Matt Healey continues the series.
Tony James was born on the 9th October 1978 in Cwmbran. He started his professional career at West Brom where he played in the youth and reserve teams. He left The Hawthorns in the summer of 1998 and signed for Hereford United.
“Hereford’s Chief Scout was a gentleman called Ron Jukes and he recommended me to Graham Turner (Hereford Manager and Chairman) I played a few reserve games and signed a full time contract for the club. Being from Cwmbran it wasn’t far for me to travel”
James made his debut in a 3-1 loss to Hednesford on the 24th August 1998. “We had a mixture of first year professionals, but with the experience of the likes of Ian Wright and Mark Taylor, who had played at a higher level. I remember Gavin Mahon was at the club and he later went on to play in the Premier League”
I asked James what it was like having the giant centre half Ian Wright alongside him “He was brilliant, with myself being a first year pro and playing men’s football for the 1st time he was great to have around, he’s a big guy and extremely commanding, he helped me a lot, we had different attributes and complimented each other perfectly, he led by example as our captain”
In James’s 2nd season Hereford would reach the 3rd round of the FA Cup and face Premier League Leicester City, “We held them 0-0 at home and gave a fantastic account of ourselves, we went there in the replay and it took them extra time to beat us”
James would be a mainstay of the Hereford defence for the next couple of seasons as Hereford battled financial problems “It was a difficult period for Graham (Turner), as the finances weren’t great, we always seemed to have to ship out a player to pay the bills, I remember we played Dover Athletic in the 4th qualifying round of FA Cup and if we didn’t win that could have been the end of the club”
Hereford would defeat Dover 1-0 and then draw a home tie with Wrexham in the 1st round, that game was shown live on BBC One and Hereford earnt a battling 1-0 win, they would bow out bravely 3-2 away at Swindon in the 2nd round, but the money the cup run earnt was invested the following season and Hereford turned the corner.
The collapse of ITV digital the following season meant that some Football League clubs were in financial jeopardy and Hereford recruited well that summer as players filtered down the leagues as clubs cut their cloth accordingly. The 2002/2003 season Hereford would finish in 6th position, the introduction of the play offs meant the season was kept alive and with Hereford finishing one place outside the play off positions, attendances were increasing and the arrival of Richard O’Kelly as coach introduced some fantastic attacking football.
“Richard (O’Kelly) was so confident, we improved so much as a team, we were relentless at times and scored plenty of goals, playing at the back and witnessing some of the goals first hand was brilliant.
The 2003/2004 campaign Hereford finished 2nd, a total of 91 points was achieved. Hereford missed out on automatic promotion by one point. Chester City had pipped the Bulls. It would be a two legged semi final against Aldershot for the chance to meet Shrewsbury or Barnet in the final at the Britannia Stadium. The 1st leg at the Recreation Ground ended 1-1.
Hereford would draw the 2nd game 0-0, but crash out 4-2 on penalties. Defender Andy Tretton was controversially sent off early in the 1st half and The Bulls bravely battled on for nearly 100 minutes with ten men.
“We still had our chances to win the game, but we were devastated as a club to be knocked out, on hindsight I maybe should have taken the first penalty in the shootout. I think I was third or fourth. Aldershot went first and hit the bar, we then missed our first and second, I think if I had taken the first one and scored we would have got that positive momentum and set the tone, but we were knocked out”
James scored plenty of penalties during the 2003/2004 season “I had the attitude and was prepared to take one. I could strike a ball well and was confident. I didn’t practice much, but knew I could always hit the target”
That summer would see a mass exodus from Edgar Street. Steve Guinan would join Cheltenham, Michael Rose went to Yeovil. Matt Baker linked up with Wrexham. Ben Smith signed for Shrewsbury and popular coach Richard O’Kelly departed to Bournemouth. James remained at the club for the 2004/2005 season.
“I never heard of any interest off other clubs, me and Graham (Turner)had a great relationship, usually by the Christmas we would sort out a new contract and my main objective was to get the club back into the Football League”
John Trewick would replace Richard O’Kelly as coach. I asked him to compare the two “They were both my youth team coaches at West Brom, so it was funny to work with them during my professional career. Richard was very bubbly and high on technique, John was a bit more restrained and his team was a lot more solid, but they were both great to play for”
In James’s final season at Edgar Street he would struggle with a persistent groin injury “I was rushing to get back, and then would break down as I wasn’t fully fit. I was desperate to be in contention for the play offs”
The Bulls would face Halifax at the Walkers Stadium in Leicester on the 20th May 2006. A place in the Football League was at stake. Hereford would win 3-2, but James watched from the side lines. “It was tough as I wanted to play, but I wasn’t fit. It was my eighth season at Edgar Street and we finally reached the Football League. I was so happy for Graham Turner and the Hereford supporters to be back where they belong. They should be a Football League club now, its got the fanbase with terrific support”
James would leave Hereford that summer. “Me and Graham (Turner) sat down and we parted company, I would have loved to have played in the Football League for Hereford, but maybe I probably needed a new challenge. I had a few offers, but as a family we uprooted down south and I joined Weymouth, which were in what is now the National League”
James relocated to the Dorset coast “The lifestyle was fantastic, we would train and then me and the family would go to the beach, we started really well, but around Christmas time the funding at the club was pulled and we lost a lot of players, Ben Smith for example was with me, but he returned to Hereford. I stayed though until the end of the season”
James would depart and move back to Hereford, but signed with National League Burton Albion “I joined them part time at first and the manager then was Nigel Clough, he was really good, he let us play with no shackles and I really enjoyed my football”
Burton would win promotion to the Football League in May 2009 and James would become a Football League player for the first time in his early 30’s.
He very nearly returned to Edgar Street in January 2010 “My contract was up at Burton that summer and John Trewick was Hereford manager by then and got in touch, they needed defensive reinforcements. It was a really tough decision as I was back living in Hereford, but I was playing well at Burton and didn’t want to lose that momentum, my wife wanted me to join, as the club was on my doorstep and I would save myself around four hours travelling a day, but I was happy aned ended up signing a new contract at Burton and won player of the year”
A few weeks later James scored the winning goal for Burton in a 4-3 win at Edgar Street “We were 3-1 down and pegged it back to 3-3, in the last minute I went up for a corner and headed in the winner, it was my first Football League goal too, ironically it was against Hereford”
James though did return to Hereford in October 2010 on a one month loan “Simon Davey (Hereford Manager) got in contact and they needed a defender. Burton wanted me to go out and play some games as I wasn’t in the first team. I had a phone call on the Friday morning and met the squad in Barnet the following day, we lost 2-0 and Davey got sacked, it was a whirlwind of a month as during my spell Jamie Pitman my old playing colleague took over as manager, there were some memorable matches, we were 3-0 down at Northampton Town, but won 4-3, and we also beat Stockport County 5-0 away”
James though returned to Burton when his loan spell expired. I asked him though how Hereford had changed as a club under the Chairmanship of David Keyte. Graham Turner had previously sold his shares to Keyte a few months earlier.
“It blew my mind how much the club had changed, there was a lot of money being spent and a lot of money being wasted, there were some good footballers though in the dressing room, it just needed bringing together, it was nice when Rob Purdie joined us (On loan from Oldham) and we also had Ryan Green and Stuart Fleetwood who I had played with at Hereford under Graham (Turner) back at the club”
James remained at Burton until May 2012 and then joined National League Newport County. He made it three promotions to the Football League when Newport defeated Wrexham 2-0 in the Play Off final at Wembley. “I don’t remember much about the game, it’s a massive pitch and an amazing experience to play there, it was a tough game, but we scored late on to earn promotion”
James was back in the Football League for the 2013/2014 season but would now combine his playing career with fitness coaching at Rodney Parade “The late Justin Edinburgh was the manager and he started to get me involved in the fitness side of things and I wound down my playing time”
In Hereford a phoenix club was being born. Hereford FC was created from the Ashes of Hereford United who had been liquidated on the 19th December 2014, and Pete Beadle would be the club’s first manager. James was announced as one of the marquee signings.
“Pete Beadle got in touch and needed some experience. Rob Purdie signed as well. I wasn’t sure at first but completed the pre-season. I just wanted to help. I found it tough though combining football with a day job. There were a lot of ego’s at that level, not at Hereford who were brilliant, but at some of the clubs we played and after a few games I wasn’t enjoying my football”
James would depart in September 2015 and retire from the game, “Me and Pete (Beadle) had a chat and we mutually parted, he had the opportunity to sign Ryan Green from Merthyr who was younger than me, but he needed to free up the wage bill and it was very amicable”
James now coaches at Westfields, but his son Jordan now plays for Birmingham City and made his first team debut last season aged 17.
“We are so proud of him, in the early days we would be driving around five times a week to Birmingham to take him to training, sometimes in the day and sometimes in the evening, we spent a lot of time twiddling our thumbs down there as if training is 3-4 hours, there is no point coming back to Hereford, then go back to Birmingham to then come back home again, lots of parents ask me how we did it, but I was use to travelling as I did if for a few years driving regularly to Burton, you just don’t notice it. What helps is we love football so it makes thing so much easier”
Jordan is now a regular member of the first team squad at St Andrews “He has already played around ten league games this season and is getting lots of experience, they are a good club, with a good youth system and he is playing adult football, some players can get lost in the academy system and are then stuck in the Under 21’s, Under 23’s etc, but he is doing well and making the most of the opportunity”
He has also been picked for the Wales international squad for this week’s Nations League matches “Over the weekend there were some injuries to some players and he is currently with the squad training, its brilliant for him to be involved, we had a chat and he feels more Welsh than English, he had the opportunity to experience the England set up and that didn’t do him any harm, but Wales will be his country”
With the 2022 Qatar World Cup taking place later this year could there be a place for Jordan? “You just don’t know, some countries have a history of taking a youngster or two with the squad and there can be up to 26 players involved, so Jordan just needs to keep up the good work and we will see what happens”
*Photos supplied by Ron Parrott, Will Cheshire and MH Archive