The Ties That Bind: Chance Encounter with an Arsenal Hero

Alex James Arsenal

Arsenal Circular 149

With the close season upon us Victor Thompson gave me – unwittingly – a phrase which prompts me to write this Arsenal Circular. He kindly said that he enjoyed reading about “gems of history” – Arsenal history. In Arsenal Circular 148 I mentioned an encounter at Lords yesterday with an elderly Bury supporter who recalled a goal scored by David Herd in the Third Round FA Cup 1959 at Bury which was enough to take us through the 4th Round and a tie against Colchester.

Today I want to recall an encounter in 1953 with an Arsenal great – one of the top five Arsenal Legends – Alex James. He was the brains behind the Famous Scottish Wembley Wizards who had beaten England 5-1 in 1928. He had scored 60 goals in four years at second division Preston North End but was bought by Herbert Chapman in 1929 as a schemer despite competition from Aston Villa, Liverpool and Man City.

A chapter in Bernard Joy’s Forward Arsenal was titled “Arsenal get Alex James and the Cup” and at Wembley in 1930 James schemed Arsenal to a famous 2-0 win over Chapman’s previous Club Huddersfield Town with goals from James and Jack Lambert. James was tackled, a free kick was awarded, he jumped to his feet and in a pre-arranged move slipped the ball to Cliff Bastin took the return and shot for the first goal.

Chapman James

Herbert Chapman has a word with Alex James
(Image credit: Arsenal)

By all accounts James was not easy to manage – how many top stars are –but Chapman seemed skilled in people management. The well known story is that Chapman promised him a summer cruise in 1931 to induce James to re-sign which turned out to be banana and general cargo vessel. It worked and James re-signed.

Thames Barge

Your cruise awaits, Mr. James…

My encounter with James was in March 1953. I was almost eight years old and had been given Forward Arsenal as a Christmas present three months earlier. In those days there was no TV, little radio, no laptops and a book on Arsenal was just everything. I read and re-read and it is still my most valuable Arsenal possession. In March my father saw James outside the ground. He was unwell. He had cancer and was far from the dynamic player in his heyday. We approached him. He was wrapped up – hat and scarf. A strong north of the border accent. My father talked of matches in the 1930’s and I stood there and listened and watched. His face was drawn; the illness had taken its toll. I just stared at him.

Alex James in happier times: holding the 1936 FA Cup

Alex James in happier times: holding the 1936 FA Cup

Without Forward Arsenal he would have been a distant name but Joy brought home the importance of Alex James to the history of Arsenal and I just looked at him. I was in awe.

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He died three months later at the young age of 51. I was crestfallen – cried my eyes out clutching the book in my hand. The 1952 Cup Final defeat had created the 10 man heroic image and the book cemented the attachment. The death of the maestro was dramatic softened only by the League Championship win against Burnley in the last match of the season on 1 May.

Alex James hero

We all have heroes – they are indispensible to our make-up. We need people to look up to. With today’s funeral in mind for many Muhammad Ali will have that status. But Alex James was Arsenal, the red shirt, the baggy shorts and the five titles and two FA Cup wins in the 1930s. He was my hero cemented by that chance encounter in March 1953.



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2 Responses to The Ties That Bind: Chance Encounter with an Arsenal Hero

  1. Victor Thompson June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm #

    Once again Graham another gem. Thank you for mentioning me, but your memoirs are much more important. I wish the young Gooners realised the rich history Arsenal has. That`s why Chelsea and Man City ( and to some degree, Utd. lack our pedigree.

    How many times have people looked back at old photos of their wedding and realised that most of the people in them have passed on? By then it is too late to ask them for their recollections of the history of their family. I realise we can look up old records but they don`t convey the personal experience of those memories. I hope your readers appreciate you sharing them.

  2. Mike Walsh June 10, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    Just as an aside….25 years ago I was a young teacher at Livingstone primary school in East Barnet. A teacher assistant at the school was married to one of Alex James’ sons and when she discovered my devotion to the Arsenal she brought into school Alex James first division championship medal.
    When she realised that my father was also a great fan she allowed me to take it home to show him, I still recount the story to people who appreciate what a legend this man was in the proud history of our great club.

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