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Leighton James, winger who shone for Wales and Burnley and was ‘a nightmare for defenders’ – obituary

Leighton James: he played 54 games for Wales, scoring 10 goals
Leighton James: he played 54 games for Wales, scoring 10 goals - Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images

Leighton James, who has died aged 71, was a Welsh footballer whose pace, trickery and goalscoring ability from either wing made him an automatic choice for his country for more than a decade and a revered player with several clubs, notably Burnley, where he had three wildly contrasting spells, and his home-town team Swansea City.

James, who was described by his former team-mate and manager John Toshack as “one of the very best wingers British football has ever seen”, represented Wales 54 times, scoring 10 goals. They included the penalty winner he drilled past Peter Shilton in 1977, still the only time they have defeated England at Wembley.

He took the kick with his right foot, though he was marginally stronger on his left. Alan Curtis, a Swansea colleague when they won promotion to the top flight for the first time, said James was “a nightmare for defenders” because he could cut inside from both flanks and shoot with either foot.

Leighton James was born in Gorseinon, Swansea, on February 16 1953. He shone in schools football just as wide attackers were supposedly becoming obsolete, Alf Ramsey’s “wingless wonders” having won the World Cup in 1966.

James training with Burnley in the 1970s
James training with Burnley in the 1970s - Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Burnley signed him in 1968, aged 15. He turned professional at 17 and was swiftly blooded in the First Division; Wales capped him at 18. Standing 5ft 9in, he was more powerfully built than the stereotypical diminutive, jinking winger, which gave full-backs an additional problem.

Jimmy Adamson, the Burnley manager, predicted they would be “the team of the Seventies”. They were promptly relegated but returned to the elite in the 1972-73 season, with James in outstanding form. In 1974-75 they were in contention to win the League before fading late in the race.

Modest financial resources forced Burnley to sell players on a frequent basis. League champions Derby County paid their highest fee, £310,000, for James in 1975. During his two years with them he was in the Wales team that reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship in 1976 and hit a hat-trick in Derby’s 12-0 rout of the Irish part-timers Finn Harps in the Uefa Cup.

Within weeks of this club-record victory, manager Dave Mackay was sacked and replaced by the reserve-team coach Colin Murphy. He in turn soon gave way to Tommy Docherty, who gave his negative opinion of James with a characteristic quip: “His pace is deceptive – he’s even slower than he looks.”

James, who always wore contact lenses when playing, left for Queen’s Park Rangers in 1977 in exchange for Don Masson, but rejoined Burnley the following year. Deep decline had set in, and in 1979-80 he was part of the side relegated to the Third Division for the first time in their history.

Swansea, under Toshack’s stewardship, had escaped that division in 1978-79 and now aimed to reach the top tier for the first time. Shortly after James scored one goal, made two and according to one report, “left the England defenders with twisted blood” in Wales’ 4-1 romp at Wrexham, he went “home” for £130,000.

His capacity for converting as well as creating chances seldom found a more thrilling or timely expression than on the final day of 1980-81. Swansea would be Second Division champions if they won at Preston, and James set them on their way with a textbook example of his talent.

Instantly controlling a pass on the left-side touchline of a rutted pitch, he drove forward and left his opponent trailing with a dip of the shoulder. Moving inside, he took aim from just inside the 18-yard area, curling his right-footed shot high into the far corner of the net. Swansea won 3-1 and achieved their goal.

James c. 1972 with his Burnley teammates Alan Stevenson, left, and Jeff Parton
James c. 1972 with his Burnley teammates Alan Stevenson, left, and Jeff Parton - W&H Talbot Archive/Popperfoto via Getty Images

James performed regularly and capably in the First Division, but after a fine first season Swansea were relegation-bound midway through 1982-83 when James was offloaded to Sunderland. There, his link-up play with the maverick striker Frank Worthington offered supporters a respite from mid-table mediocrity.

The 1984-85 campaign saw him drop into the Fourth Division with Bury, managed by his ex-Burnley teammate Martin Dobson; they were promoted despite using only 15 players in 46 matches. A spell at Newport County followed before he returned to his spiritual home for 1986-87.

Founder-members of the League, Burnley were now Fourth-Division stragglers. By the season’s final day they were in danger of disappearing into the GM Vauxhall Conference, or possibly oblivion. To avoid relegation they had to beat Orient and hope either Lincoln or Torquay lost.

James in action during the 2-0 victory against Scotland in the 1981 Home Championship
James in action during the 2-0 victory against Scotland in the 1981 Home Championship - Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Burnley, two-time League champions, won 2-1 and Lincoln went down. James, who doubled as youth-team manager, played on until 1989. On being fired from the coaching staff he retired. He had played 399 times in all competitions for Burnley, scoring 81 goals, and made 645 League appearances (124 goals) overall.

Managerial success largely eluded James in 10 non-League posts spread over two decades. His opinions as a pundit – aired in a column in the South Wales Argus and on BBC radio phone-ins – landed him in trouble in 2008 after he said that he hoped Swansea’s rivals Cardiff City would lose their FA Cup semi-final against Barnsley. The Corporation suspended him for two weeks; Cardiff supporters were less forgiving.

As well as his media work James – who was a keen cricketer, playing in the Lancashire League for Burnley and later for Gorseinon over-50s – also worked as a “lollipop man” close to the Swansea primary school attended by his nephew.

Leighton James, born February 16 1953, died April 19 2024

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