47 caps and over 100 career goals for Swansea alone, Robbie James is a true cult hero
This is the second part of an ongoing series in which we profile the cult heroes of Welsh football.
The next instalment in the series covers Swansea City and Welsh football in general star from the 1970’s through to and including the early 1990’s, Robbie James.
Robert Mark James was born in Gorseinon, Swansea in 1957 and from an early age, his first name became known as Robbie. In school, it was clear that Robbie was a very talented footballer and a number of professional clubs were looking at the youngster. However, Robbie made the decision when he left school to earn a trade and began working for an electrical firm. A decision nowadays that seems hard for football fans to fathom. The money that you can now earn in football why would you not pursue your dream immediately? However, back in the early 1970’s the financial gains were just not there unless you were one of the very best, so a tough decision had to be made by the individual. In 1973, whilst playing locally, Robbie then 16 years of age, again was attracting interest from clubs such as Arsenal, Cardiff City and his local professional club, Swansea City. This time Robbie was ready to make the move into professional football and plumped for his local team, Swansea City.
Swansea City’s manager at that time was Harry Gregg, ex-Manchester United star during the fantastic period of “The Busby Babes”. Swansea was a Third Division side at the time and languishing near the bottom of that division. Only two months after joining the club, Robbie James aged just 16, made his league debut in the final game of the season. Swansea was relegated to the Fourth Division, the bottom league of professional football but a young star had just been unearthed.
The following season, Robbie James was to make 29 appearances in all competitions, a large number for a very young man in the rough and tumble of the Fourth Division. Robbie showed early on his competitive nature as an attacking midfielder who could also play as a striker. Over the next 4 seasons, Swansea remained in the bottom division, Robbie was playing week in week out for “The Swans” and was getting amongst the goals on a regular basis, scoring 51 goals in that period in all competitions.
In the 1977–78 season, Swansea City and Robbie James fortunes would significantly change for the better. John Toshack was put in charge of the club, and for the next 2 seasons, Swansea would be promoted in consecutive seasons up to the Second Division. The team and Robbie James were in the limelight, playing some great football and for Robbie international recognition came, making his debut for Wales in 1978 against Malta at The Racecourse, Wrexham. After 2 seasons in the Second Division, Swansea City gained promotion to the First Division in 1981. Robbie James would be able to put his footballing skills up against the very best players in the country.
In the first year in the top division, Swansea City had a remarkable year, topping the table for a period of time, until eventually finishing sixth, with Robbie James finishing the club’s top goalscorer with 14 goals. The club was on a real high and Robbie was one of the key players. Robbie was versatile and could play in a number of positions as he did throughout his career, he had a great passing range, was strong in the tackle and scored numerous great goals from long range, he was a clean striker of a football. One of many gifts he had.
In 1983, Robbie would leave his hometown club after 10 years of outstanding service, joining Stoke City. Robbie would go on to play for a number of clubs during his professional career, after leaving Stoke he joined Queens Park Rangers, Leicester City, back to his beloved Swansea City for 3 seasons, Bradford City, before finishing his professional career at Cardiff City. Overall he would play 21 years in professional football, with 908 overall club appearances in that period, scoring 154 goals. For Wales, he played 47 times in a 10 year period, scoring 7 goals. I watched Robbie a number of times for Wales, plus his period at the end of his career with Cardiff City when he played a number of times at right back, which as mentioned previously shows his versatility. Even at Cardiff which was in the twilight of his career, you could see the ability he had, he was a step above ability wise, most players on the pitches at that time in the Second and Third Divisions.
After Robbie retired from professional football in 1993, Robbie joined Merthyr Tydfil as a player, the following year he moved to Barry Town, and then in 1996 he became player-manager for Llanelli. Tragically in 1998, whilst playing for Llanelli against Porthcawl, Robbie James collapsed and died, he was just 40 years of age.
In 2007, a bust of Robbie James was unveiled outside Swansea City’s home stadium, The Liberty Stadium, in recognition of Robbie’s services to the club. In 2012, the “Robbie James Wall Of Fame” was unveiled below the bust, which has names of famous players and managers of the club which when completed, will be 100 names in total, due to be completed in 2017.
Robbie James, a truly fantastic Welsh footballer, a player who played professional football for 21 years, amassing over 900 appearances. A football man adored by fans, a cult hero…
By Craig Muncey (@craigmuncey)