Obituary: Robbie James

ROBBIE JAMES gave his life to Welsh football. He played 47 times for his country, always displaying the passionate fervour demanded of every man who dons the red shirt, but arguably it was for his immense achievements at club level that he made the most vivid impression.

As an indefatigably competitive attacking midfielder cum striker, James played an integral part in Swansea City's prodigious feat in sweeping from the Football League's basement division to its top flight in the space of four years.

Then, having earned his place among the elite, he did not flounder as some lower-league performers do following such a meteoric rise. Indeed, he excelled, not missing a game during the 1981/82 campaign in which the Swans finished sixth in the table, the most exalted position in their history. In addition, he was top scorer with 14 goals, no mean attainment in a side containing fellow Welsh luminary Leighton James and the prolific English marksman Bob Latchford.

Though it was clear from childhood that he was a talented footballer, Robbie James did not plunge straight into the professional game on leaving school, instead taking a job with an electrical firm. However, in March 1973, after attracting interest from both Cardiff City and Arsenal, he signed as an amateur for his local club, Swansea.

Under the shrewd guidance of its manager Harry Gregg, the former Manchester United goalkeeper and survivor of the Munich air crash, the solidly built James made such rapid progress that he was given his senior debut only two months later, aged only 16, on the day City slipped from the Third to the Fourth Division. Thereafter he became a Swansea stalwart, enormously strong and combative, but also skilful and versatile enough to perform in either midfield or the front line.

The Swans' astonishing sequence of promotions, all during the managerial reign of John Toshack, began in 1977/78, the season in which James made his full international debut in a 7-0 victory over Malta at Wrexham. The rise continued in 1978/79 and 1980/81, but sadly the golden peak of 1981/82 was followed by relegation a year later.

At this point, having helped Swansea to three consecutive Welsh Cup triumphs, James opted to remain in the top grade by accepting a pounds 160,000 transfer to Stoke City. Somehow he never did himself justice in the Potteries, but spent three more productive First Division campaigns with Queen's Park Rangers before dropping to the Second with Leicester in 1987.

At Filbert Street James became a right-back, helping in the development of a young defence before returning to Swansea as captain in January 1988. That spring proved eventful as he won his last Wales cap on his 31st birthday, then led his new charges to promotion from the Fourth Division.

James pocketed another Welsh Cup winner's medal in 1989, before serving Bradford City for two seasons and joining Cardiff City in 1992. Still as enthusiastic as ever at the age of 36, he took a prominent role in the Bluebirds' Division three-title triumph of 1992/93 and collected his fifth and final Welsh Cup medal. When his League career ended later that year, he had made 782 appearances, a total bettered by only a handful of others, and scored 133 goals.

James went on to serve non-League Merthyr Tydfil and Barry Town, and was player- manager of Llanelli when he collapsed and died during a match with Porthcawl. To the very last he played the game the only way he knew how, with every ounce of his being.

Robert Mark James, footballer: born Gorseinon, Glamorgan 23 March 1957; played for Swansea City 1973-83, Stoke City 1983-84, Queen's Park Rangers 1984-87, Leicester City 1987-88, Swansea City 1988-90, Bradford City 1990- 92, Cardiff City 1992-93; capped 47 times for Wales 1978-88; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Llanelli, Dyfed 18 February 1998.