Rob Wilson offers a timely re-evaluation of a much maligned figure who Manchester City are forever endebted to
It is unfortunate that David James’ time at Manchester City will be primarily summarised by the sight of him bowling over Middlesbrough defenders like skittles. It was the final game of the 2004-05 season and City manager Stuart Pearce was desperate: his team were level with Boro in a game they needed to win in order to qualify for the UEFA Cup. In a moment of astounding mental gymnastics as the game approached its end, Pearce sent James – a goalkeeper by trade, of course – into the outfield like a new-born giraffe. His gargantuan frame stuck out amongst the otherwise nimble or well-built players, clattering into them in an attempt to provide a distraction. Despite James’ admirable efforts, City failed to find a winner as striker Robbie Fowler missed a crucial penalty in the dying seconds – Boro qualified instead and went on to reach the final the following year.
But the disappointment of that particular game allowed City fans to reflect. Twelve months earlier, in May 2004, the Blues had barely avoided relegation under the stewardship of Kevin Keegan. This wildcard shot at European qualification would have been impossible had they fallen through the trapdoor. The heroes of that season in the eyes of many were undoubtedly the attacking duo of Nicolas Anelka and Shaun Wright-Phillips, who finished the season as top scorer and the fans’ Player of the Season respectively. But while their contributions were valuable in their own right, they do overshadow the considerable contribution of David James, who has been unfairly remembered as the infamous “Calamity James.”
Following the untimely passing of midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé, aged just twenty-eight, the 2003-04 season was clearly marked as a fraught one by the time James arrived in January. Peter Schmeichel retired after proving to be so crucial to a ninth place finish in 2003, and fan favourite Shaun Goater left for Reading after scoring more than one-hundred goals in his five years in Manchester. To compound their departures, former England goalkeeper David Seaman contracted a shoulder injury after being signed as Schmeichel’s replacement and fourteen winless games either side of the New Year had plunged Kevin Keegan’s team into a relegation battle. An unforgettable comeback against Tottenham in the fourth round of the FA Cup provided some respite, and a fondly remembered 4-1 hammering of Manchester United bought Keegan time, but City were unable to shake off their bad form. James essentially walked into a club in freefall
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As City struggled to escape the clutches of gloom, it came down to a clash with fellow strugglers Leicester in the final week of April to decide their fate. Leeds, also plagued by relegation fears, were ready to pounce and pull City into the bottom three, with a home tie versus Portsmouth awaiting them the following day. Having justified his transfer with an impressive display against Wolves just weeks earlier, it was the ideal time for James to write his name into part of City’s history. The Blues took the lead with a Michael Tarnat free-kick, but their advantage was cancelled out once James Scowcroft bundled the ball in from a route-one move. And when a Leicester penalty was awarded just eight minutes from time, City fans’ relegation fears were ready for realisation. Step forward David James, City’s six-foot-five guardian angel. Former City man Paul Dickov was nominated to convert the spot-kick, which, if converted, would place his old club’s stability in peril with only three games of the season remaining. Dickov stepped up and hammered the ball to James’ right side, but the England goalkeeper thrust a palm behind it and rescued a point for City.
His penalty save against Leicester is arguably one of the most important moments in City’s recent history, if only for the success that followed it. The club could easily have followed the same path as the teams relegated that season: Wolverhampton Wanderers would not return to the Premier League for five years; Leicester waited ten years to come back, and Leeds United’s closest run at regaining top flight status was a 2006 Championship play-off final defeat to Watford.
Manchester City were once a club who seemed to reluctantly accept chaos seemingly destined for other teams – they were once described as “the genuine soap opera club” by Sky Sports commentator Rob Hawthorne. But for one afternoon in April 2004, David James put a stop to rollercoaster ride. City would flirt with relegation once more in 2007, but not since James’ penalty save have City come so close to spoiling their work to establish themselves as a top side. For that reason alone it is worth remembering James as the man who saved City’s skin, rather than the gangling lummox who was thrown up-front on a desperate afternoon.