‘King’ Robbie James (1957-1998)
Untold Lives tries to maintain impartiality, especially in important matters such as football! So to follow John Watmough’s story of Bradford City's Jimmy Speirs, we have a guest blog by Huw Bowen about Robbie James of Swansea City.
Searching for connections between Swansea City Football Club and Bradford City in the week before the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley was not a difficult task. This is because lots of players, and indeed one manager (Terry Yorath), have been employed by both clubs over the years. At first I was tempted to write about the tragic life of Alan Davies, once a teenage FA Cup winner with Manchester United, who committed suicide while at Swansea in 1992. But in the end I just had to plump for Robbie James, one of the few footballers who fully deserve to be described as a legend, a term that is so often misused and abused when applied to sports men and women.
It has to be said that any non-aficionado of the beautiful game reading this will probably never have heard of Robert Mark James. But, rest assured, the life of Robbie James is most certainly not an ‘untold life’ in south-west Wales. Because Robbie was a driving force in the remarkable Swansea team of the late 1970s and early 1980s which rose from the bottom of the Football League to the very top. Born near Swansea, he - along with Alan Curtis, Jeremy Charles, Wyndham Evans, and Nigel ‘Speedy’ Stevenson - was one of the local heroes we could all identify with and pin our hopes on. A barnstorming attacking midfielder with a thunderous shot, he dominated the centre of the mud-heap pitch at the dilapidated Vetch Field home of the Swans.
Swan by Thomas Bewick-from Bewick's Woodcuts Images Online
Robbie made 483 appearances for the Swans in two spells between 1973 and 1990. He scored 118 goals and won 47 international caps for Wales. But that is not all. In total, he made an astonishing 783 league appearances for various clubs over the course of a career that lasted for more than twenty years, and this included playing 89 games for Bradford City between 1990 and 1992. Unfortunately, though, he also inexplicably went over to the dark side in 1992-3 when he played 51 games for Cardiff City. When I heard the dreadful news that Robbie had signed for the Bluebirds (or are they Redbirds? Who knows?), I remember thinking ‘Say it ain’t so, Robbie’.
After retirement from full-time professional soccer, Robbie played for several non-league teams in South Wales before becoming player-manager of Llanelli AFC. Tragically, but in some ways fittingly, Robbie collapsed and died while playing for Llanelli in 1998. The Half-Moon pub in Llanelli was renamed ‘The Robbie James’, and recently a bust of him were unveiled at the Liberty Stadium, the shiny new home of the now Premier League Swans.
By all reports, Robbie was a cheerful, modest man, who sported a trademark 70s moustache and had a genuine passion for the game he graced so wonderfully well. I only met him once, in a crowded bar during the early 1990s. As always happens when I am in the presence of one of my sporting heroes, I immediately lost the power of speech and started gaping at him like a goldfish. Recognising the difficulty I was in, Robbie leaned towards me, quietly said ‘Alright, Pal?’, and shook my hand.
Quite simply, Robbie James was a class act and that is why I was thinking about ‘The King’ when I was at Wembley on Sunday to watch the Swans thrash the Bantams 5-0 (sorry about that Bradford fans, but you supporters were great!).
Huw Bowen, Professor of Modern History at Swansea University
For Swansea City fanzines and books about the club, search Explore the British Library.