David James: New goal in life that 'nearly made me give up the game'

Riding high in the Premiership and in the clean-sheet charts, the Pompey keeper talks to Jason Burt about his consuming crusade
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The Independent Football

David James offers two snapshots from his summer. The first, and the goalkeeper is sitting on the bench for England during the World Cup, listening to the gripes of the other players. The second, two weeks later, and he is in a village in Malawi, 20 miles from the city of Blantyre, having just visited two extended families, run by elderly women because the men have died from HIV/Aids. The crops, again, have failed.

His group drive back to the city. "On the way there are kids everywhere, playing football, kicking up clouds of dust," James says. "These kids are trying to emulate their stars, and it's like a million miles from the World Cup. I just thought, 'This is mad', although it showed the whole world had been focused on the tournament. I just thought, again, of all the little gripes that went on. It brought it all home."

Indeed Malawi, and its importance to him, almost meant that James did not go to the World Cup in the first place. After a career that has taken him to six clubs, including his latest, Portsmouth, and with 34 international caps, he remains passionate about football. But he is also passionate about the work he has set up for the past two years, and the foundation he has established in the impoverished, turbulent African nation. In fact, it almost prompted him to give up the game all together.

James recalls that horrible evening in Copenhagen last year when he came on as a half-time substitute for England to replace Paul Robinson, only to concede four soft goals and compound it all by being honest enough to say he was not properly prepared. James was dropped from the squad for the last four matches of World Cup qualifying.

The timing could not have been worse. "I had a year and a half left on my contract at [Manchester] City, we were not doing well, I was out of the England squad and my life off the field was here and there," James recalls. "I thought to myself, 'Can I continue doing this?' I'd reached the point of saying, 'What is there? How is this going to work out?' To be left out by England was a shock. You say the right things, but maybe I'd lost that little bit of love which is the difference between always wanting to play and not wanting to play."

It was a feeling that lasted "only a few days" but then, in November, the crunch came. Sven Goran Eriksson recalled James for the friendly against Argentina in Geneva. "But I was planning to go to Malawi," he says, "so I asked people if it was worth me going with England or doing my work in Malawi. It was decided it was better to be a professional. I thought, 'I'm 35, this is my love, my life, and I can't just turn my back on it'."

But it was a close call. Ironically it was through England, and a Football Association-organised trip to raise Aids awareness, that James, along with Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville, first visited Malawi. It is typical of him that he decided not just to get involved but to get involved in something he felt was more constructive - agriculture. He researched the problem, spoke to friends, including a farmer from Devon planning to move out there, and joined with an organisation, the Samaritans Trust.

Together with the David James Foundation, which has just had a scholarship named after it at the Westminster Business School, the trust takes "street kids" and educates them, giving them job opportunities while running classes to help farmers.

"The trouble is they have a lot of dependency on food aid," James explains. "But the average rainfall is higher than in parts of England, so there's no reason they can't be self-sufficient."

Inroads are being made. The idea is not to turn the Malawians into Premiership footballers, James says. But they may become Premier League farmers. It is also not too trite to say that the experience, as well as the simple fact of being older, wiser, more mature - after all, this is the man who, to his regret, was partly responsible for adding Liverpool's cream suits to FA Cup folklore - has improved him.

The move to the South Coast, for £1.2 million, the most ever paid in English football for a 36-year-old, came after he returned from Malawi. It has been good for him professionally and personally. For a start, James is now closer to his four children, who live with his former wife, Tanya.

And it has been some start. Five clean sheets means that another shut-out tomorrow at home to Bolton Wanderers will see him equal the Premiership record set by Chelsea for the beginning of a season. "Someone mentioned something about it but I'm not aware of it," James says casually, astonishing for a player who, not so long, ago was a self-confessed "stats freak" and avid collector.

James recalls that uncomfortable feeling. "I used to be quite obsessed. It is within my nature," he concedes, "which drove me to distraction. The prime example was a cup game when I was at Liverpool. We won 3-1 but Ian Wright scored a penalty in the first five minutes and I wasn't happy after the game. I'd let a goal in, and that wasn't right. I would do the stats and think, 'That one should have been saved'. As much as I saw it as improving myself it was deteriorating me as a person and a player. I was sitting with the other players and they would say, 'That was a good win' and I'd say, 'No'. They'd just say, 'OK, avoid David if he lets a goal in'.

"I would also take people's praise for my obsession in the wrong way. They'd say, 'Oh yeah, he must be passionate' and I'd think, 'It must be passion if you are upset about letting a goal in'. It would drive me further in the wrong direction. Now at Ports-mouth, as at City, there's more of an understanding that these things go on. Goals go in."

James acknowledges that "it's easy to say this when I'm sitting here with five clean sheets" (just one fewer than he recorded for the whole of last season with City). But he maintains that "anything [bad] that has happened in the last three years, if it had happened six or seven years ago would have felt catastrophic".

He has not slackened his work ethic, and pores over video reviews of his performances with Portsmouth's goalkeeper coach, David Coles. "It doesn't mean because I've kept a clean sheet everything is right," he says. "I came off two Saturdays ago and was unhappy. I watched the video and it wasn't as bad as I thought. In the past it would have been enough to drive myself mad because I hadn't had a proper reflection on what had happened. I became so insular it was wrong."

Now, he feels, although he still has something of the obsessive inside him, which may explain his meticulous passion for his Malawi project, that he is part of the "team ethos". It could also be called Team Harry. For James is one of a cadre of thirtysomethings with something to prove - and, crucially, a hunger to prove it - who have been recruited by Harry Redknapp. "I don't know how he goes about the process of getting players, but we've got a great bunch here," James says. They include his former City team-mate Andrew Cole and Sol Campbell, who James says played a big part in convincing him to join Pompey. "I needed to know his opinion," James adds.

Another major influence has been the new coach, and former Arsenal captain, Tony Adams. "First day and I mentioned corners and free-kicks and we spent half an hour on the training field talking," James recalls. "I just thought, 'Bloody hell, he's serious'." Indeed, he says there are a number of "like-minded" people which has helped the team gel and push forward. Team-mates such as Linvoy Primus, who runs schemes in Africa and India, and the Congolese striker Lomana LuaLua have been involved in aid projects similar to those undertaken by James.

It begs the question as to just how far the club can go this season. "Teams like Portsmouth have to avoid relegation," says James. His bluntness is born of bitter experience. After all, here is someone who kept goal for West Ham in 2002-03, when they were relegated with a record 42 points. "We said 41 was enough," he says before offering a target of "56 points" for Portsmouth. "I would consider that safe," he says.

James was in goal that day last spring when Pedro Mendes scored an astonishing winning goal in injury time at Fratton Park against City, to turn Portsmouth's season. "I keep going on about that sod Mendes and the goal he scored," James says of his feelings after that match. "I was fuming. But it's mad how football works. That moment changed them." And changed things for him, too, of course. "Maybe the new players have cemented the bricks, but there's no point getting carried away. As long as we don't lose sight of what is making us win games. We're not blasé."

It may lead to another England recall although, if it does not happen, "I can deal with it a lot better". He adds: "Who knows? I'm edging towards hoping that I get a call-up sooner rather than later, but I don't know what the big picture is with England, although I don't think you should ever count yourself out." He went close to doing that last year, and for the most honourable of reasons, but now believes that continuing his career can help his work in Africa. And vice versa.

Footnote: On Thursday, the day I interviewed James, the United Nations World Food Programme issued a statement saying fewer than 900,000 Malawians would require food aid next year because of bumper harvests. It is the lowest figure since 2002, with hopes that the trend will continue down.

LIFE & TIMES: Calamity before England call-up

NAME: David Benjamin James.

BORN: 1 August 1970, Welwyn Garden City.

POSITION: Goalkeeper.

CLUB CAREER: 1989-92 Watford (98 League appearances); '92-'99 Liverpool (216); 99-'01 Aston Villa (67); '01-'04 West Ham (91); '04-'06 Manchester City (93); '06-present Portsmouth (5).

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: 1991-92 England U-21 (10); '97-present England (34); '06 England B (1).

HIGHS: Coca-Cola Cup winner ('95). First choice for Euro 2004.

LOWS: Let in 20 goals in first 11 games for Liverpool, earning nickname Calamity James. Gifted winner to Chelsea in 2000 FA Cup final. Once injured back reaching for TV remote.