before he died in 1991 asking for a chat about Alex for the book and I never even got a reply. He just did not want to know.

"As a footnote to that, I really like one of the new pictures in the re-issued book, which shows James and Bastin posing together."

But would Harding have liked his subject? "I think so, yes. I like a lot about him, but he was a complex chap," he adds.

"For example, James had an extraordinary talent and could make opponents look silly, but he never saw weaving through defenders and juggling the ball as entertainment.

"He had quite a sour look on things - he did it because it was the best thing for his team, not because he wanted to make the crowd roar with laughter when he bamboozled another opponent."

James, though, lived life to the dregs before cancer claimed him in 1953, aged just 51, his cheeky-chappy demeanour, right up to his untimely death, contrasting sharply to his old schoolpal Hughie Gallagher, the former Newcastle United legend, who never got comfortable with retirement.

A few years after James died, Gallagher had had enough of anonymity and killed himself by walking in front of a train.

James, though, was cut from different cloth. Just days before his own death, he told then Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker, a close friend: "It's been a fine life, Tom. I have loved every minute of it..."

? Alex James: Life Of A Football Legend, by John Harding, is priced £16.99. Go to dbpublishing.co.uk for details.

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