Good Friday Clarets' Legend - Leighton James.

13 April 2017 07:49

Good Friday Clarets' Legend - Leighton James.

Clarets' legend Leighton James was incontrovertibly one of the best players Burnley had in the 1970s. "Taffy" as he was affectionately known, put in three stints at the club over a 20 year period. Taffy helped to lead the Clarets back to Division one in the 1972-3 promotion season.

After doing his all to keep Burnley there in his first period, he probably saved his beloved Burnley from exiting Division four and falling into non-league oblivion in his last one. 

Leighton James is fondly remembered by Burnley fans and was genuinely a sight to behold, swinging his hips whilst going inside or outside of his man and galloping down the left wing, leaving bewildered defenders in his wake.

Taffy's trademark flowing locks blowing in the wind, dribbling, crossing and scoring goals with great regularity. In the 1950’s and 60’s wingers were usually small to medium build, with ex-Claret and England international Brian Pilkington being the perfect example, standing at only 5 foot 2 inches tall.

Steve Kindon broke that mould and Leighton was not much smaller. Taffy came to Burnley as a schoolboy Welsh international and signed for Burnley as an apprentice, aged fifteen in 1968. Taffy was another one of Harry Potts' captures at the time the FA Cup winning Youth Team was doing well and the Clarets were a well established Division one club.

It seemed the good times were here to stay with lots of youngsters in the pipeline. On reflection, how wrong that thinking was to be?  Taffy was born in Loughor near Swansea on Feb 16 1953 and signed as a youth player in 1969.

Leighton James finished his career in the Football League in 1989 playing at Burnley, having appeared on almost 400 occasions in three stints for the club, scoring over 80 goals.

As a teenager, Leighton was considered to be a bit weedy and geeky, wearing glasses when he initially joined the Clarets. However, he grew in stature to become  a tall, confident and outspoken adult.

During his playing career with Burnley, Taffy wore contact lenses in most games. Apparently, he struggled with them under floodlights but claimed he could actually smell the ball playing without the benefit of them!

In the early seventies Jimmy Adamson had taken over from Harry Potts in the manager's chair and Taffy quickly progressed to the first team, making his debut against Nottingham Forest in November 1970 aged 17. 

That was the season the supposed "Team of the Decade" was relegated for the first time in 23 years. Steve Kindon played most games that season on the left wing, Leighton played in only four. 

Taffy could genuinely hit the ball with both feet and got his big chance the following season when he started the fifth game of the season at Fulham, scoring both goals in a 2-0 away win at Craven Cottage. This lead to Taffy replacing Steve Kindon on the first team sheet and Kindon was swiftly sold to Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Leighton became an ever present in the Clarets starting line up for the next three years. Additionally he was also capped for Wales, debuting against Czechoslovakia in 1971, eventually playing fifty four times for the Welsh national side, scoring ten times in the process.

Burnley won the old Second Division title that year and also reached the FA Cup Semi-Final and were within one point of European qualification a year later. The Clarets were in contention for the old First Division title the following year and again it felt like the good times were back at Turf Moor.

Much of the Clarets success was down to Leighton James, who enjoyed many great games for the Clarets and scored some truly memorable goals.

Taffy could be a bit arrogant at times and was described as being very full of himself, which might have annoyed some of his teammates. Some fans are on record as saying his favourite quiz topic was Leighton James.

By November 1975 he was still only 22 and Burnley were struggling financially again. Taffy was by now hot property and having played 180 league games and scored 45 goals for the Clarets he was sold to reigning champions Derby County for a fee reported to be in excess of around £300,000, a very substantial fee for the time.

The sale of Leighton James to the Rams inevitably meant Burnley were relegated again and seemed to initiate a Road Tour of the four Football League Divisions. The fall from grace was almost completed when local non-league side Colne Dynamoes advocated a ground share! 

The transfer to Derby County wasn’t the success Taffy had  yearned for and whilst he reached another FA Cup Semi-Final playing under Dave Mackay, the appointment of  Tommy Docherty as manager in September 1977, meant Taffy fell from favour, having played just 68 games and scoring 15 goals.

One month later, he signed for QPR in exchange for Don Masson, who was valued at only £180,000. Unfortunately  this didn’t work out and having played in 28 games and scoring only 4 in September 1978, Bob Lord brought him back to Turf Moor.

Burnley were now struggling in the old Second Division but still managed to win the now redundant Anglo-Scottish Cup in that year. Leighton had some good games in the campaign, notably against Glasgow Celtic but he had seemingly lost the superstar aura and could not be described as the player he once was.

Relegation followed for the Clarets and in the 1979/80 season they appeared in the old Third Division for the very first time.

After another 76 games and only 9 goals for the Clarets, he was sold again in 1980, this time to his home team Swansea City. Taffy helped the Swans gain promotion from the old Third Division to the First Division under John Toshack's tutelage.

Taffy seemed to recapture his old love of the game and scored another twenty seven goals for the Swans and also starred in a famous game that saw  Wales beat England 4-1 in the same year.

 After 88 games and age 30 he went first to Sunderland playing 52 games and 4 goals from 1983 – 4, then moved to Bury joining a few old Clarets including Martin Dobson from 84-85 for 46 games and 5 goals and spent 85 -86 at Newport County playing 28 games scoring only 2.

With Burnley now near the foot of Division Four he came back under Brian Millers managership in 1986 helping the club avoid the ignominy of falling out of the league at the death when it all rested on the last game of the season against Orient and playing in 47 games and scoring 10 that year and eventually playing 79 league games and scoring 13 goals over 3 years as he moved into midfield and defensive roles whilst also being youth team manager before retiring from playing after 20 years when sacked from the youth role. He played over 700 games in his career at international level and across all four divisions.

He embarked on a largely unsuccessful managerial career in the lower leagues with clubs like Morecambe, Ilkeston Town, 5 months at Accrington Stanley, Llanelli and Garden Village of the Welsh Football League where he won a title for the first time in 2001-2. 

He lives in Wales and now works as an outspoken pundit and journalist mostly about Swansea now but had a live spat with Robbie Savage and was suspended by the BBC for remarks about Cardiff City, a club he hated saying he wanted them to lose a game to Barnsley.  A song, "Leighton James Don't Like Us", was recorded by Cardiff musician Leigh Bailey.

 In June 2007 James was named Rookie Lollipop Man of the Year by Penyrheol Primary School, which his nephew Thomas James attended.  In 2014 he was admitted to hospital after suffering a mild stroke, but has recovered well only to require radiotherapy for prostate cancer in 2015. He occasionally returns to watch us play but is more a Swans man now.

Leighton deserved to play most of his career at the top level, but if he hadn’t come back in 1986, it is extremely probable that Burnley would have disappeared from the global soccer map, almost exactly 30 years ago.

For that fact alone, new and old supporters of the famous old East Lancashire football club should be eternally grateful.

This appreciation of Leighton James was written by Old Colner, a regular contributor to Clarets Mad and uber Burnley fan. (TEC).

Source: DSG