In a lot of jobs, you can still be on an upward trajectory in your early 40s – but not in football, of course. A 40-something footballer is, by and large, an ex-footballer. When you think of the names, they’re really players from another era altogether. There’s Alan Shearer, for example, at 43 long established as the country’s premier stater of the obvious on Match of the Day. There’s Gareth Southgate, the same age, now manager of the England Under-21s, who managed to notch up an impressive 500 league appearances before he hung up his boots in 2006. There’s Lee Sharpe, 42, whose footballing career seems as synonymous with the 1990s as Britpop and the Tamagotchi.
And then there’s David James, also 43. If you want to find David James, don’t head to the golf course, or the wine bar; head about 1,100 miles northwest of London to Heimaey, the largest island of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, off the southern coast of Iceland. If you had gone there a few weeks ago, you would have found James, as identifiable by his height and hair as ever, turning out for Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja – more pronounceably known as IBV – in a 1-0 victory over midtable rivals Fylkir. A mere 500, Gareth? In this, his 1,000th career appearance, James was named man of the match. And he isn’t finished yet.
James’s desire to keep on playing seems deeply romantic. It also seems bonkers. I thought it would be interesting to know why he was still at it, so I called IBV and asked to be put through to the press office. “Hold on a second,” the voice on the other end says, after a moment’s confusion. “Smari! Phone!”
When Smari comes to the phone, he seems delighted to hear from me, and when I call back the next day, he says cheerfully that it had all been arranged. IBV is a long way from the Premier League in all senses; accordingly, after a three-hour flight, I hop on a bus at a time that would, in countries further from the North Pole, have been daybreak. Then I take a ferry in choppy water across to Hemaiey.
As we roil toward the island’s harbour, I spot a guy in an IBV tracksuit and ask him if he could tell me the way to the ground. He tells me, and asks why I am headed there; to interview David James, I explain. At this point a significant figure in a blazer and plaid shorts looms into view. “Er,” David James says. “No you’re not.”
I wilt a bit, thinking of the journey home, and explain that I have spoken to Smari, and he has said everything is in place. “Another of his bright ideas, is it?” James says drily. “Bloody Smari.”
We get off the ferry, the slightly-built Icelanders also disembarking agog at this man mountain in their midst. James strides off around the corner, leaving me to make the short walk to the ground alone. Ramshackle though it is, it is also, without doubt, the most dramatic setting for a football match that I’ve ever seen. To one side of the pitch is a shabby 1,500-seater stand; to the other is a vertiginous cliff-face that appears to have been carved out of moon rock. Behind the far goal is a small golf course, and then nothing but the Atlantic Ocean.
Two hours later, after I have figured out that Smari’s duties are not limited to media relations and marvelled at the club’s indoor training hangar, James emerges from the gym. He’s eating something leathery-looking called hardfisk. “Dried fish,” he explains. “Do you want to try it? Pure protein. Tastes like MDF.” I demur.
James, it is clear, is not treating his time in Iceland as a way of winding down. He remembers the build-up to the first game of the season, when Hermann Hreidarsson – his old Portsmouth team-mate, now IBV manager, who persuaded James to come over as player-coach– was getting increasingly excited. “I was cool as a cucumber,” says James. “But then the night before I thought, right, got a game tomorrow, got to play! We won 1-0, and I got this feeling that I hadn’t had in so long. Got the buzz back. When we lost the next game 3-1 I was absolutely gutted. But, I thought, the fact that I’m still getting these emotional twists means that I’m doing the right thing.”
Everyone on the island – population 4,100 – seems delighted to have him. “I’ve fallen in love with the place,” he says. “We’re all the same here. I don’t know everyone, but I’ve seen everyone.” He’s not sure if there are chants in his honour – “I can’t understand a word of it” – but it is perhaps a marker of the goalkeeper’s status that at a recent festival on the island the winners of the fancy dress competition were a group of girls dressed in his distinctive orange top wearing afro wigs. “They were carrying a goal around with them everywhere,” he notes. “It was madness.”
James, who has never been a fan of city living, is particularly enamoured of the landscape. You get the sense, too, that he likes to be a little bit remote – a typical goalkeeper, you might say. (“That’s unfortunately how I am,” he says. “I come out here and no one who knows me says, what are you doing that for? They expect this sort of thing.”) But if that’s one of the attractions of the island, it can also make life a little complicated. One visiting team was recently stuck on the island for three days.
Last month, when James was supposed to head to Manchester for Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial, he became a little anxious as IBV endured training in gale force winds. With the ferry cancelled and no room on the only commercial flight, he accordingly chartered a small plane to take him to the mainland at 3am – only to get a call in the middle of the night saying it was still too windy. He missed the game. “I did think, yeah, this really is an island,” he says. “When the weather doesn’t want you to leave, you just don’t leave.”
Perhaps the first indication that James got of quite how different life would be from the existence of an English professional – even at lower league clubs like Bristol City and Bournemouth, where he spent the last couple of years – came when, early on in his time at IBV, he arrived at the club on another day of miserable weather expecting to train, only to be told by Hreidarsson that a different duty was in order. “The lads were out on the pitch, putting up the advertising hoardings,” he remembers with a laugh. “Herman told me to get on with it.”
In the circumstances, he has had to make more allowances for some of his fellow players than he might be used to. Most of them have full-time jobs on the island – many on the fishing boats that are the community’s lifeblood – so training has to be after work. After one squad player turned in a particularly poor performance, James told Hreidarsson that he didn’t want to see him at practice again. “Then I saw him at the gym the next day,” he says. “He said he was sorry for the session, and I was saying, ‘all right, all right, whatever’, and then he said that the thing was he’d just come off a 14-hour shift and so he was a bit knackered. And I thought, well, I suppose we’d better give him another chance.”
Then there are the pitches. IBV’s surface isn’t too bad, in spite of the pronounced slope towards the clubhouse, but elsewhere the challenge of tending to grass that’s frozen for six months of the year has proven too much for the local groundsmen. “One away game, we flew into this airport in a valley in the western fjords, it was unbelievably beautiful. But the pitch… a bit of grass, a lot of sand, a lot of gravel. It was literally the worst I’ve ever played on in my life. And I’ve been playing for decades.”
And yet, despite all these difficulties, James appears to be having the time of his life. The team is comfortable in mid-table, significantly better than the relegation spot the Reykjavik sporting cognoscenti had predicted, and the goalkeeper and his old Portsmouth team-mate are taking great satisfaction in coaching a group of raw amateurs to a higher level than they have ever reached before.
But he has reached that 1,000-game milestone. He has punditry commitments with BT Sport, which means that he must make a logistically tricky journey to the UK most weeks and then rush back to the island to play on the Sunday. This can’t be sustainable, surely. The season is coming to an end; he can’t have another one in him, can he? “Well, I don’t feel physically bad,” he says. “For as long as I’m not letting either side down, I’ll continue. I won’t retire until the game retires me. Yes, there are moments where I’ve thought, maybe now’s the time. But then something good happens, and you think, no, not yet. So until I can’t actually do it any more, I’ll never retire. Maybe I’ll fade away.”
Mindful that the last ferry to the mainland is leaving shortly, and wary of the prospect of a night sleeping on the dock, I say my farewells. James heads off for training in the pouring rain. On the walk back to the harbour, a group of teenagers on some sort of scavenger hunt ask me to eat a piece of volcanic rock. It tastes a bit like liquorice. It’s all a long way from David Beckham’s exit at the Parc des Princes.
But James doesn’t need to be at the top, doesn’t seem to really care what other people think. He just wants to play the game he loves. Perhaps that’s why he has always stood out from the Premier League crowd. When I get back to the hotel, I find a video online of him in goal for IBV, diving low to his left and scooping a bullet header from five yards out down on to the ground and away. The opposition, hardly able to believe it hasn’t crossed the line, protest to the referee, but there is no doubt he got there in time. It is a legitimate wonder save. David James, fading away? Not yet he isn’t. Not yet.