He’s been called many things in his time, but ‘Bournemouth’s number one’ is possibly the most surprising of all. Tipped for greatness from the moment Graeme Souness shelled out £1.25 million to take him from Watford to Liverpool in 1992, James has been both lauded and lambasted in his time – none of us needs to be reminded of his one-time nickname – but he never stopped turning up and turning out, putting himself on the line for club and country. Lesser talents, or a lesser man, would have hung their gloves up years ago, but not David James.
He’s 42-years-old and he’s still looking to improve his game. He’s fit, hungry to play and possibly better adjusted than he’s ever been. Certainly the young firebrand that Liverpool signed was his own worst enemy – but if he was that bad, how did he win 53 caps for England? Aston Villa, West Ham, Manchester City, all followed, then he ran out an FA Cup winner at Portsmouth – and was still the best England could muster for Fabio Capello’s ill-starred 2010 World Cup campaign. In any other country David James would rightly be recognised as a legend. A first team player for 22 years and counting, his appetite for the game is undiminished by the knocks it has repeatedly dealt him. A mine of information, he’s doing his coaching badges and will one day doubtless pass on the benefits of what he has learned in nearly a quarter of a century as a professional footballer.
Meanwhile, in November 2012 he’s loving life in League One, riding the crest of AFC Bournemouth’s wave that has seen them withstand a dire start to 2012-13 to finish the year as the League’s form side – unbeaten in 13 as this was posted – and with a juicy FA Cup Third Round tie away to Wigan on the near horizon. Looking back, it was the dawn of a new era that has seen the Cherries rise to the Premier League, sign Jack Wilshire (albeit on loan) and hold their own with the biggest names in the game.
The move to Bournemouth seemed to happen really quickly, how did England’s last World Cup goalkeeper end up at the Goldsands?
Coming here was never really planned – I came up for a look around and so they could have a look at me and two days later I was playing my first game! It could have been happier, we lost 2-1 to a late goal, so not great. Bristol City didn’t renew my contract at the end of last season so I was training with Exeter to keep myself football fit, but I wanted to get back in the game. That’s down to three things – one, was I physically able; two, was I mentally able and three, was anyone interested.
And it was the third one that was letting me down, so I went off to Abu Dhabi, as you do, to do some pundit work commenting on Premier League games and the thought came to me that I had been retired from the game. It wasn’t what I wanted because you always hope to have some control over these things, but I was starting to think I’d have to get used to the idea. I’d spoken to Hughesy, Richard Hughes, who I knew from Portsmouth of course. He signed about six weeks before me after being out of the game for a while, so I was catching up with him really. He said lots of good things about Bournemouth, about the attitude here, the facilities and the feeling around the club. I didn’t think too much about it until my agent asked me about Bournemouth. The geography worked – it’s only 90 miles from home in Devon and I’d done that nearly every day at Portsmouth, so I had to get my head around League One.
You didn’t envisage a move to a bigger club?
There were a few noises about being number two or number three at Premier League sides but that’s not something I imagine I’d be very good at. I’d had experience at Championship level of course, but I’d never looked at League One. When I did of course I realised there’s plenty of quality at this level, especially here. And I’m here to do a job, there’s a mission – for me it’s to improve and to get back in the Championship and to get Bournemouth up there. I’m not here to graze on the grass, I had two not so glorious years at Bristol City and I want to get better.
Bournemouth have a new training centre and have done a lot over the last year or two to upgrade the facilities, but there must be a lot of differences to your previous experiences?
Well, maybe as a matter of scale. Like video analysis is pretty standard now, which is something that has come down from the Premier League. You come in at half time and there’s often something for you to look at on a laptop. After the game you get given the DVD straight away so you can watch the match and start analysing it on the bus home. It’s important. I go through every match with Mossy [Cherries’ goalkeeping coach Neil Moss], every instance where I am actively involved – not just saves and kicks, but where I stand at other times where I can affect an outcome. I need to see where I can improve or if there’s something I could have done to be more helpful or to have made a save.
It’s better for me if I understand what has happened and what I can do better next time. There was a period of time when I was at Liverpool where we’d be winning say 3-0 and there’d be a penalty and we’d come out 3-1 winners and I’d leave the pitch raging. I mean really raging, ruin a weekend raging. I was horrible to be with, I feel sorry for my family in retrospect. It didn’t have to be my fault they’d scored – and sometimes it wasn’t enough if we’d won and I’d kept a clean sheet, the tiniest mistake could set me off.
Then it would be other things away from football and I’d be getting moody about things – I had to give up playing cards as there as too many cheats – these things could affect me for three or four days, I’d be a wreck. It’s no wonder people get tired of you abusing them for days. I need to know why things happen, I need to have explanations. As a fan you can be cheering a player one minute then shouting and moaning at him the next, it’s a mood thing, everyone understands that. But some players play like that as well and I was one of them – it’s fine for some, but it wasn’t very good for me. You make one mistake and beat yourself up about it then you make another and so on. It goes the other way as well though, you do something brilliantly then you think you’re unbeatable – you might be for a while but it comes as a shock when you find that you’re not.
It’s a control thing. I’m not at my best if my emotions are up and down, I need to be level when I play, I need to know I’m going to be able to control myself. There’s a saying that’s very true, at least for me – ‘To lose emotional control is to lose objectivity.’
So, do you take that away and apply it outside of football?
I wish! About 10 or 12 years ago I employed a sports psychologist to do some work with me and that’s where the visualisation techniques come from. I use them to put myself in a place where I can be in total control and not get carried away emotionally. I set myself for a game the night before, or the morning of a match, then in the warm up I’m just going through the last of it.
Would you have talked as openly about this stuff 10 or 12 years ago when you first started working on it?
Absolutely not. I have broached the subject once or twice in public before and it’s still frowned upon to some extent. What’s changed is that a lot of clubs outside the Premier League now have sports psychologists available to the players that want to work with them. In the old days you used to get someone come in and say they were going to do some work with the whole team, but that’s ridiculous. We’re a team, but each one of us is different and people, footballers, whoever, we have an innate fear of psychologists and the unknown, so it was a hard sell.
Similarly with nutrition. When I was at Watford, we had Luther Blissett come in from Italy and he was eating pasta – we couldn’t believe it. I mean it’s standard now, but we thought why would anyone want to eat that before a match? It wasn’t like Watford could stretch to steak and chips instead, there it was sausage, egg and chips. Even now, we are told about nutrition, but you can’t make sure players eat the right foods all the time. All players are different, some will eat well, others won’t. You still get players that smoke.
Are you glad you came up in the era you did, or do you wish you could be starting out now? Maybe you could have played in an earlier age?
It’s a very different game and it’s a bit of a nonsense to wonder whether George Best could have played that well in today’s game. Not long ago I saw the video of Nottingham Forest winning the European Cup against Hamburg and I noticed players running back for a corner towards the end of a game and they were worn out, hands on knees, the lot. These days you very rarely see players leave a pitch looking tired. That’s how the game has changed. Longevity naturally means you get to see the game go through various transitions and I can understand why older players sometimes wish they had the benefits of being younger players. It doesn’t trouble me, I wouldn’t want to be a young player now, there are some advantages to being an older player – for instance there wasn’t so much competition when I started out.
So is playing at the age of 42, hopefully longer, a professional footballer since you were a teenager, is this you living the dream?
It wasn’t really like that for me. I loved football and I had an opportunity that I decided to take. That meant I became a footballer and had to leave the athletics behind, but once I signed those YTS forms and I was getting paid for it, it became different. If you’re paid to do something, it’s your job you must strive to do it well and the more you are paid the better you should be at doing it, that’s the way it is. It changes your relationship with football. And yet, I still have this over-riding desire to play.
Some things gets more difficult as you get older, but others things become easier and as long as I feel good overall I’ll want to play, to keep improving. I’m doing my coaching badges, but I love playing and want to take Bournemouth up into the Championship, that’s the goal. Training used to be a bit of kick about, some fitness work. Now we train very precisely and if you go out here and do what you do in training then it will happen for you. When I started we used to train a bit, have a five-a-side, all ball work. Now it is much more focused. Match day is like an exam and if you haven’t revised the topic you can’t expect to pass. As goalkeepers we probably do far more in training than the outfield players. Say we save 100 shots in training, in a game you only get 10 or so. Any more than that is a busy day.
I saw a TV documentary some years ago about your passion for Art and you were shown a drawing by LS Lowry, but instead of taking in the whole picture you immediately honed in on one tiny area and commented on the quality of the artist’s pencil marks. Is that an athlete’s thing, a goalkeeper thing, or a David James thing?
Or just me being totally OCD about something…?! That was just before Euro 2004, I remember it. It’s actually about me being pedantic rather than OCD, wanting an explanation for something, having to understand why something is the way it is.
You’ve been in some pretty intimidating dressing rooms in your time – from the last days of Liverpool’s glory tears, through all the high pressure England situations to Cup finals and the World Cup – are they all much the same after a while?
No, every dressing room is different, but this one here at Bournemouth is one of the best. Make no mistake, this is very much a team and they already had that before Eddie [Howe) and Jason [Tindall] came back to be fair. They were playing and maybe not getting the results and the fans were getting edgy, but there was always a good team spirit in the dressing room. I came in and didn’t know anyone here, only Hughesy, but nobody treated me differently because of who I am and what I’ve done in the past, it was great like that. But this is a proper team. I’ve been in dressing rooms where the players are all getting changed in little cliques and it can be tough to bring it together on the pitch, but here it doesn’t matter if you’re an old head or one of the younger lads, the conversation just flows between us, it’s very natural.
• All photos by Steve Cook, Seeker Sport