Left wingers of the 70s: Leighton James – The Individual


Let’s start with a quote from our subject just to set the ball rolling. Having played a major part in Wales’ historic 4-1 defeat of England in the 1980 British Championship, Leighton James was interviewed shortly after

“I’m like the Ayatollah – back out of exile!”

Now many would assume that here we have the Welsh forerunner to Ibrahimovic waxing eloquently and would expect more bombast. But no; he continues.

“No player, of whatever ability, can maintain the same level of peak performance week in week out for nine months a year. I hope people realise that. If you want to be actually factual about my three matches in the British Championship, I had one good game in three.”

It’s an interview we’ll come back to in this article. There was an obvious place in the market for a Leighton James type character and who better than the man himself to fill it. No-one was more delighted than Leighton James to get the title role gig. He did it well. In discussing Leighton James as part of this series, he caused a few to struggle with his profile. This was as I thought. He really caught my attention in the middle of the decade at Derby County and that probably coincided with their altitude cruising around the top of the league. It should be said though he was not part of the 1975 Championship side and did not reach ninety appearances with them. I have addended him ‘The individual’ and this needs further investigation. It characterised him in play, career and personality.

Many would perhaps rightly consider all left-wingers ‘individuals’, and that this playing for self rather than the team led to their gradual extinction. The type of winger that Ryan Giggs was for example fed into the stalk of the team so much more than the winger that abounded in the seventies. I wouldn’t necessarily be at all happy with that generalisation. But it was a perception that abounded off and on the field. Never forget either that the decade was still hovered over by the ‘wingless wonder’ concept that 1966 had espoused. But consider too the hinterland these type of players had. Street footballers who went from house wall to schoolboy forms and then the first team. They were such instinctive footballers that academy football would have been like putting Churchill into leadership classes. Instinct, as well as self-preservation, was hugely important when right-backs roamed pitches looking for prey.

Very simply Leighton James was very much his own man. He still is. You probably needed to be as in his time, being a Welsh winger had you up against rugby’s Gerald Davies and JJ Williams when that particular international team was in its Grand Slam heyday. He certainly paved the way for Ryan Giggs. But if we move from the man to the player he made his debut aged 17 for Burnley in 1970. His next five years probably were the best of his career, though his stint at John Toshack’s Swansea was very successful in the early 80s.

Burnley had an up and down period through the top two divisions in those five years but let it be known that for a couple of years James didn’t miss a match. That is some trick for a winger in those days in a creative position that brooked no quarter in an era of the brute tackle. Kicking the fancy dan winger up in the air was considered akin to a dead badger on the road. Acceptable collateral! It says a lot about his professionalism and consistency levels as well.

He had the required speed but of our ten delegates at this convention, he perhaps had the strongest right foot. He took penalties many a time with it. He was adept at crowding right up on his marker but also at lining them up from a good distance out before physical dismissal. He had a huge appreciation for space and had a fairly subtle way of finding it without drawing huge attention to himself. By the time the defence realised he was there it was too late. Modern readers may not appreciate the Home Internationals which ended in 1984, but when Wales defeated England 4-1 at Wrexham in 1980 it was a huge and historic moment.

He was literally right, left and centre tearing England apart if not in the romantic valleys, certainly in Wrexham. It was a great example of devastating play with regard to beating your man through skill and space, direct attacking and correct decision making. Impactful, if you were putting it in corporate language. He scored a more than respectable 10 goals in 54 international appearances and in some areas is more remembered in red rather than in other shirts. 124 goals in 645 club appearances is also a pretty decent goal return and a ratio of one every half a dozen or so appearances says a lot about his potency.

As mentioned his star perhaps didn’t shine as brightly as other wingers in our series. Various factors are at play here namely Burnley not being a larger beast. When he did get a move to the then bigger clubs at the time such as Derby and QPR, their best days were slipping behind them. He was a major part of Swansea’s history under John Toshack. But again he wasn’t around long enough to firmly plant the James coat of arms in the ground. It would have left a fine shadow of a Cromwellian hairstyle which certainly would not have pleased his Welsh soul.

Like any player perhaps luck wasn’t with him a few times. He was the makeweight in the Don Masson Derby/QPR transfer and once Tommy Docherty arrived his days were numbered. Throughout all this, he still was a major feature of the decade’s wide boys if that doesn’t do them down. Being Welsh gave him a certain individuality, but he earns his place in this series I would argue through that ability to turn a game with some technical outrage, pace and threat. Let us be reminded that he was very two-footed and could be relied upon to add outlet, goals, crosses and support play all to a similarly high level.

He is still close to Burnley and Swansea in particular and he is as Welsh as they come. He is a very avid supporter of the Scarlets rugby team just in case you might ever forget a red dragon lurks within. He is proper ‘Jack’ and famously hoped Cardiff City would lose to Barnsley in a cup-tie. Passion for his beliefs run deep as there have been a few public spats with fellow pundits. Let this sit against his role as a lollipop man outside his local primary school for a period in the noughties, and one then sees substance to the noise if you like.

The opening interview of this article says a lot about him and for me carries the load for his ability to get into scrapes and arguments. He has no issue whatsoever in recognising his own ability but balances the statement with what he considers fair and true context. Clearly faced with many over the years who he feels have not made the same concessions, he has little sympathy for their views.

Of the ten wingers selected here, he would be the one that probably wound up opposing fans the most. Willie Johnston, our previous candidate might run him close. For many a player, that is a prized and elevated position. Those who do it best do it naturally. It need not even be opposing fans. It could be perhaps be summed up in a colourful exchange with a Burnley fan who entertained me at the game v Newcastle last November when the mercurial one popped up in conversation. As the man cut loose in flat Lancashire tones, the following monologue probably encouraged me to do this series.

Yes, clearly God had some spare time on the seventh day and decided to create Leighton James. For God could see that on his day Leighton could be bloody good, and other days he could be bloody awful. I imagine the chat between him and Leighton went like this.”

“Leighton,” said the Lord, “go forth and frustrate”.
“Who shall I frustrate? Gaffer.”
“Just keep it simple son”, God replied in his best Shankly voice, “Frustrate them all.”