Robbie James

This obituary  by Huw Richards was published in When Saturday Comes, 134 (April 1998).

In football, sudden death isn’t supposed to mean anything much more serious than cup-ties. But the death at 40 of Robbie James reminds Swansea fans for the third time in 20 years of what it really means.

In 1978 Harry Griffiths collapsed and died in the treatment room at the Vetch Field four days before the team he built, and passed on to John Toshack,won promotion from the Fourth Division. Six years ago Wales midfielder Alan Davies, his career in decline, committed suicide. Davies had rejoined Swansea from Bradford City in an exchange deal a couple of years earlier. The player who went the other way, leaving for the second and last time, was Robbie James.

It was typical of Robbie, who died playing in the Welsh League for Llanelli, that he should still have been playing meaningful football at the age of 40. He had been doing so for a quarter of a century, since breaking into Swansea’s reserve side at the age of 15.

The statistics of his career speak of endurance, consistency and quality. His total of 782 league games is fourth on the all-time list behind Peter Shilton, Tommy Hutchison (another Swan) and Terry Paine. He was the youngest player to reach the landmarks of 100 and 200 league appearances. He won 47 caps in a period when Wales threatened to qualify for major competitions. He played nearly 300 League games for clubs other than Swansea – successively Stoke, QPR, Leicester, Bradford City and Cardiff City.

But Swansea will undoubtedly remember him longest and most fondly.

Records of 484 appearances and 115 goals – third and second respectively on the club’s all-time lists, only go part of the way to explain how much he meant. The greatest compliment a Welsh sportsman can receive is to be known, and be immediately recognised, by Christian name alone. Refer to “Robbie” among Swans fans at any time in the last 20-odd years and no further explanation was needed.

More than any other player, more perhaps even than John Toshack, Robbie personified Swansea’s years of miracle and wonder in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He was in the team when defeat at Rochdale forced a re-election application on 26th April 1975 – and still there on October 17th 1981, when victory at Stoke took them to the top of the League. And he had played 250 of the 277 matches in between. The record one fears he will hold in perpetuity is the most First Division games for Swansea – 82 out of a possible 84.

The Swans of the time would have been fun to watch even if they hadn’t been winning. So was Robbie. They scored spectacular goals – part of their eventual downfall would be that they didn’t get enough of the sort that squeeze in from three yards off somebody’s knee. Robbie could hit a ball with incredible power from the start. His first league goal, on New Year’s Day 1974 (when he was 16), rocketed past the Rotherham keeper from 30 yards and a high proportion of the subsequent 114 were comparable in distance and power.

They also tended to come in bursts – five in the first four matches created the momentum for a second successive promotion campaign in 1978-9, while four in four, including two to beat Aston Villa, took the Swans back to the top of the League in December 1981. Not that his direction was invariably impeccable. Swansea wingers – and spectators close to the touchline – learnt to fear the angled pass hit with such po-wer that Linford Christie might have struggled to catch it.

Built like a classic rugby union centre – ruggedly powerful, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered – he was also surprisingly quick over the first five yards, and his ability to beat defenders to the by-line from a standing start produced numerous goals in the great years. Still more impressive was the ability in a single continuous move-ment to go down on one knee, win a clean but crunching tackle and move away. It was no fluke that when he lost his pace he became an effective defender.

John Toshack, whose clubs since have included Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña, said he’d have been happy to have Robbie in any of his teams. Terry Yorath reckoned him a likely member of an all-time Wales XI.

If Robbie was fun to watch, he also looked as though he was having fun – and no player is more eagerly relished than the one whose skills are supplemented by a sense of genuine enjoyment. Of all the heroes of the Toshack years, Robbie was the one who looked as though, denied the skills to play at the highest level, he would have been at home on the North Bank, loving the game as fan rather than practitioner. We were lucky to have him.

An article on Robbie from Jackanory, 8 (April/May 1998) – click to enlarge

Jackanory 8, Apr-May 98 d Robbie James

7 responses to “Robbie James

  1. Martin Johnes

    I remember standing on the East Terrace when Robbie scored from a long range effort at the other end. The view wasn’t great from the front of that stand (you were basically level with the pitch) and I asked the old guy next to me who scored. He looked at me like I asked the world’s most stupid question and replied with something along the lknes of “A rocket like that? Robbie of course”.

  2. Huw Cooze

    Remember playing Arsenal at the Vetch in the 1980’s and Kenny Sansom offered Robbie the outside, at the time Sansom was England’s left back and considered a speed merchant, Robbie put on the burners and left him for dead, the shock on Sansom’s face seeing the barrel chested James fly past him was a picture.

  3. Martin Johnson

    If Robbie James was playing today the millionaires of Manchester City would want to buy him at any price. I remember him working in the garage near the Vetch Field and he was still fixing a car as I passed to go to a night game around 6pm. He had everything – courage, pace and a tremendous shot. Every managers dream !!!!

  4. Steve Meredith

    Such a great player for us and a true Swans legend. Loved watching hin driving forward with the ball and he took no prisoners. I remember a game against Arsenal in Div 1 at Highbury when Paul Davis ( I think ) glided down the touchline with grace and elegance anout of no where was hit by the 3.10pm from Swansea to Paddington AKA…. Robbie – I remember Brian Moore the next day saying it seemed a strong challenge…Paul Davis didnt know what had hit him. It was great that Him Alan Curtis and Charlo made the goal in Preston 81 and I recall a agme at Eastville v Bristol rovers where he was just awsome in a really tough game – we miss him a lot.

  5. Chris Rodon

    Robbie James would have played in the 1984 GB Olympic team if there was such a thing back then!

  6. Kevin Thomas

    Robbie was my cousins and a legend I loved watching him play for the swans that’s how at 52 im still playing local football. And have done for the last 31 seasons without a break I just can’t give up I just wish I had been as good as Robbie God rest you Rob xx

  7. Paul Smith

    Fascinating article, which I just came across. Thanks. What an amazing journey – – from the depths of the fourth division to the top of the league!

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