Tuesday 16 January 2018

David James: This is a milestone I will always treasure

Humbling to reach 1,000th game mark after such a long and winding career road, writes David James

David James

So I've finally made it: 1,000 games in all competitions. A major milestone in my life, and a personal record that – until IBV came calling – looked like it might never be reached.

Little did I ever imagine I would be playing my 1,000th match on a tiny and windy Icelandic island, in front of 1,200 people wearing brightly coloured headbands, as is the fashion here. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I never expected it to be the case but at IBV I am as excited about football, at 43, as I have ever been.

The rest of the lads were more excited about the promise of 15 pints for a win that day. Fittingly, we did win, and to top it all off I got man of the match and a clean sheet. IBV also reached 1,000 points in their club history, so in the pub there were celebrations for a double double – as well as some debate over whether Hermann [Hreidarsson, our manager] had promised to buy 15 pints in total, or 15 pints per player.

There's something special about Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands, you can't leave. Literally, at times. Keflavik came to play us the other week and they couldn't get off the island for three days – the boats refused to take them because the sea was too rough. It is totally bizarre, being held hostage by the weather. But I like the unpredictable nature of the place. It suits my character, living life on the edge. It's the perfect antidote to my statto persona.

I have always been obsessed with records and statistics, as a kid scouring county league books for clean sheets and appearances records and as a senior player I used to keep a diary, noting down clean sheets in one colour, clean halves in another. A ritual that eventually became an unhealthy preoccupation.

Sometimes I wonder if it's just me? Over my career I don't recall ever coming across another player who was as obsessed with statistics as I was. Other than league tables, results and goals scored, for most footballers stats have always been deemed a little bit geeky. Like that character off Fantasy Football, Statto, a slightly creepy looking guy you wouldn't fancy getting a lift off! It was inevitable, then, that I would often gravitate toward the backroom staff to get my statto kicks.

So, before I went up to do the BT Sport game at Liverpool the other week I arranged to meet up with an old friend from my Portsmouth days, 'Eddie Prozone' [James Edwards], now working with the club. I drove all the way up to the training ground, from Heathrow, a horrible four-hour drive in the rain, walked in the door, said "Hello, how are you?" That was as far as we got with any kind of conversation. Then we spent the next three hours talking about football stats. He loves them, I love them. Happy days.

The thing about stats, for a true statto, is that simply looking at the numbers alone is never enough. A clean sheet record is great. But what does it mean in real terms? That's where you get into "good clean sheets" and "bad clean sheets". (And, unfortunately, therein lies the way to a lifetime of torment).

When I first joined Liverpool there were games we won 3-0, but my only contribution was a couple of goal-kicks. I struggled to feel good about those clean sheets, because I hadn't done anything to help my team win.

Eddie understands that, and we are often happiest sat about in a boot room debating the meaning of statistics. "Well, he's made six saves, but what were they actually like? A chip from six yards out is hardly a test." So when I came on for England against Holland in 2001, and I was on the field for a minute before I was off again with an injury, I often wonder – should that constitute an appearance? At least I made a save.

While 1,000 games feels pretty fantastic, I am always brought back down to earth as a mere mortal when I consider Peter Shilton's record. He played 1,005 league games – a phenomenal achievement when you consider he also won 125 caps for England, plus all those FA and European Cup games with Nottingham Forest.

As a kid I always wanted to beat Shilton's England record. I think I eventually wrote it off as unachievable at the ripe old age of 20. In recent years the record that has most preoccupied my thoughts was Premier League appearances. Gary Speed was the first to play more than 500, I came a close second, while Ryan Giggs was a few games behind me.

The issue provided a constant source of banter when I was at Portsmouth, with Gary O'Neil regularly on my case whenever one of us was injured and the pecking order suddenly revised. When Giggs overtook me the banter reached fever point and I argued that he had often come on as a sub.

"Right," I thought, "who's played the most minutes?" Me being me, I sat down to work it out. I'm on 51,000, just so you know, and Ryan Giggs about 4,000 minutes behind. So my record might be safe.

Far more mind-blowing than that is Ray Clemence's record for conceding the least amount of goals in the league in one season: 16 in total. Every season I would aim to beat it, reach 16, and then think, "Damn it!" Peter Schmeichel did equal it for Manchester United – but in a 38-game season it's not quite as impressive.

Unfortunately, not all records bring happiness. I have the dubious honour of holding the record for most goals conceded in the Premier League.

I don't think I'll ever live that one down. Though perhaps it is my best chance of going unbeaten. You could say it's the Sophie's World of goalkeeping as you've got to be there to concede them in the first place. I've certainly been there, 1,000 times in all competitions, concessions and all. It still feels pretty good.

David James has given his fee for this column to charity.

Observer

 

MILLENNIUM MAN

David James's 1,000-game breakdown:

1988-92 Watford 98

1992-99 Liverpool 280

1999-01 Aston Villa 85

2001-04 West Ham 102

2004-06 Manchester City 100

2006-10 Portsmouth 158

2010-12 Bristol City 84

2012-13 Bournemouth 19

2013- IBV (Iceland) 21

1997-2010 England 53

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