Leighton James: A Cymru Legacy

The Football Association of Wales are devastated to announce the loss of a Welsh football legend in Leighton James who has sadly passed away at the age of 71.

James made 54 appearances for Cymru between 1971 and 1983, scoring ten goals during that time which included a famous winner from the penalty spot against England at Wembley Stadium in 1977 as Mike Smith’s side claimed a 1-0 victory. James was a pivotal figure for Cymru during the 1970’s and was a key player in the side that almost reached the EURO 1976 finals, a group of players remembered as ‘The Forgotten Team’ for what they almost achieved.

A talented winger during his playing career, James became a cult figure during two spells at Burnley during the 1970’s and played an important role in Swansea City’s rise through the Football League under John Toshack in the early 1980’s. A proud Swansea Jack who was born and raised in Loughor, James would wear his heart on his sleeve for club and country during a playing career that saw him make over 600 appearances in the Football League with spells at Derby County, QPR, Sunderland, Bury and Newport County.

James made his senior international bow as a teenager in 1971 when Dave Bowen named him in the starting line-up for the EURO qualifier away to Czechoslovakia. In addition to his defining goal at Wembley in 1977, he would score in the 4-1 win over England at Wrexham in 1980, and would make his final international appearance against the same opponents in 1983.

Although his playing career was spent in the English pyramid, James established a new reputation for himself in the Welsh domestic game when he took charge of Llanelli in 1998. Having spent the previous five years of his post-playing career coaching in the English non-league system, Stebonheath offered him the opportunity to return home and bring success to a club under-achieving in the domestic game.

James embraced the challenge of taking on the potential of Llanelli and attendances reached record levels as promotion from the Welsh League resulted in a subsequent top-flight title challenge. His legacy set a high standard for the club and he remains a significant figure in their history for what was almost achieved and for the style of football that nearly delivered it.

James would take to radio punditry in his later years, an environment that more than suited his outspoken style. His unique experience of being a veteran of the Football League, a renowned Cymru international and a well-respected figure in the domestic game made him one of the most familiar names, faces and voices on the Welsh football circuit, while his trait opinions on all aspects of the game in Wales made his phone-ins unmissable entertainment.

Attacking difficult callers with the same aggression, trickery and guile that he did with full-backs in his prime, James became the voice of Welsh football in a pre-social media age. His victims ranged from fans to international players at the time as he told it as it was, with his ability to simplify the most complex of debates the true mark of his knowledge, interest and genuine passion to want the very best for Welsh football at club and international level.

But ultimately, James must be remembered as one of the true Cymru greats. An exceptional talent who thrived for club and country during a 20-year career in the professional game that saw him play a key role in a significant era for the Cymru national team. It is also important to recognise his contribution to the domestic game in Wales when he moved into coaching and management.

An all-rounder who supported the Scarlets Rugby Union side and played cricket long after his football career had come to an end, Leighton James embraced sport with an unwavering passion. A fundamental figure in the history of the international and domestic game, Leighton James is one of the few high-profile figures to play such an important role in these two aspects, and he will be sorely missed.

Diolch Leighton.

Watch now

The Forgotten Team

Watch Leighton James in this RedWall+ documentary about the Cymru team who reached the quarter-finals of Euro 1976

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