David James was just 12 when he watched 40-year-old Dino Zoff become the oldest player ever to win the World Cup, as captain of Italy in 1982. The young James was so impressed by what he saw, he saved up the money he had earned from mowing his neighbours' lawns and went out and bought the trademark Zoff goalkeeping gloves from his local sports shop.
Now James prepares to make his latest international comeback knowing the chance of emulating his hero Zoff is a real possibility with England among the favourites for the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer. The Portsmouth keeper, who will be 40 next August, spoke yesterday of his own particular "glove story" with the World Cup.
"I remember he [Zoff] had great gloves," James said. "Uhlsport. I bought a pair of Dino Zoff gloves when I was a kid, saved up all my grass cutting money to buy them. I had black and white ones, classics. I got electrocuted on the Manchester City FA Cup final day, if I remember, but that's another story."
As the joking aside suggests, James was in relaxed good humour yesterday as he contemplated his return to the England fold, having missed the last five internationals after undergoing surgery on his shoulder. He has seen Robert Green take his chance to stake a claim for his place with calm assurance, without being spectacular. Ben Foster seems to have slipped out of the reckoning with some nervous performances for Manchester United.
Yet James does not accept that he is guaranteed to be Fabio Capello's first-choice goalkeeper. James said: "I'm not worried. I'm back in the squad, and that's the main thing. Not being involved is horrible. If it's the case that he [Capello] doesn't want to change a winning formula, then I accept that. But, at the same time, without causing any issues, I didn't turn up for the squad not to play. I'm hungry to play."
James accepts with good grace that he must prove himself all over again, something he has had to do ever since making his debut against Mexico in 1997. He has earned 48 caps but had never won the full confidence of an England manager until Capello took over and picked him in his first game in charge, against Switzerland in February 2008.
"For every game I've played, I've been under scrutiny," he said. "The way the manager is, there's no guarantee – even though I'd started every game. You don't know until the team is announced whether you're playing. I like that. I think it keeps everything fresh, everyone on their toes. That's what it'll be like this week."
England duty comes as blessed relief for James, who has endured a torrid time at Portsmouth. The club lost their first seven games before last weekend's 1-0 win over Wolves, and the players had to wait several days before they were paid. James made light of the situation yesterday saying: "It's probably just as well we didn't win before then because we wouldn't have been able to afford the bonuses anyway."
James was honest enough to admit that in years gone by he might not have been as mentally strong to deal with the effects of seven straight defeats. He said: "Losing seven games in a row for my club would have been enough, in the past, to have made a major dent. Rather than getting frustrated with the issues, you understand that there's a job to be done and what you need to do to achieve that. You do the right thing."
For James now, the right thing means winning back his place. Capello has a chance to try both Green and James against Ukraine and Belarus, with England having qualified for the finals.
His knows from his own bitter experience of being dubbed "Calamity James" earlier in his career there can be no hiding place for young goalkeepers. But unlike some challengers to his position, James has been through it and come out the other side relatively intact.
"It's a difficult job playing for England, period, whether you're a goalkeeper or a centre-forward," he said. "You have to go through these experiences and, if there's a bit of criticism... It's a cliché to say you'll come out right in the end. You don't always. Most people won't. It's a part of the process."
James said he is not yet fully fit after an operation on a torn muscle in his shoulder, an injury he sustained warming up against Russia two years ago. He opted to delay having the operation during last season as his club flirted with relegation but was advised against leaving it until after the World Cup.