David James on Pompey’s FA Cup glory, England failure & grassroots funding

He played in the World Cup for England, lifted the FA Cup with Portsmouth and realised more football dreams than most, yet David James goes right back to the very start when he picks out one of the highlights of his career.

As he joined the fight to save grassroots football in England at a moment when its future has never been under more threat, James insists the game needs to open its eyes to the crisis it is facing.

The former goalkeeper is backing the Utilita Switch Before Pitch campaign, designed to highlight the financial crisis facing lower league football. We spoke to James exclusively about why the cause meant so much to him.

– The fight to keep grassroots football alive is clearly close to your heart, so tell us why you have got behind this campaign.

If we lose grassroots football, we may be taking away the dream of some fans to want to watch Liverpool winning the Premier League in the future.

Kids go to watch non-league football with their parents and that is often their first introduction to the game, so we need to keep that alive amid this pandemic and I hope we can find a way to look after one of the most valuable parts of our society.

– How important was the start you had in grassroots football for your career?

None of what I achieved would have been possible without grassroots football giving me a chance to get into the game. Winning the County Cup with Welwyn Garden City when I was 15 was something that team will never forget. We beat our big rivals in the final, it was a special moment.

I feel it’s too easy just to look at the top end of football and believe that’s all that matters. The reality is the number of people involved at that end of the game is tiny compared to those in non-league and grassroots football. Now is a time for the game to step up for them.

– Do we lose sight of the reality that grassroots football is as important to the game as the Premier League glitz and glamour?

Absolutely. At Premier League level, they are talking about clubs losing tens of millions of pounds, but at grassroots level, that number is reduced to hundreds and thousands pounds. Both situations are potentially devastating for the future of clubs.

At the grassroots level, it is not just the attendance at the game every two weeks that is being affected. The bar in the clubhouse is also empty and there is no revenue coming in from events that would have been staged at that venue.

They don’t have sponsorship for the pitch any more, the 3G pitches attached to clubs are not being used and more revenue is lost there. The grassroots club issue is bigger than just football, this is about communities that are being impacted at so many levels.

– Listening to the joy as you speak about that win with your under-15 team, it sounds like it was one of the highlights of your career?

It was, without a doubt. The reason I’m passionate about issues like the Utilita Switch Before Pitch campaign is that I’ve always seen the bigger picture.

The game is about so much more than Bayern Munich being the kings of European football or Liverpool being Premier League champions. It’s about the mums and dads taking their kids to matches on a Sunday morning, the people who work in clubhouses at non-league clubs.

These people are as much a part of football as the stars of the game and I have always enjoyed the bottom end of football as much at the top.

– What was the best moment in your professional career?

It’s a tough question to try and pinpoint the greatest moment, but I would say winning the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 2008 was right up there and not just because we got our hands on the trophy. It was for what it meant to Portsmouth as a city.

The response from the fans is something I will never forget. You could see how much joy we had given them as a team and it was wonderful to see.

READ: Sean Davis talks nutmegging Seedorf & Portsmouth’s European adventure

– When you look back to the England team you were part of at the Euro 2004 finals with David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney all in their prime, do you question how they didn’t win the competition?

It was a fantastic line-up. It was the year when we had the anomaly of Greece being crowned as European Champions, but there is no doubt that the team was good enough to win tournaments. In the end, we lost out on penalties and you do wonder what might have been.

As an England fan now, I have come to realise what being an England fan is all about. As a player, you are in a bubble and you don’t get that fan experience. So when you mention the 2004 team, I didn’t have any comprehension about how that team was being viewed or the hype around us. I was a Premier League player and I was playing for England. It seemed normal to me at the time; it was what I did.

When you step back from it, you look back at the picture of that team and think, ‘I get it now, that wasn’t a bad side.’ We could have won something, but it didn’t quite happen.

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– Why do you think that great England team came up short?

It’s hard to say, but it went against us in the penalty shoot-out against Portugal and that’s it.

I was with some of the players from that team a few weeks ago as I took part in the Soccer Aid match, and it was easier to talk to the lads as we have all had some time away from it now.

I remember thinking when I went back to my club, ‘Okay, we are not quite as good as that England team.’ There were some top players in there, but things are measured on success and trophies and one thing the FA have not needed to invest in over the last few years has been a new trophy cabinet.

Interview by Kevin Palmer

David James is supporting the Utilita Switch Before Pitch campaign. Check it out here.

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