Premier League Career: Liverpool FC (1992-1999), Aston Villa (1999-2001), West Ham United (2001-2003), Manchester City (2004-2006), Portsmouth (2006-2010)
Currently a regular pundit on BT Sport’s coverage, David James played in a mammoth 572 Premier League matches, which places him fourth on the current all-time list. He held the Premier League record for most clean sheets between April 2007 and December 2015 with 170 before being surpassed by Petr Cech.
Awarded an MBE in the Queen’s 2012 Birthday Honours’ List for services to football and charity work, James was capped 53 times by England during a 13-year period and was first-choice goalkeeper at the 2004 European Championships and the World Cup of 2010.
Born in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, James grew up supporting Luton Town but would begin his professional career at the Hatters’ local rivals, Watford. He made his league debut in August 1990 and would go onto play 89 times for the Hertfordshire-based club.
He joined Liverpool FC for a fee of £1.25 million in July 1992 and was the first goalkeeper to be beaten by a goal live on Sky Sports when Teddy Sheringham fired a cracking drive past him in Nottingham Forest’s 1-0 victory on the opening weekend of the Premier League. He struggled to settle into his new surroundings and shipped 20 goals in his first 11 appearances before being dropped for LFC fans’ favourite and veteran Bruce Grobbelaar.
James would only feature sporadically then until February 1994 when Grobbelaar sustained an injury in an away defeat to Leeds United. He was back in the team and when Grobbelaar left that summer to join Southampton on a free transfer, became the first-choice goalkeeper at Anfield unchallenged for the next four seasons. He still was unconvincing at times. In 1997, he made a catalogue of costly goalkeeping errors that derailed Liverpool’s title challenge. James was at fault for conceding goals against Nottingham Forest, Coventry City and Manchester United, costing the Reds’ at least eight points which could have been enough for them to win their first title since 1990.
He put down his spate of errors to overindulgence in playing computer games that in turn affected his concentration. This earned him the nickname ‘Calamity James.’
After 277 games for Liverpool FC, he was sold to Aston Villa for £1.8 million in June 1999 and kept a clean sheet in his first Premier League match for Villa; a 1-0 away win at Newcastle United. The highlight of his career in the Midlands was a couple of penalty saves in the FA Cup semi-final shootout victory over Bolton Wanderers. He would make 85 appearances for the club but with Peter Schmeichel arriving on a free transfer for the 2001-2002 campaign, David moved onto pastures new with West Ham United in a £3.5 million deal.
His Hammers’ debut was to be seriously delayed though by a knee injury sustained whilst keeping goal for England during an international friendly against the Netherlands at White Hart Lane. He wouldn’t play for his new club until November 2001. On his return, West Ham immediately tightened up at the back and finished an excellent seventh. This was pretty good considering they’d been beaten heavily in the season’s early weeks by Everton and Blackburn Rovers. A sting in the tail came in 2002-2003. James was part of the West Ham squad that proved no team is too good to go down. Despite having the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Paolo di Canio, Jermain Defoe and James in their ranks, West Ham were relegated on the final day of the season. They became the first team to go down in a 38-game season despite having achieved the usual magical 40-point mark which is often considered enough to survive.
He stayed loyal to West Ham and remained with them in the First Division but when David Seaman announced his retirement from playing in January 2004, Manchester City came calling. It was a no-brainer for David, who was serving as England’s no.1 goalkeeper at the time. Manchester City were in a relegation battle and only won four matches after his arrival but James played a crucial part in earning draws against relegated duo Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Defeats in these games could have led to a completely different outcome for Kevin Keegan’s expensively-assembled side.
On the final day of the 2004-2005 season, Manchester City played Middlesbrough with a race between the sides to finish in seventh spot and secure a place in Europe for the following season. Stuart Pearce had taken over from Keegan in March of that season and he tried an unusual tactic, by removing David James from goal and making him an outfield attacker! Nicky Weaver came on in-goal to replace outfield player Claudio Reyna. The presence of a goalkeeper in home kit clearly had Middlesbrough rattled. In injury-time, a cross came in aimed at James. Franck Queudrue handled the ball and a penalty was given. Unfortunately for City, Mark Schwarzer saved Robbie Fowler’s spot-kick to ensure Middlesbrough drew 1-1 and grabbed that coveted European spot.
Later that summer, he separated from his wife of four children, Tanya. A year later, he decided he needed to leave Manchester City for personal reasons and moved to Portsmouth in a £1.2 million deal. James kept clean sheets in his first five appearances for Portsmouth and was named the club’s Player of the Season. In April 2007, he made Premier League history by keeping his 142nd clean sheet in a goalless draw away at Aston Villa. This meant he overtook the record held by David Seaman. In January 2008, he became only the third player in Premier League history to reach the landmark of 500 appearances in the 2-0 defeat to Manchester United. He won the FA Cup that season which was his second major honour, 13 years after his League Cup success with Liverpool FC.
In February 2009, James made his 536th Premier League appearance against one of his former sides, Manchester City. This broke Gary Speed’s all-time record. This has since been surpassed by Frank Lampard, Ryan Giggs and Gareth Barry. He left Portsmouth after their relegation from the top-flight in 2010, bowing out as skipper in the FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea. Although he expressed an interest in replacing the West Ham-bound Avram Grant, he eventually moved to Bristol City, meaning his Premier League career was over.
He had a spell at AFC Bournemouth and would retire from playing in 2013 after spending one season playing in Icelandic football with IBV Vestmannaeyjar who were being managed by his former Portsmouth teammate, Hermann Hreidarsson. Since then, David has done some part-time coaching with Luton Town and was player-manager with Kerala Blasters FC in the Indian Super League. However, his long-term future looks to be in punditry with BT Sport.
David James definitely had his critics throughout his career. He was a keeper who never seemed to do dull. His longevity within the game shows how he was trusted by many different managers from Evans and Gregory to Keegan and Redknapp. That means he must take credit for the career he enjoyed, even if it did lack a major league title.