The incredible story of the first Welshman at a World Cup since 1958
By Russell Todd
After beating Austria, Wales are only 90 minutes away from a place at the World Cup in Qatar, with either Ukraine or former qualifying nemesis Scotland standing between us and a place on the game’s biggest stage for the first time since 1958 when Wales fell to 17 year old Pelé’s first ever World Cup goal as Brazil went on to win their maiden Jules Rimet trophy.
In the intervening period however there are two Welsh-born players who have managed what Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have (yet) failed to do and play in a World Cup.
The most recent was Kevin Sheedy who, despite being born in Builth Wells/Llanfair ym Muallt, opted to play for the land of his father, Ireland and went onto represent them at Italia 90 where he scored against England.
Four years earlier, once again Wales fell at the final hurdle, after Scotland were awarded a fortuitous penalty at Ninian Park. Four days later in St John’s, Newfoundland – Canada’s closest town to Wales – one Welshman succeeded where the likes of Ian Rush, Neville Southall, Mark Hughes and others had failed. For the first time since 1958 a Welshman would figure on the game’s global stage. His name is Paul James and his character could not be more different to the quiet Sheedy.
Where does one start with Paul James?
The bribery? The crack addiction? The rough-sleeping and bankruptcy? The hunger strikes? The successful coaching career? Admission to the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame? The legal tangles with the Canadian constitution?
There was that World Cup too.
Three days after Wales beat Austria, Canada thumped Jamaica 4-0 to secure their first appearance at a World Cup since Les Rouges’ only other previous appearance at Mexico 86. During that era in the 1980s, Canada’s most successful, Paul James was a key player. In Mexico he started in midfield in each of his adopted nation’s games and facing such illustrious players as Jean Tigana, Michel Platini and Igor Belanov.
Three years earlier he had gained Canadian citizenship and been fast-tracked into the national team. Three years before that at 17 years of age his parents John and Olive swapped their Whitchurch suburb in the north of Cardiff for the town of Oakville on Lake Ontario, west of Toronto.
Like Gareth Bale (and Geraint Thomas, Sam Warburton and so on….) James is a former pupil of Whitchurch High School. Like Bale, James excelled at all sports he tried his hand at: he was a two-time county 800m champion; earned a junior British Athletics Championship 1500m podium finish; and was a member of the school’s first cricket XI and rugby XV.
But it was in football that he particularly excelled representing Cardiff Schoolboys, Glamorgan, Cardiff City youth, and turning out as a 15 year old for Newport County reserves. He was on the fringe of Welsh national age-grade caps, with contemporaries including Ian Rush.
But after emigrating it was Maple, not Dragon, red that James ended up wearing. And he did so at the start of an era that saw Canada emerge from the shadow of traditional Concacaf powerhouses Mexico and the USA and enter a mid 1980s golden period. But James was also a key figure in the episode that brought that golden period to a shuddering halt; an episode that, to this day, still casts a shadow over Canadian football.
Football in Canada
Popular among migrants to Canada, football grew consistently in the late nineteenth century. The first football associations outside the British Isles were set up in Ontario as early as 1877; and in 1885 Canada faced their American neighbours for the first time.
The home nations welcomed representative teams from Canada on several occasions in the 1890s and 1900s, including a pair of unofficial international matches in 1891 at The Racecourse against Wales. And in 1929 the FAW sent a squad to tour Canada and play a number of uncapped games across the vast nation.
A century after those early steps the game was still very reliant on immigrant and naturalised playing talent from Europe and Central America. Not only on the pitch but off it too, such as former England goalkeeper, Tony Waiters, who died last year. After two successful seasons in charge of Vancouver Whitecaps, the Canadian Soccer Association, (CSA) invited Waiters to lead Les Rouges to Spain and the 1982 edition of the World Cup.
Although Spain ‘82 came too soon for Waiters to put his stamp on the team, before too long he had begun to turn Canada into a resilient, but dour, side. Their obstinance helped them reach the quarter finals of the 1984 Olympics where Brazil could only get the better of Canada on penalties. James had quickly forced his way into the first team after making his debut in a friendly against Mexico in December 1983, not long after his Canadian citizenship made him eligible to do so.
The road to Mexico…via Wales
When original hosts Colombia decided to stand down as hosts of the 1986 edition, Mexico stepped into the breach which opened up an additional berth to the Concacaf region. There was a quiet confidence that Canada, off the back of its encouraging Olympics performance and with James anchoring the midfield, could snaffle.
Having topped a first round group comprising Guatemala and Haiti, Canada faced Costa Rica and Honduras in the final group. A home draw to Costa Rica in which James scored the equaliser put Canada on the back foot in the group, but a 2-1 win at home to Honduras in a freezing St John’s, Newfoundland in front of a fervent ‘Newfie’ crowd saw Les Rouges through to Mexico.
This success came against a backdrop of the NASL folding, leaving many of the Canadian players heading to Mexico 86 without a club or employment. According to Waiters:
“Most of the players had no team. So what we did was we formed more or less a team-in-being. And we’d go pretty well anywhere that would pay for us to come in and pay us when we got there. So we had a tour of North Africa. We went into Asia as well. Any opportunity to get a game where there’d be money coming in so we could turn some of that money around into players’ pockets.”
Wales were also on the CSA’s radar and a month prior to Mexico 86 Wales crossed the Atlantic for two friendly games. With the tour coinciding with the all-Merseyside FA Cup final Ian Rush, Kevin Ratcliffe, Neville Southall and Pat Van Den Hauwe were unable to travel. On an awful pitch in Toronto Mike England fielded an experimental Wales captained by Joey Jones who, on the occasion of his 71st cap, became Wales’s all-time most capped player but the well-drilled Canadians won at a canter 2-0.
A second clash in Vancouver was scheduled for the following week but between the games Wales were criticised by not only the Canadian FA for the lack of Rush et al, whose names it was hoping would put bums on seats, but by the press and Waiters himself for not putting up the stiff challenge in Toronto that Canada wanted with their tournament opener against reigning European Champions France mere weeks away.
On an astroturf surface at a cavernous indoor arena Wales easily made amends for the Toronto defeat in a bruising encounter, winning 3-0, in which Dean Saunders scored the opening brace of his eventual 22 Wales goals. This time the Canadians complained about the Welsh physicality and severity of their tackling. Match reports suggest only one Canadian player kept going toe-to-toe with his opponents: Paul James.
James played in both games against the land of his father, only six years after emigrating, and in so doing faced a former Cardiff and Glamorgan Schools teammate in Neil Slatter who went on to win 22 Wales caps between 1983 and 1989.
Though they failed to score a goal, Canada performed creditably in Mexico – and certainly had the best shirt font in the tournament. James started each of the group games. With a new domestic league in the pipeline, a debut World Cup appearance ought to have been the foundations on which to grow the game in Canada. But within months it all came tumbling down; and James was the wrecking ball that did the damage.
Later in 1986, with Canada continuing to need to take up as many invitations to play as possible from all over the globe, Waiters took the squad to Singapore to compete in the invitational Merlion Cup.
Having comfortably progressed to the semi-finals, Canada were due to face North Korea. On the eve of the match James claims to have been approached by four teammates – Igor Vrablic, Hector Marinaro, David Norman and Chris Chueden – during a card school to take a cut of £100k that a betting syndicate had offered in return for throwing the semi-final.
Versus the Koreans James played out of position at right back in a 2-0 defeat, but got cold feet and returned the money to the other conspirators after the game and confessed to teammate Randy Regan. By the time the affair was eventually escalated to the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) all hell had broken loose.
A protracted criminal investigation concluded that although the five – James was initially under the spotlight – definitely accepted bribes, it was a matter deemed to be out of Canadian jurisdiction which finally enabled the CSA to impose bans on the players. Two of the conspirators – Cheuden and Vrablic (who had scored against Wales in Toronto) – never played for Canada again, while Norman and Marinaro eventually won further caps.
James’ integrity in bringing the affair to light was acknowledged and the CSA was content with him continuing to represent Canada. He continued to be a regular selection in the Canadian midfield throughout 1987, the year that the Canadian Soccer League was launched, although James had by this time joined Doncaster Rovers.
His stay at Belle Vue was an unsuccessful one with Rovers finishing adrift at the foot of the third division and being relegated. James returned to Canada and became player-coach of Ottawa Intrepid in the CSL, but the added coaching responsibilities led to James slipping out of the national reckoning.
When the Intrepid folded after his first season in charge – with the entire CSL going the same way in 1992 after only five short years in existence – James returned to playing but the coaching bug had bit and, after a swansong couple of caps in 1993, he had coaching stints on the American college circuit, before the CSA appointed him in 1998 to lead the Canadian under 20 team that recently won the u20 Concacaf championship. Once again James was centre-stage at a time when his adopted nation found itself on the cusp of breaking into football’s upper echelons beyond North America.
James led the junior Canadians to the 2001 u20s World Cup, but echoing James’s own experience in Mexico 15 years earlier, they failed to score a goal or win a point and James soon left the employ of the CSA. Even though he went on to earn his MBA from the University of Liverpool’s Football Industries programme in 2003, by this time James had become addicted to crack cocaine, a drug he first tried in 1998 that same year he took on the Canadian u20s coaching role.
Initially, his addiction failed to flatten the curve of his burgeoning coaching career that after the relative failure with the u20s had taken James to York University in Toronto where he won titles with the men and women’s teams, as well as his own individual awards. He would go weeks, even months, at a time sober but could never fully escape the drug’s clutches.
The profile and awareness of the number of ex-professionals suffer mental health difficulties after they finish playing is much higher these days. In 2007, James encountered his own problems with depression and it was returning to crack to ‘self-medicate’ that saw his addiction spiral out of control and though he bravely confided in colleagues at York and was granted an extended leave of absence for rehab, he was eventually dismissed – James claims unfairly – from his role as master soccer coach.
He took the dismissal up in the courts, eventually appealing all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court but failed to find the justice to which he still vehemently believes he is entitled. A combination of the legal battles and his continuing addiction bankrupted James, left him homeless and wrecked relationships of all kinds. In his incendiary and desperately frank 2012 self-published memoir ‘Cracked Open’ James airs grudges with fans, players, ex-players, coaches, and officials.
One reviewer described James not so much burning bridges with the book but “firebombing them”. It is a harrowing read on occasions and suggests that a corrosive bitterness had engulfed James during its writing.
Happily for James, recent interviews in Canada appear to suggest he is overcoming his addiction and mental health difficulties, and found love in the form of a new relationship. It would be fitting if this peace is accompanied by a recognition in the country of his birth ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, at which – should Wales qualify – Gareth Bale would be a prominent figure.
But by no means would he be the first Welsh ex-Whitchurch High School pupil to grace the World Cup stage.
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