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Football Insights - David James

Former England keeper David James talks exclusively to Genting Casino ahead of England v Wales in the FIFA World Cup.


Q After Friday’s draw against the US, should England fans be concerned or is there no need to panic?

There’s no need to panic after England’s draw against the US. As a fan which I am now, you look at the group and think three wins, nine points. But even when you win 6-2 against Iran, it’s a wonderful result but it doesn’t win you anything. Beating the US of course would have been handy as we’d top the group. I hear it said the third game is a chance to change players but what you need is rhythm, and I think what the US offered was far more than they offered against Wales.

It wasn’t a great game, but it seemed they were in it longer. It’s a draw, a point, which means we don’t have to beat Wales and no one has a better head-to-head against us. And it keeps us in control. All you want to do at least is be top of the group, and when you’re England with the quality we’ve got, then that third game against Wales you should say we’re not going to get beat. It could have been easier, but it’s not time to panic.

 

Q. Should Phil Foden have been involved more so far?

When it comes to Phil Foden, I feel for Gareth Southgate. There are so many conversations about who he should start. I respectfully say Foden plays for a Man City side you’d probably argue is better than England, therefore what you see Foden doing for City, you have to ask has he got the players around him to do that for England? There’s not a massive gulf between them, but you are in a system where you’re dependent on Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland, two players who I think most would say are the best in the world at what they do. So the question is will Foden make England that much better. I think he’s a fantastic player and if he starts I won’t complain.

Same with Marcus Rashford, when he came on against Iran, albeit in a game they already won he was showing his Man Utd form and you’re thinking this is a hungry, talented guy, why isn’t he starting earlier? If you’re Gareth, you know what you’re doing, you got the point and top of the group, but if you’re an England fan you’re thinking you could have changed it to make it comfortable.

I hope Foden starts, I hope Rashford starts, but if we had all my hoping starters you’d have 17 players on the pitch.

Q. Do you feel that way about Jack Grealish too?

I think Jack Grealish’ style of play suits England for the World Cup. There were some Premier League players in the US team, but when you come up against a Wales side whose style is British, Grealish would suit that. I’m an England fan who thinks we’ll win the World Cup, so the likes of Foden, Grealish and Rashford will get their moment and it will be positive, whether it’s Wales or later.

I like where Rashford seems to be at the moment, a season’s worth of form has dips and the World Cup is a month, so if you have someone who is in the right frame of mind, he looks like the guy who is in his best state. Against Iran, it was technically brilliant and you could see how hungry he was. So I’d start him. If it’s Raheem Sterling or Grealish, I’d go Grealish, and on the right side you’ve got Saka, I’d have him pushed up.

Is Gareth Southgate too cautious?

Gareth Southgate is not too cautious. England fans and commentators, they want to see the guys who will score 4 or 5 but there’s a problem with that. You can beat Iran 6-2 and then draw 0-0 with the US. The 6-2 makes the US realise England are going to do something they don’t normally do, they are going to score lots of goals, which puts them in a difficult position. And it ties up the game. Had we beaten Iran 2-0 for example, it gives the opposition the feeling they might get something out of it which can work to their disadvantage.

Winners of tournaments don’t win 6-2 every game. Argentina, the favourites, a 2-1 defeat and a 2-0 win, if they win the World Cup noone is going to think it was the recipe they should have gone into the tournament with, they’ll say they should have won every game. 

Gareth knows you just need to get through the group first, ideally win it, and then you go into these knockout games. This idea of 3s and 4s is unlikely in a knockout, 1 or 2 nil if you can get away with it, penalties dare I say if you can get away with it. So Gareth’s plan is to keep this confidence throughout this tournament based on simple values, keep it tight, rather than back page, bang, bang bang.

Jordan Pickford has so far been given the nod over Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope. Is that something you agree with?

I agree with the decision to play Jordan Pickford over Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope. With England you have to play yourself into the squad with top performances in league football. This is Jordan’s third tournament at number one, and I can’t think of another keeper, maybe David Seaman, who had multiple tournaments at number one. So in a sense he’s now an Everton keeper who plays for Everton, rather than an Everton goalkeeper who plays for England. He’s earned the right to be number one, his performances have been exceptional for England. So the likes of Pope and Ramsdale, they are going to struggle to take his place because he keeps doing it for England. There will come a time of course when it changes, and for me I’d put Ramsdale ahead of Pope. Ramsdale has been playing in Europe, and has the potential to play in the Champions League. If he gets to the latter stages of that, then all of a sudden he’s making a case. But for this World Cup, Pickford is number one comfortably.

I just hope he continues the form he showed at the Euros, where in my opinion he was equal to Gianluigi Donnarumma in every sense. That’s where he’s at.

Q What is your prediction for England vs Wales? 

I think England vs Wales will be scrappy, but I think 2-0 will be a comfortable result for England, even if Wales will be up for the fight because they have to win. There’s a lot more on their performance than ours, but I just think the quality of the England team will be too much. There’s also substitutions, players who haven’t started but could be, there are a number of them who could come on and change the game. I’m hoping it’s not a draw, but in the end we qualify. Either way I think England will go through.

Q Gabriel Agbonhalor described Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey as two ‘passengers’ for Wales. Do you agree with that?

This is Wales’ first World Cup in recent history. You need the experience of players up against world-class players. And you have that in Bale and Ramsey. Wales aren’t blessed with the depth England have, and I actually fancy Iran to go through, I think they’ve done well, and the US are up for it because they’re hosts next time. All these things come up against Wales. So in Bale you have a player who is capable of changing a game with one kick. They have talent, but you would imagine if they score it will come through Bale.

Q. Bale recently said he thinks Wales have more passion than England. Do you agree or disagree? 

I think Bale is having a laugh when he says Wales have more passion than England. I think I have Welsh blood in me as well, long distance, and the way they were singing the anthem you can clearly see there’s a lot of passion. I have a lot of Welsh friends so I know how they feel. But we show it in a different way, we’re English and as players we’re not going to lose our cool. There’s a lot of expectation of England as well, and this is the difference. The expectation is you have to go out there and win, and if you’re showing too much passion beforehand a lot of people would see that as arrogance rather than passion.

Wales are in their first World Cup in 50 odd years, they are going to show it in a different way. But I would not believe, one bit, that first of all Bale believes that, or if he does that he’s correct.

Q. Who do you think is the greatest British player of all time?

I think Bobby Moore is the greatest British footballer ever. I could say Geoff Hurst for this hat-trick, but 66 was about Moore more so than Hurst. There so many, you’ve got Paul Gascoigne, but I find it’s Bobby Moore. All the imagery around the final is him, so that’s my simple answer.

Q. From what you’ve seen so far, who wins the World Cup and why? 

I think England will win the World Cup because I’m an England fan! We’ve got a great team, forgive me but I’m not like a Wales fan who thinks they’re going to win a World Cup. And in the last two competitions we’ve come close. Why not? I look at France and I see amazing talent against an okay Denmark side, but this is the group stage and of all the teams that qualify, half of them will get knocked out. Some will be the ones people fancied because they had a strong group. What we’re doing at the moment is slowly going about our business, rather than shout out to the world. Brazil as well, a couple of wonderful goals and people say that’s why they’ll win it. Well they haven’t won it yet. Even Messi yesterday, he scores a wonderful goal and that’s why they’ll win it. England until someone beats us.

Q. This is going to be Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s final World Cup. Who, in your opinion, has been the better player?

The caveat in the Messi vs Ronaldo debate for me is the last month. I used to be a Messi man. When you’re thinking of the greatest of all time, you think of these two together. I used to think Messi was amazing, if you put Messi in Real Madrid they would be a better team, but if you put Ronaldo in Barcelona it wouldn’t function as well. That’s how I gauge the best. But when Ronaldo started moving to different teams, scoring goals and winning the Euros with Portugal, I went to Ronaldo because Messi was fantastic at doing what Messi did, but all of a sudden Ronaldo was changing the way he played and still producing so many goals, so arguably a more diverse player. 

There’s on the field stuff, goals being scored and records being broken. And for many years everything about them added to the on-the-pitch stuff. But what I’ve seen from Ronaldo in the last month is not what I would expect from the greatest of all time. You have to be the greatest footballer and sportsman, and what I’ve seen in the past month I don’t think goes hand-in-hand with someone who is the best footballer of all time. So I’ve now gone back to Messi in the last month. 

Q. Do you think Ronaldo’s interview with Piers Morgan was the wrong thing to do?

I couldn’t see the benefit Crisitano Ronaldo’s interview with Piers Morgan had for anybody. You have a contract, and if you have a problem with it then deal with it behind closed doors, you have an agent. It’s not the first time that relationship has gone sour and in the end it became a public spectacle rather than a private, easily dealt with issue. Everyone could have left that situation in a better place without having to air all the problems publicly. And in the end United are one of the biggest clubs in the world, and they were treated in a manner that was ugly. When you have a player with such a huge following, it became like a match between United and Ronaldo and that’s not good. People will forget, but it will always be there. In 12 years time will you think about Ronaldo who did the interview or Ronaldo who broke records? He will always have the legacy, so people will get over it, but I don’t think it needed to be done.

How would you have reacted if one of your teammates did that?

What we will never know is the relationship Ronaldo has between his teammates. I’ve been in situations where I’ve seen stuff in the media, you know the person who’s been talking but you can tell from your relationship with them that it hasn’t come across how they meant it. But in this situation there was total control over the interview, but I hope his teammates knew it was going to happen, and secondly knew what was being said and were comfortable with it at best. But with his teammates, other than Dalot and Fernandes he’ll be alright. He’ll have new teammates next season.

Q. Has a teammate of yours ever given quotes to the media you weren’t happy with?

I’m sure it’s happened to me, but if you know them you can ask, ‘what are you going on about?’ But I’ve never been in a situation where someone has openly criticised the club while at the club, usually it happens after they leave. Depending on who it is, you can say we knew they weren’t happy, but you hope they have some respect.

Q. Who do you think is the best goalkeeper at this World Cup?

I look at the other side, when goals are conceded. Messi’s strike was brilliant, but Ochoa jumps as Messi hits it, he actually lands when the ball is on the penalty spot. So he has seven yards to try and make a save. If he stands on his feet, then he gets across and makes a save, then Argentina possibly draw 0-0 and we’re having a different discussion about their chances. Even if he had stayed on his feet, he may not have saved it, but he’d have had a better chance. 

There’s Courtois of course, but there’s no one who’s standing out. You have to get to the end of the group at least. 

Q. It’s been 18 years since you were in goal at Euro 2004. A lot of people think England should have won that tournament, how do you feel about it now?

No one expected Greece to win Euro 2004. We got knocked out by Portugal on penalties and always thought they would beat Greece, they were playing 1-0 football. Had we played them, they would have done the same thing, we probably would have struggled and could have left ourselves in a position where they got a scrappy goal and won 1-0. So in the end, Portugal were too good in the shootout. We weren’t good enough to beat them in the shootout or added time, we had a limit. Unfortunately in the knockouts you just need one game where you reach your limit and you’re out. We had a good squad but weren’t the best team in the tournament. And the best tournament team weren’t necessarily the best, most attractive group of players.

Q. Why do you think England’s golden generation didn’t win a tournament? 

England’s golden generation didn’t win a tournament because of penalty shootouts, it’s as simple as that, and even they wouldn’t have won us tournaments as we had more teams to play. I can’t pinpoint one thing. Just look at the France game, five minutes from victory. I’m not a fan of momentum because lots of things can interrupt. I’m a big fan of confidence and had we beaten France, we’d have continued with a different kind of confidence. It’s those moments in games that change your fortunes, but they have repercussions going through the tournament. But apart from penalties I can’t think of anything more we could or should have done. 

Q. Some players, including Rio Ferdinand, said club rivalries made the camp difficult. Do you agree with that?

I disagree that club rivalries affected the camp, on the basis that I didn’t have any club rivalries. If players were harboring discontent with other players then I wasn’t aware of that. I don’t know what nations do now, but at meal time we were all together and there was always a good feel. Even when you first meet up, in 2010 Pompey got beat by Chelsea in the FA Cup final, then two days later we’re meeting up with England sat across from Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. There’s a moment when you’re still not quite happy with them but that goes out the window in a minute, then you have a chat, you don’t wind each other up and I never saw that among the players as well. I can’t speak for Rio, but you have to appreciate that with England the expectation is you’re going to win something and you have the most competitive England footballers meeting up together, playing for different teams, they all want to be the one in the team. Granted Rio won’t have beef with Steven Gerrard because it’s not his position, but Rio’s mate might be in Gerrard’s position and you might want your mate in front of someone else. It’s very difficult when you’re 24/7 with a player at a club to go off with England and play with someone else, especially if you’re a successful side like Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea. There’s a competitive rivalry, I get that, but once you’re there with the squad there’s no way a United player won’t pass to a Liverpool player. I never felt any animosity.

Q. Did we get it right tactically?

Well it was penalties again in 2006. Portugal weren’t the best team in the world, but they were just that bit better than us to beat us in the shootout. Ronaldo was towards the peak of his powers. So they had a talent that would be proven to be the best in the world, and he was influencing a game in 90 minutes or extra time. We were just a bit short. Tactically, of course you can do something different and argue we’d have won it, but then Portugal would say they’d have done something different to counter that.

Q. Sven-Goran Eirksson described the media circus that surrounded the WAGs in 2006 as a ‘stupid excuse’. Do you agree?

I agree with Sven that blaming the WAGs for England’s performance at the 2006 was an excuse. All this was going on outside the camp, and we were hearing about it inside the camp and questioning what it was that they were reporting on. We knew they were there, although mine wasn’t. It wasn’t something that was causing an issue within the camp. It was completely blown out of proportion, it wasn’t affecting performance. To blame it on that is wrong.

Q. Spain manager Luis Enrique recently said he expects players to be sleeping with their partners before games and doesn’t mind it, arguing it helps performance. Do you agree or disagree?

What players do for their clubs doesn’t influence whether or not they get picked for Gareth Southgate. But somewhere down the line, what you do to be the best footballer at club level, is what you need to do to be the best you can be for England. If you want to get the best performance, then you want to replicate that for preparation. Dare I say it, just referencing Luis Enrique’s quotes, if that’s what you need to do then that’s what you should do. I’m not suggesting for one minute the FA opens up a room, though!

Q. Your old club Liverpool have been linked with a takeover from Saudi Arabia. Do you think that kind of investment is the only way they could compete with Manchester City?

I don’t think investment from the Middle East is the only way Liverpool can stay competitive with Manchester City. If you think about keeping up with City, it depends. People who are more qualified than I am will say that if Liverpool sell the club then for the owners it’s about profit. If they’re looking after the interests of the club then obviously they get the right owners to buy the club. If the new owners see that the only way they can compete is spending heavily, then that’s fine. If Liverpool are looking at further investment, there’s an argument that Liverpool need to buy now to give themselves a chance against City. 

Whereas I would say, economically, Liverpool need to qualify for the Champions League and I want Liverpool to compete for every trophy. But rather than spending loads of money to get something now, contain it so next season, or season after, and then invest wisely over a long period rather than going out there and spending big straight away. Otherwise you’re in a vicious cycle where you are having to spend huge amounts of money and you are theoretically not able to win the league, and that’s a big deficit. And it’s very disruptive to a dressing room if you’re continually buying all the time. I think there’s a chance where Liverpool can go quiet for a season or two and then come back and win the league.

Q. Is there anyone you’d like to see in a Liverpool shirt?

When you look at the likes of Jude Bellingham, who’s been linked, why not? He’s young. Someone like Jamal Musiala, he’s been linked. There’s talent out there and at some point Liverpool will try and get their services. Bellingham has the potential of being the tournament’s outstanding player, and his price tag could soar. But whether they get them soon is questionable.

Q Who is the best finisher you have ever faced? 

Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba are the best I’ve faced as a goalkeeper. They were ridiculous. Niko Krancar was a ridiculously good finisher, to the point that when he scored against England, I knew what he was going to do. But in-game, Henry was like Mbappe now. I actually thought what he’s doing now is the equivalent to what Henry was doing. He was exceptional and different. Henry would hit a shot from nowhere, but with so much power. And his celebration was like, that’s what I do! For a keeper who felt he could save any shot, it was disheartening to have someone like him who could rock up and smash it in the back of the net. 

Drogba was another one, it didn’t matter how well I played, he’d walk off the field having scored a goal or two. And I’d ask what am I doing wrong? I played against fantastic players, but those two are the ones.

Q. Next year marks 20 years since the West Ham side you were a part of was relegated, with players like Joe Cole and Michael Carrick. Can you remember what went wrong?

When West Ham were relegated in 2003, there were a lot of issues. I myself had some stuff off the field that wasn’t great. Between games, a lot of things can happen that disrupt performances in the following game. I’ve seen some of the games on YouTube and think, how did we play that badly? There was a lack of confidence in the team, there was discord within the squad to the point where there was stuff coming out in the newspapers. We didn’t know where it was coming from, and we didn’t get to challenge it. No one knew where it was coming from, and that causes suspicion. The team starts to fragment and unfortunately for Glen Roeder, he had health problems. Then Trevor Brooking came in. Wow, what a man. He was a breath of fresh air, the calmest man in the room and everyone respected him.

But that game against Bolton, it cost us our Premier League status. It was that close. It was frustrating, we had such a good team that shouldn’t have gone down. Someone always bought a paper into the changing room and there was just stuff being leaked. You’d look round, and if no one is owning up to it then you end up questioning everyone. Then it only needs one little thing and then it all kicks off. 

Q. What was it like finishing your career in Iceland and India?

It was magnificent to end my career in Iceland and India. Having spent 22 years in England at home, and having numerous foreign players in my dressing room, to go to Iceland as the foreigner made me realise what it was like to be them. You get total appreciate for what it was like for foreign players to come into the Premier League. It was part-time, semi-pro, and I had an appreciation of what it was like to have a job and play top-level football in Iceland. We qualified for the Europa League, and it was amazing they could balance that. I love the country as well, it’s beautiful with beautiful people.

India was a very different experience. Inside India, they have the Calcutta derby with 100,000 people. It was crazy. You realise there is this heritage with India of staunch football fans. They would turn up to games with Liverpool banners, Man Utd banners, I think Arsenal too, then one day no banners at all because the club said we’re not here to support the Premier League. There was one game where there were 70,000, and it was crazy, the noise. When you love something like I love football, to go to Iceland and experience a different love for it, India too, it just made my love for the game get bigger. I’ve traveled around Asia a lot in the last five years and one thing that unites everyone is football. 

My last professional game was a cup final in India and, typical to my career, we lost 1-0. 94th minute header and after the game I sat on the bench and said to myself, that’s it, at 44-years-old, but I was so happy to be in India doing it.

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