Robbie Mark James - simply the best?

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If you asked 1,000 people how to improve Swansea, you would get 1,000 different answers. However, if you asked 1,000 Swans fans to name the club's greatest ever player, a select few would come to the fore!

After Jamie Carragher recently labelled Steven Gerrard the greatest player ever to wear the red of Liverpool, it generates the question – is any modern player better than past legends from ‘the good old days’.

The definitive answer of THE best player is almost impossible. You cannot compare a modern-day player, with perfect pitches week in week out, hi-tech footballs, more refereeing protection, and dieticians aplenty; with players who played on mud baths, hoofed heavy leather footballs, endured kamikaze challenges and had one manager with ultimate control. But it is still fun to discuss!

Generations will have opinions that will probably always differ. I asked my father the question, and he has selected Robbie Mark James. Of course, all Swansea fans will know him, as we pass his bust at every home game.

The name is also synonymous with the golden John Toshack era, when James was supported by his name-sake Leighton, Alan Curtis and numerous other quality players lured to South Wales by the enigmatic Tosh..

Known affectionately to the football world as Robbie, James was Swansea born and bred, and played a remarkable 781 league games throughout his career. Only four men in the history of the Football League have made more appearances.

Despite interest from Arsenal, Robbie joined his home town club as an apprentice at the tender age of 15. He became a first team regular the following year. After choosing the Swans over the potential glory of Arsenal, and his astonishing covetousness for games, he was always going to be a favourite of not just my dad, but the North Banks as well.

As a highly combative attacking midfielder – with a Lorimer-like rocket of a shot – James helped the Swans climb out of the old 4th Division in 1978. No-one could have predicted at the stage that May 1981 would see them promoted to the 1st Division. 

Robbie excelled as the Swans climbed through the leagues, emerging as surprise title challengers and topping the 1st Division table on several occasions during the season. In fact, the Swans were top of the league at Christmas, and were never out of the top six. Heady days!

This rapid ascent through the leagues is something not likely to be ever seen again, and to be a fan of the Swans during this incredible feat must have very special.

The 47 times Wales capped Robbie played a huge part in this success. Whilst the Swans enjoyed their first season in the top flight, he was the club’s top scorer with 14 goals –  no mean feat in a side containing such class players as Leighton James and English international Bob Latchford.

Remarkably, Robbie played in every league fixture during the campaign – his fitness levels and enthusiasm knew no bounds.

As a Swansea born man, my father explains what a huge thrill it was to see his home town team in the 1st Division. It was made all the more memorable and enjoyable knowing that a fellow Jack was at the heart of matters, owning the midfield and giving his all for the white shirt.

After the Swans were relegated, Robbie was very much in demand, and played another four seasons in the 1st Division. However, in January 1988, James came home, re-joining the Swans, who were by now back in the 4th Division, but he helped them to win promotion again, this time via the play-offs.

James tragically collapsed and died during a match for Llanelli in 1998, aged just 40. To the very last, he played the game the only way he knew how – with every ounce of his being.

A true Swansea legend, a bronze bust has been erected in his memory at the Liberty Stadium to commemorate his magnificent contribution to both Swansea and Welsh football.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.

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