BY RICHARD BEEDIE
Recently a post came up on my Facebook timeline asking ‘Which legend made you fall in love with this beautiful game?’ Under the question some of the biggest names from around the turn of the millennium were pictured; Beckham, Zidane, Ronaldinho, Henry, Kaka and the Brazilian Ronaldo – these were the choices. It was a question clearly aimed at a younger generation than myself who, weaned on football in the 1980s, had a different perspective.
Every moment of the modern game, at the highest level certainly, and its swaggering superstars, is captured and dissected to the Nth degree by experts. The 1980s was a different proposition though. The only game we ever really got to see live on television was the F.A. Cup Final, although that began to change towards the end of the decade. Generally, we got our televised football fix in one weekly highlights package in the form of Match of the Day, or ITV’s The Big Match. We saw little of overseas football save for the odd European final during what was a golden period for British football, if you include Aberdeen’s Cup Winners’ Cup win in 1983. Without the current media saturation of the game we had to find our footballing heroes to fall in love with elsewhere.
For me, coming from a non-footballing family, my interest in the beautiful game came from my peers at primary school. First raising awareness of its very existence before moving me on from my childish playground games to the altogether more ‘grown up’ lunchtime kick-abouts. There was also the phenomenon that was football stickers, the Panini variety obviously, this opened up to the world of collecting to me that would ultimately spread to football programmes too. But this isn’t a tale of one man’s journey into football collecting oblivion, that’s probably for another day and probably an altogether different kind of story. This is a story of the shiny, sticky heroes we found in those hermetically sealed little packets, and one in particular that made my teenage-self fall for the game.
The idols found in those packs were where I discovered the stars of the day, where I would first come across the posed images of the likes of Alan Little, David Johnson and the wild haired Ian Wallace. For me the men in these pictures were at the pinnacle of the game, the ultimate gods of football. From my point of view if you made it into those packets, and subsequently the pages of those you were a true star of the game. You were to be revered, despite how truly bad some of them looked; just Google Ian Wallace of Coventry City fame and former Hibernian man Alan Sneddon and you’ll see what I mean. This was a time before the chiselled, manicured clones of the modern game. These were real footballers and very real heroes.
By the early to mid-1980s my football interest had grown to the point that I found myself a regular at Gigg Lane, home of Bury Football Club. This had stemmed from getting a free ticket via school rather than the passing on of family loyalties, given my circumstances. My interest had blossomed beyond being satisfied with Saturday night highlight packages and sticker books. I needed to experience the buzz of a real game. With the aforementioned lack of enthusiasm for the game in my family, that took a while to materialise and whilst initially swaying towards the blue half of Manchester – amongst my group of influence, my peers, there were only two clubs – ultimately the free ticket obtained from school set me on my path with Bury. My first tentative steps were taken in early 1983 which saw the club narrowly miss out on promotion from Division Four. I was hooked straight away. Here in front of me were real heroes, not images on a television screen or on the pages of a sticker book. It mattered little the following season was dire – including a club record 10-0 defeat at West Ham United in the League Cup – they had me smitten. It wasn’t quite love at that point but events that would unfold over the summer of 1984, and the arrival of one player in particular, would see me fall hook, line and sinker for the game and for Bury.
The man to cause such devotion was Leighton James, best known for his time at Burnley. He made his league debut with them in 1970 and would go on to play in over 300 games for the club over three spells. The Welsh international initially came to my attention via the pages of Panini, the 1981, 1982 and 1983 offerings of the Italian sticker company featuring him during his time with Swansea City and Sunderland. James had played his part in Swansea’s rise from the third division to challenging the dominant Liverpool side of the 1980s. A year after that challenge, eventually finishing a creditable sixth, they were back in Division Two with Leighton having already moved on, staying in Division One with Sunderland. A little over a year later, despite featuring regularly for the north-east club – he appeared in 52 games, scoring four goals – and helping them to a mid-table finish, he was on the move again surprisingly joining fourth division Bury.
The Shakers were a club at its lowest ebb in their history, to that point, having finished the previous season 15th in the bottom tier. There had been the record defeat mentioned earlier plus the season also saw the record set for the lowest crowd for a league match, just 1,096 – of which I was one – turning up at Gigg Lane for a 2-1 defeat to Northampton Town. In modern parlance James turning up at the club in the summer of 1984 was equivalent to Everton’s Gareth Barry signing for current League Two side Barnet. How was it that this relative superstar of his age – he had only retired from international football the year before – came to drop three levels to join the struggling Lancashire club?
In his recent book, ‘The Forgotten Fifteen’, about Bury’s promotion winning season in 1984-85 author James Bentley spoke with the Loughor born winger and brought up that very question; it transpired Leighton had become disillusioned with the game following the sacking of Sunderland manager Alan Durban and his assistant Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson. In the Welshman’s eyes it had been harsh, he felt the club were doing reasonably, and was close to quitting the game altogether over the issue when he took a call from former Burnley teammate, Martin Dobson. The former Everton midfielder was now the player-manager at Bury and talked his friend out of quitting, persuading him to come to Bury where Dobson, assisted by another former Burnley man Frank Casper, was putting something special together having convinced the former hard-tackling Arsenal and Everton midfielder Trevor Ross to sign too. James would only end up playing the one season at Gigg Lane– but what a season it was, especially through the young eyes of this writer.
Even to those inexperienced eyes the signing of James and Ross spelt business – they’d both appeared in my sticker books so clearly they were superstars. Ross particularly stuck in my mind, literally, his sticker appearing far too regularly in my swaps pile. He possessed a formidable tackle, the kind that would probably see him in the stands more than on the pitch these days, and a penalty technique that had opposition goalkeepers barely wanting to go near the ball after he struck it, never mind try and save it. If he was the steel in this duo, then James most definitely provided the silk and it was the mesmerising Welshman that captivated me and had me fall head over heels for the game.
Time and again he would languidly receive the ball in his left-wing position without a hint of what was to come for the poor full back in front of him. A drop of the shoulder, a dazzling piece of footwork, the odd nutmeg, and the bamboozled back would be, at best, grasping at thin air – at worst on his backside – as James glided past them to put in delicious crosses that just begged to be converted. Centre forwards Craig Madden and Wayne Entwistle did on plenty ofoccasions – both scoring more than twenty goals that season. James worked in tandem with his speedy foil, Winston White, on the opposite wing to ensure chances were plentiful but it was the guile and pure unadulterated skill of James that had me spellbound. Every time the ball made its way to him I found my heart fluttering in anticipation of what was to come.
Two games in particular stood out, the first coming in just the fifth game of the season in a match against Lou Macari’s Swindon Town. The former Manchester United midfielder was taking his first steps in football management – as was Bury’s Dobson – but his Old Trafford pedigree had the Robins as pre-season favourites. It was a tag they were struggling to live up to as they came to Gigg Lane for a Tuesday night fixture, and Leighton James made things much worse, especially for right-back Colin Bailie.
Bury had set off in good form and the game presented them with a chance to prove their promotion credentials, which they did with a fully deserved 2-0 win that saw them move to the top of the table. There is always something special about a night match, the atmosphere seemingly infused by the electric of the floodlights, but on that night the voltage was cranked up even higher with the conductor in chief being James. Repeatedly he would pick the ball up in space, despite Bailie’s best attempts to mark him, and then glide past leaving the Irishman floundering on the floor or chasing the shadows cast by those floodlights. James lacked pace but with such mesmerising skill he bought himself all the time and space he could want. It was a masterclass in how to beat your man, I almost felt sorry for Bailie; almost, but not quite. On one occasion James picked up the ball in his own box and a mesmerising run took him up 80 yards up the field, leaving not only Bailie, but half the Swindon team in his wake before planting the sweetest of crosses onto Madden’s head. Unfortunately, the normally lethal marksman couldn’t apply the coup de grace the run deserved as he headed it straight into the arms of the grateful Robins keeper.
A few weeks later, in another enthralling evening match, Hereford United goalkeeper Kevin Rose would not be so lucky. Another bravura performance from James – against the team they would eventually pip to the final promotion spot that season – saw a shot from the Welshman from 30 yards out dip at the last moment to leave the Bulls stopper grasping at thin air, securing a 2-1 win in the process. It was a rare goal from the winger – he only scored five all season – another of which came in the other performance that lives long in the memory, even if the goal was somewhat less spectacular.
The steady downpour of Manchester rain the night of the Swindon match had failed to stop James taking the Robins apart, and the conditions couldn’t stop him in the other unforgettable display from that season. That game, at home to Exeter City, would be called off these days; it was early February and the freezing temperatures meant the pitch was rock hard. This was a different age for football though compared to the safety considerations of the modern game; as long as there was some give in the turf it was game on. Boots off, trainers on and off we go. Exeter were struggling at the wrong end of the table but the weather proved to be a leveller as they escaped with a point from a 2-2 draw despite more brilliance from James. The Welshman grabbed the opening goal, a free kick that squirmed through the fingers of the Grecians’ keeper; the strike was nothing to write home about but the performance – in such treacherous conditions – was. Oblivious to the state of the pitch he led the Exeter defence a merry dance on the ice, constantly going past his man with ease. Unfortunately, his team mates didn’t cope with the pitch as well as he did with much of his outstanding work going to waste, but what his display did prove was that he was a class act, who was able to shine no matter what the circumstances.
These were simply highlights in a virtuoso season from the Welsh wizard but every game he served up wondrous moments of audacious skill that had you eagerly anticipating more. It was obvious he was a class above the rest at that level but for one joyful season he was ours to wonder at. The added bonus of promotion was gained too but looking back that almost seems insignificant, compared to how the artistry of James captured the imagination of this then 14-year-old and had him hooked on the game craving more moments of the type served up by James.
As stated earlier the joy only lasted a year, moving back to his native Wales and Newport County in the summer of 1985. It was a role that included a job coaching the youth team there, something he had enjoyed doing latterly at Sunderland. A return to his beloved Burnley wasn’t far away though, where in 1987 he played his part in keeping them in the Football League, seeing out his playing days whilst coaching their youth team. It ended on a sour note though, calling time on his career in 1989 after being sacked from the role with the youngsters.
Several coaching roles followed at differing levels, none of which seemed to last very long before drifting into the world of sports punditry, famously falling out with Robbie Savage in 2005 and also upsetting Cardiff City fans in 2008, publicly stating he hoped they would lose their F.A. Cup semi-final with Barnsley that year. He survived despite these spats but faces an altogether different battle now. Whilst in the process of writing this piece the sad news reached me that the man who brought football to life for me has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and faces a gruelling six-week course of 60 radiotherapy sessions to try and cure him. Hopefully, with a figurative drop of the shoulder and a virtual shimmy, the magical Welshman who made me fall in love with this beautiful game will make a full recovery.
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