Like the game of football itself, David James is constantly changing and adapting to the demands of the modern world. Never in stasis, the ex-England Number One has seen and done it all. Not one to shy away from opportunities presented to him, the Liverpool icon has travelled the world and picked up a seemingly never-ending list of hobbies whilst doing so.
As mirrored by his wardrobe, David James has an eclectic taste. His escapades around the globe, especially prolonged time in Iceland and India, has left him with a list of talents longer than Liverpool’s prestigious trophy tally. Whether it’s modelling for Armani, sketching his teammates, or listening to Saint-Saëns, the ex-shotstopper always embraces creativity.
PENALTY caught up with the Premier League stalwart to discuss all things life, travel, and, of course, football. By his own admission, James has experienced the world in his own way and “certainly met some interesting characters doing it”, adding that “I’d also like to think I’ve been an interesting character at times myself.”
Football was not forced upon David James as a child: his family weren’t particularly sporty and there was never a figure in his life pushing him towards the beautiful game. He reminisced about his slightly unusual introduction to the world of football: “My earliest memories of [it] would be my friend drawing pictures of Cyrille Regis. That and we’d play Subbuteo. I got an understanding of football that way!”. A career was never in the mind of the Luton-born keeper, though, he pursued the sport simply because he loved the comradery. Wistfully recalling: “In my head, it wasn’t all about playing football, it was a way of spending more time with my friends.”
It was only out of practicality that things started to get serious for the now fourth all-time capped player in the PL. “I was offered a YTS apprenticeship and was given a choice of football or athletics. It was twenty quid a week, but I was going to get fed every day. I thought if I’m going to get fed every day, then it’s got to be football.”
From a place of honesty, one of the most recognisable talents of the 90s was sculpted. Joining Liverpool, as it is for most, was a massive steppingstone in James’ career and an insight into the burgeoning glamour of the newly formed Premier League. “We went on preseason in Italy. I’m walking down the street with Ian Rush and this Italian kid, as if from nowhere, came and asked for his autograph. I thought: ‘Wow, this guy must be famous!’. It was only then I truly appreciated that football wasn’t just Luton Town – it’s the most popular, far-reaching sport in the world.”
Making his LFC debut on the same day as the inception of the new, star-padded Premier League certainly led to more extra-curriculum opportunities. James famously led an Armani campaign in the mid-90s with his Odysseus-esque build on full display. “Norman Watson contacted me and said: ‘Armani have seen some photos. They want you for a campaign’. I was like ‘Wow – that’ll be good!’”. James looks back at this now as a “wonderful exploration” despite the ‘stick to football’ verbatim that was thrown about even more vehemently than it is today.
However, this was a decision made solely for James himself and his passion for experiential discovery. Typical of his attitude, which became clear the more PENALTY got to know him, the journeyman will take any opportunity that comes his way. “I like to see and experience things” James said with a tranquil poignance.
James’ mentality boded well during his time coaching in the unfamiliar environments of Iceland and India. “I had to be humble and teach what I knew whilst being receptible to a new culture and embrace the different environment”. This ability to be adaptable gifted the keeper one of his fondest memories: “I was invited to the inaugural Liverpool Kerala supporters club meeting. Myself and Iain Hume walked into this room and there were about 50 supporters singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Playing for Liverpool, I understood that football was a global game. But, to see it, and to see how dedicated these fans were…it was something else.”
This malleability to different cultures also influences the nomadic Daniel James’ wardrobe choices. “Whatever the culture or weather condition, I embrace the environment. I look for parts of the regional style that personally align with my own taste.” Like his eclectic wardrobe, his on-the-move playlist ranges from classical music (recently he’s got into Rachmaninoff) to his own mixes. “Every day I’ll create a mix for an hour at least. It was a great lockdown routine!”.
Despite a seemingly endless number of ways to captivate David James, he still often relies on the basics. He can’t travel without a pad and pencil for sketching (“I love art and it is a great release to create”) and he can always rely on a pair of comfy tracksuits (“23 years of wearing them, I can’t get it out the system!”).
With a great career to look back on, and a worldly head on his shoulders, it’s perhaps no surprise James is returning to where it all began: grassroots football. “Of course, I want to see the next Mo Salah. The next Alisson. The next kid I see on the pitch, I want to become Liverpool’s greatest player” he said passionately.
Yet, mostly due to his own humble journey, he’s not solely in the business of superstars. “There’s a bigger part of me that just wants to see kids enjoying themselves on the pitch. If I can help them to achieve that then I’m happy.”