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Cliff Bastin Remembers XI.

Author: Isaque Argolo | Creation Date: 2024-06-23 16:17:21

Data providers: Isaque Argolo.
Cliff Bastin | 1950 —

As a personality and as a footballer, Alex James was quite in a class of his own. On and off the field, he was a law unto himself — although off it he sometimes found himself guided into more orthodox paths by Mr. Herbert Chapman. There is no doubt that Alex will always be remembered, as long as football is played. I count myself lucky to have played beside him, forming the Alex James — "Boy" Bastin wing which gained so much publicity, in the pre-war days of Arsenal's success.
When I first met Alex, he was an established player, a Scottish International, who had come to Arsenal for the huge fee, for those days, of £9,000. The only similarity between us was that we had both been signed as inside-lefts, during the close season of 1929. I realised at once that Alex would be first choice in the Arsenal team for that position, but since he was more than a decade older than I was, I reckoned my chance would ultimately come. That it was eventually to come as partner to Alex was something which never entered my head at this time.
The first thing that struck me about Alex was his terrific self-confidence. Nobody had greater faith in the qualities of Alex James than Alex James himself — not even Herbert Chapman, and that is saying something. Alex needed all his self-confidence during his first few months at Highbury, for he was very slow to settle down. Chapman, of course, wanted to cast him in the role of Arsenal schemer, whereas, with Preston, Alex had played a more general type of game, and had acquired quite a reputation as a goal scorer. As everybody knows, he ultimately developed into one of the finest constructive footballers of all time — a triumph for his self-reliance, and Herbert Chapman's foresight.
Alex's confidence was reflected on the field by the constant manner in which he called for the ball. Alex had no illusions about his own ability. He knew full well that, once given the ball, he would be able to make excellent use of it. It must not be imagined that he was conceited, however. He was not.
Alex was an individualist out of the true nineteenth-century mould! Off the field, I mean, not on it. When the Arsenal party stayed in an hotel, while visiting the North of England for an away match, Alex was rarely seen up and about before twelve noon on the day of the game! No one else had this privilege vouchsafed to him. But we did not begrudge Alex his extended lie-in. After-all, we reasoned, genius cannot be expected always to conform with accepted standards! And besides, Alex was very much awake when the time came for the match.
Many and varied are the stories about him. One will suffice, in this instance. At a certain stage in Alex's Arsenal career, Mr. Chapman decided that Alex, rather off form at the time, needed a change of air. Consequently, he informed him, that he was going to be sent on an ocean voyage, at the club's expense. Alex was delighted. Visions of the Queen Mary — the luxury liner of the Atlantic — or some other floating hotel, with dance bands, swimming pools and cinemas swam into his vision.
Shortly after he had received the glad news we find our hero standing on a quayside, accompanied by Tom Whittaker, who has been detailed to see him off. "Which is my ship?" asks Alex.
"That one," says Tom.
Alex looks. He looks again. "What, that dirty little tramp steamer?"
"That's the one," replies Tom.
"Well, whoever thinks I'm going on that," explodes Alex, "is making a big mistake."
"The Boss's orders," Tom chimes in gently.
Alex went.
I fully realise what a great contribution Alex made to my success as an outside-left. It was a pleasure to play beside him. We had a well-nigh perfect understanding. I could follow his moves with ease, although other forward colleagues, so Alex told me, found it very difficult. Alex kept well in towards the middle of the field, thereby giving me plenty of room in which to work. Most of the time, he would be looking for balls somewhere on the other wing, while I had absolute charge of my side of the field, standing about fifteen yards inside from the left touch-line. Then Alex would suddenly fasten on to a loose ball, flash it out to me, and I would make for goal as fast as I possibly could.
This move was varied by Alex's beautifully placed short pass inside the back, designed for me to run on to.
Alex was a past master of switching the play from one side of the field to the other and, in consequence, Joey Hulme received almost as many passes from him as I did. Indeed, his cross-field kick to Joey was amazingly accurate. I have seen him take a goal-kick on the volley, and drop it right at Joey's feet, on the other side of the field.
Alex knew just how long to hold the ball, before parting with it — an attribute denied to the vast majority of footballers, who will either bang it to a colleague before they have sufficiently drawn an opponent, or dribble far too long, until the ball is eventually taken from them. Besides all this, Alex was one of the fastest footballers over ten yards I ever came across. Whether he could have lasted for a hundred is highly problematic. Personally, I doubt it. But it is the short spurts which matter, and Alex was a master of these.
Alex and I, contrary to general opinion, did not see very much of one another off the field. Our understanding was not based on two souls "in perfect communion". Alex was eleven years older than I was, besides, he was a married man. It was natural that we should have our own circle of friends.
I have always felt that Alex was unlucky in life — although this may seem something of a paradox, considering his phenomenal success as a footballer. He was, however, presented with very few opportunities. Born in Bellshill, he was never given the advantages of a really thorough education. Thrown out to fight the world unarmed, he struggled through to the top. A magnificent achievement, but he might, I feel, have made more of the opportunities which consequently accrued to him had such an education been his.
Be that as it may, Alex has left a reputation in Soccer second to none. Whenever the conversation turns, among sport lovers, to great players of the past, his name is always mentioned. And among followers of Arsenal, memories of a shuffling, Puckish little figure, shorts down to his knees and shirt-sleeves flapping loose, will be treasured to the very end.