Remember the heady days of 2005? Jose Mourinho was new and shiny, Arsenal scored 87 league goals in a season, Bolton finished level on points (58) with Liverpool and Manchester City missed out on Europe on the last day.
David James remembers it well – especially that last part, playing a central and completely unexpected role in it when he was moved out from between the sticks (Nicky Weaver took over) and stuck up front.
The FA Cup winning goalkeeper remembers every moment well, blowing out his cheeks and chuckling when we bring it up. “Oh, strewth.”
“If I say it was strange…I didn’t know anything about it until the game, and even then it was only a rumour from the kit man at half time. Was I uncomfortable? Well, I was knackered. As fit as I was, running around on a football pitch just knackered me out. My touch was poor, I think I fouled every Middlesbrough player but Mark Schwarzer, I won every header, and we drew the game.
“We were distraught, Robbie Fowler had the penalty…if he’d scored, who knows. Pearcy could’ve done the same thing in Europe, put me up front.”
That injury-time Robbie Fowler penalty, saved by Schwarzer, would have put City in Europe for just the second time in 25 years. By the time they did make it back into the UEFA Cup for the 2008/09 season, James was long gone – playing in the same competition for Portsmouth.
“The sad thing is,” he chuckles, “when it came to shooting drills I fancied myself to score against anyone. I just never got the chance in the game, in training you don’t have the eagerness of the opposition to stop you progressing up the pitch, let alone scoring.
“I took a good lesson from that to not think I could go up front…but having said that, since I retired – or rather, since the game retired me – I’ve played in a lot of charity matches and I always play outfield.”
A number of modern goalkeepers have been touted as more than acceptable outfield playmakers, Manuel Neuer and Ederson in particular, but James warns that being able to play impressive passes with a little space around you is entirely different from receiving the ball under pressure with a defender on your back.
“That’s probably why I fouled so many Middlesbrough players, because my touch wasn’t quite there and the defender was right on me.”
He did have another suggestion for ball-playing goalkeepers though, explaining: “Interestingly, I was looking at the stats for Willian’s free kicks because they were talking about it after the Chelsea game, and he falls basically into the average range.
“You’d think that someone like Ederson would be as good as most free-kick takers in the Premier League with the power he’s got, why doesn’t Pep allow him to take free kicks, or at least try it? Far be it from me to suggest that Pep should do something that I’m thinking about…but if I was Ederson, I’d be practicing my free kicks.”
James was talking to 90min this week in a break from using his COVID-19 lockdown to paint, having taken time to contribute to the #PinYourThanks initiative alongside stars including Keira Knightly, Ringo Starr, Anoushka Shankar and Dame Sarah Storey to create pin badge designs thanking NHS workers for their efforts before, during and after the global pandemic.
All of the money from the sales of the pin badges goes to a group of NHS charities, and James said of his own involvement: “My sister’s a nurse, I have another sister who works in the NHS, I’ve got another sister who used to, my mum used to work in the NHS and my dad used to drive an ambulance.
“A lot of my family’s connected to the NHS, and I understand how difficult the job is – especially the nursing. The pressure that was already on the people working in the NHS was compounded, and with #PinYourThanks giving a chance to raise money for the NHS charities together, I think that’s a great thing.
“That’s the thing here, the NHS are heroes. There’s no question about it. They were heroes before the pandemic, they’ll be heroes after it. This is something that I think is needed, people have been doing their thing and it’s a chance to recognise their efforts.”