We’ve had a number of Welsh internationals at Burnley over time, nine to be exact. The first of them was Stan Bowsher and the most recent is our current player Connor Roberts, but mention Taffy and there is only one Welsh international that any Burnley fan will think of.
Leighton James arrived at Burnley from school in 1969 just a year after Burnley had lifted the FA Youth Cup. The 16-year-old left winger looked anything but a footballer. Very slight in build, he was also extremely short sighted and it was rare then to see any footballer who wore glasses.
He’d arrived from the Swansea area of Wales, from a place called Llwchwyr to be exact, and it wouldn’t be too long before fans at Turf Moor were taking notice of this talented player. He settled in well, was quickly playing reserve team football and on the pitch looked transformed.
In February 1970, on his 17th birthday, he signed professional forms with the club. Even then, reserve team watchers thought we had a potential star in our midst and by the end of 1970 he’d made his first team debut.
The team were struggling by November of that year. We’d played seventeen league games and won one of them, that a 2-1 win against Crystal Palace. On 21st November, James got his chance, replacing Steve Kindon in a team that showed five changes from the team beaten at home by Huddersfield seven days earlier. No one was too excited; the big news that day were the returns of Peter Mellor, Martin Dobson and John Angus from injuries. We won 2-1 and James did well enough.
The Burnley team on the day he made his debut was: Peter Mellor, John Angus, Geoff Nulty, Mick Docherty, Colin Waldron, Martin Dobson, Dave Thomas, Ralph Coates, Eric Probert, Alan West, Leighton James.
He played in three of the next four games too, one as a substitute, but that was it for him that season as we dropped out of the First Division after a 24-year stay.
Back in the Second Division, he still wasn’t in the team when the new season kicked off at Cardiff. His love of Cardiff City is very similar to mine for Blackburn Rovers; he’d have loved to have played in that game.
They say you can’t keep a good man down. We won two, drew two and lost one of the first five games. Game number six was at Fulham; James replaced Kindon and scored both goals in a 2-0 win. He would miss only one game for the remainder of the season, the Easter Monday defeat at Sunderland, and, for good measure, he scored eight league goals. It was the season when he made his international bow too, playing for Wales in a European qualifier against Czechoslovakia in Prague.
It hadn’t been the promotion season we’d all yearned but wins in all of the last six games brought a seventh place finish. It set us up nicely for a wonderful 1972/73. We lost just four times in the league that season. James played every game and scored ten goals. Eight of those goals had come by mid-October but we had a long wait for the last two, scored in April in the final two home games of the season.
He was undoubtedly one of the stars that season in a very good team. Those of us around at the time will recall his performances at Luton and Sheffield Wednesday in particular when he scored three of his goals. I can still picture the late equaliser at Kenilworth Road and the stunning finish past Peter Grummitt at Hillsborough. Such was his form that season, Preston narrowed the pitch for the final game of the season in the hope of nullifying the James effect.
There were times when he was at odds with his team mates. I think it is fair to say that he was self-centred and arrogant but that, I always felt, helped bring the best out of him on the pitch. Those team mates were indebted to him over the next couple of seasons as we reached a semi-final in the FA Cup, threatened a return to European football and even looked potential title winners before injuries cost us. He missed just two league games over those two seasons and in 1974/75 was our leading goalscorer with sixteen goals albeit that total was aided with seven successes from the penalty spot.
At the start of the 1975/76 season, he didn’t look the same player and news quickly started to filter through that he was looking for a move away from Burnley. We’ll never know whether that was the case or whether it was just that he was the most saleable asset to allow Bob Lord try to balance the books. He played in a 5-1 hammering at home against Wolves almost five years to the day since his debut. By the time we played a week later, he’d gone, signed by Dave Mackay for champions Derby.
We could never have thought it at the time but less than three years later he was back. He’d been at Derby for just short of two years when Tommy Docherty became their manager. He wasn’t in the Doc’s plans and a month later was sold to QPR.
During his time at QPR, Lord was asked in an interview which player he would sign if he could bring back a player he’d sold. He did not hesitate; Leighton James was his answer. He did sign him back too in September 1978. We beat West Ham at home 3-2 in front of the television cameras but the big talking point among fans was the return of James.
He was in the team that won the Anglo-Scottish Cup in that season but the next season was disastrous for us as we dropped into the Third Division for the first time in our history. If he’d not been the most popular player in the dressing room first time round, he definitely wasn’t this time, particularly with those players who had been with him in both spells.
He was nothing like the player first time round and probably the one big highlight from him that season was his superb goal in the snow against Fulham, the winner at the beginning of February. We didn’t win again all season. The final home game was a 0-0 draw against Birmingham in which he played. One week on at Watford, on the day Brian Laws made his debut, there was no James. He’d been sold and made his Swansea debut that day at Charlton.
Back home, his form returned as Swansea marched all the way to the top of the First Division under John Toshack. Just weeks after he’d left us, he turned in a magical performance for Wales against England. The Welsh won 4-1 with James scoring one of the goals and rightly being considered the man of the match.
As the lights went out at Swansea, he moved to Sunderland, Bury and then Newport. His season at Bury was under Martin Dobson’s management. I can assure you that should you ask Dobbo about him you are very unlikely to get one bad word. He was disappointed when he left Gigg Lane.
Amazingly, the summer of 1986 saw Brian Miller return to Burnley as manager and he moved quickly to bring the now 33-year-old James back. Taffy playing for us in the Fourth Division, and at the bottom of it. That took some believing. Thank goodness he was there. He was nothing like the player we’d known, a million miles from it, but I dread to think how that season would have ended had he not been with us. It was probably that stoppage time penalty against Torquay that I’ll remember most that completed a recovery from two goals down to draw 2-2 in a vital game.
Some think he had three spells at Burnley but it was actually four. He was released at the end of that season but then quickly returned as youth coach having decided to hang up his boots. Not on your life, an injury to Ray Deakin led to him returning to the side as a central defender. Over the next two seasons he played over forty games, including an appearance at Wembley in the Sherpa Van Final, but a change of management ended his time at Burnley. Frank Casper came back in early 1989 and immediately replaced him as a coach. He was now, again, just a player.
On the last day of the season, he played against Scarborough and finding himself replaced during the second half by Mark Monington. It was his 399th and final Burnley appearance with 336 of those in the league. His time at Burnley was finally over.
His only appearances for Burnley from that date were for the cricket club next door. He even crossed the divide in cricket having previously played for Lowerhouse. He later played in the Ribblesdale League at Read.
In football, he managed teams in non-league football before becoming a pundit on Radio Lancashire before returning to his native South Wales where his punditry once led to a stand up row on radio with Robbie Savage.
Did I dare to suggest he was arrogant? In his early days, he couldn’t play in contact lenses under floodlight. He was asked if he could see the ball and said he didn’t need to because he could smell it.
He once told me, while discussing managers and coaches, that some are meant to be managers and others coaches and they shouldn’t take on the other job because they are not equipped to do it. “Which would you say you are?” I politely asked. “I can do ******* both,” was the reply.
The last two occasions I saw him were in 2009 and 2011. The first of those was on the occasion of Billy Ingham’s funeral when, visibly moved, he gave the eulogy for his old friend. I last saw him on 16th April 2011. It was the exact date that we’d beaten Sunderland to clinch promotion 38 years earlier. He remembered the anniversary date too; he was always like a memory man. He was at the Turf for the Burnley v Swansea game with Swansea weeks away from them reaching the Premier League.
With us having won one point from the previous six games, I bravely suggested: “I think we can win this one.” He looked at me with disdain. “Swansea will pass you off the ******* pitch,” he said. Burnley went 1-0 down but won it 2-1 with an Ashley Williams own goal and a Chris Eagles penalty. Tony 1 Taffy 0.
I knew him well and liked him. Yes, arrogant and conceited but that was him, that was what made him the player he was. He was someone you could sit down and have a conversation with on just about any subject although perhaps not on himself.
As a footballer – was there a more popular player at the time at Burnley? He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and never more so than in that first spell when he was such a young player. So popular was he with the fans that you will see quite a number of Burnley born lads around the fifty age now who are called Leighton.
I can’t pick one match out. He could, of course, but I know two cup ties that would have given him great pleasure during our first season back in the First Division. We drew Cardiff in the League Cup and drew 2-2 at Ninian Park before beating them 3-2 in the replay. He scored four of those five goals.
Months later, in the fourth round of the FA Cup, we travelled to Oldham. Foolishly, their manager Jimmy Frizzell told the world he had a right-back who was so good, James would have no chance. It was all over the morning papers that day. I’m told our manager Adamson just showed the newspaper cuttings to James on the coach journey to Oldham.
That right-back was Ian Wood who later signed for Burnley. James murdered him. With just six minutes gone, he’d three times left Wood for dead and got crosses is that were all converted by Dobson, Ray Hankin and Paul Fletcher. The Hankin goal was mysteriously disallowed; the other two stood. We won 4-1 and, for good measure, he scored one himself.
There was only ever one Super Taff at Burnley – he was special.Follow UpTheClarets:
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