The key man

John Harding
Alex James
Life of a football legend
Derby, Derby Books, 2010

When a diminutive Scottish footballer from a tough mining village became the kingpin in Herbert Chapman's legendary Arsenal line-up between the wars, he set the seal on a footballing career that is still talked about today. Arguably the finest inside forward of all time, the official history of the Football Association describes him as, 'a little midfield genius'. 'No-one like him ever kicked a ball', George Allison, who succeeded Herbert Chapman as Arsenal manager, said. 'He simply left the opposition looking on his departing figure with amazement'. From his deep-lying inside-forward position, James was the creative hub of the classic Arsenal team of the 1930's, collecting the ball from defenders, then spraying passes to either wing. One of Scotland's 'Wembley Wizards' who humiliated England 5-1 at Wembley, two years later he helped Arsenal win the FA Cup for the first time. "The Times" reported: 'The skill and bold tactics of James that turned the scale in favour of his side'. But James also had a knack of making his name known outside footballing circles. 'Wee Alex' was a genius with his feet, a comedian with baggy shorts and flapping shirt sleeves, who could set the crowd in a roar, an argumentative and sometimes stubborn man with a ready wit and a talent for publicity. James' often difficult life and his dazzling career are recounted here in lively detail - from his first boots (bought by an elder brother) and the struggle towards his first professional games with Raith Rovers in 1922, to the magic moment when Herbert Chapman signed him up for Arsenal for the princely sum of GBP 9,000 - an action that bound him to the club, then the epitome of footballing glamour, even after Chapman's death and his own retirement from first-class football. In this lively, profusely illustrated biography, John Harding has drawn on the recollections of men and women who knew James well, both on and off the pitch, as well as writers and journalists down the years, to vividly recreate the life and times of a remarkable man and one of the greatest players in the history of the game.