David James On Esports At The Commonwealth Games, Haaland, And More

David James On Esports At The Commonwealth Games, Haaland, And More
Images via Getty Images / Charlotte Tattersall / Stringer

Written by 

Jake Bannister

Posted 

22nd Mar 2022 09:53

With over 53 international caps and over 958 club appearances, it's fair to say David James had a long and successful career at the top of the game. In this interview, the former Liverpool goalkeeper gives insights into esports' inclusion at the Commonwealth Games, alongside Salah's potential contract talks, Liverpool's upcoming transfer business, and more.

Esports will be included in the 2022 Commonwealth Games. As an athlete who's represented their country on the biggest stage, we'd love to know your thoughts on this cameo for esports at the games?

It's a big announcement and I think it makes perfect sense. The question has always been, "what's the criteria for sport"? Historically, the generic answer would have been some sort of physical activity or competition. Essentially this is competition though, isn't it? With esports at a stage where, I would argue, it's the best it's ever been and technology the way it is, the games are borderline realistic. That opens up the avenue to people theoretically competing in a metaverse rather than having to compete in a physical court or arena.

I'm thinking maybe I should have been born a few years later, but it's one of those things where it opens up sports that people have loved for many, many years into a very modern context and competitive edge. It creates a scenario where a sport can be loved for the sport and not just the ability of a physical participant.

The key thing is, I've had a conversation about the difference between the men's and women's game of football in the past few months and there's no difference. There's a set of rules which applies to both; it's just different people playing them. In that context, sport is a set of rules and it's how you apply the rules. Even in a 100-metre race, you go at the start of the gun and you cross the line.

Theoretically, the rules are there. For example, back in the day, when you played Track & Field, if you pressed the button fast enough you won: the rules are still there. The technology allows us to apply the rules in a different context and allows people to compete. Someone who is better with the controller will beat the person who is not as good.

eFootball, previously Pro Evolution Soccer (PES), has been chosen as one of the games for the Commonwealth Games 2022. Do you think football esports has a future comparable to the physical game?

I'm going to say this carefully: I don't think you're going to get, week on week, 60,000 people sitting in a stadium to watch people play esports. I'm saying that because I know, with some games, we've already seen them fill out stadiums. Therefore, I think it is comparable because you could get 60,000 people tuning in to a game of Pro Evolution Soccer, for example.

Pro Evo was the game of choice for us in the England changing rooms. A lot of players preferred Pro Evo to FIFA. My problem was that it wasn't realistic for me. I couldn't stand hitting back at someone and stopping my run, it was getting really annoying. It was getting more realistic but not realistic enough and again as technology advances, we'll create a more realistic scenario. So yes, I think the potential is there and the beauty of esports now is that you don't have a time limit for when you play because you're essentially playing anywhere in the world, so there doesn't have to be a 3 o'clock kick-off on a Saturday.

I think a lot of people can dedicate their time and not be great. Like anything, it's got to be purposeful and productive. Like footballers who never make it to the professional level, they can enjoy the game being the best they can be and I think that's the same with esports. You can go out there and enjoy it, as long as it doesn't become a problem. You can still enjoy esports knowing you're not going to be the best. It's still a game and with any sport or game it's got to be enjoyable at some point.

Having been a manager and had coaching stints, did you ever have to personally limit players' gaming or leisure time?

When I was managing in India, PUBG was the go-to game. What I found really interesting, given that I played it religiously, was there were players that were playing it, a lot. I would ask them how often they played it. They would say, "oh, not often" and then I would notice them on their phone, playing the game. Through experience, for a manager knowing that players are more likely to be involved in some kind of gaming, is to monitor it and make sure that it doesn't become problematic because that requires the focus of an athlete.

It is an acquired focus which could be directed at anything. If it becomes the game more so than the work, then it becomes a problem. I did notice and had a chat with one of the lads and kept my eye on him. He wasn't too bad but it was recognised that it could turn into a sort of problem and be detrimental to his career. You notice it when someone is so passionate about something that they'll find any opportunity to talk about it, and this person was talking about it more than others.

You have said that Pro Evolution Soccer was the game of choice when you played football and told us last time that Jamie Redknapp was good at Street Fighter II. Was there anyone who was decent at Pro Evo?

The experience of my son beating me time after time kind of kept me away from getting involved. Rio Ferdinand was decent at it. This was the funny thing, we sort of had this conversation before - to be an elite footballer you've got to dedicate a lot of time to it, and to be an elite esport player you have to do the same thing. These players would still dedicate some time to being good at Pro Evo. They would also talk about their friends who were better at video games than them. It was almost like this bizarro world where you've got England internationals who are talking about other people being better than them at their game.

 

Onto football, Mohamed Salah is said to be unwilling to accept Liverpool's current contract proposal. Considering the multitude of players running down their current contracts, can you see Salah doing the same? It's giving players the best opportunity to obtain the wages they wish for.

It's not a simple answer in the sense that the only person who knows what they want is Mo Salah. With my answer, I'd say there's no way Liverpool are going to offer him what they see as a short contract - short of what they think he's worth, and therefore they have to fix it in the way they are best suited to do that.

If Mo Salah desires a future at Liverpool because he loves the club then he has to accept that, where he can possibly earn more money somewhere else, he fulfils his desire knowing that he's getting the best deal that they can offer. I'm not accusing him of anything here, but if Mo Salah wants more money and that's his priority and primary objective, then see your contract down and get a better offer somewhere else.

What I always find interesting in these contract conversations is the narrative from the player or the agent that they love the club. If you love something and you want to stay there, then you'll meet them where the place is right. If it's not the case, then basically you're not telling the truth. With Liverpool, their success is based on very strong, robust recruitment, planning and contract negotiations.

Whatever they've offered Mo Salah is the right offer for Liverpool Football Club, and ultimately Liverpool have to make sure that they're in the right place with or without Mo Salah. I would imagine that they've got a contingency plan for if he doesn't sign - a replacement is in place. I would expect they've already planned for any scenario.

The contract running out is a great option for a player who wants to maximise his financial return. At the moment, it's fair to say that there are two clubs emerging in Europe as the massive global clubs, and that is Manchester City and Liverpool. You can go to Bayern Munich and earn more money but your profile wouldn't be as big as either playing for Manchester City or Liverpool.

The journalist Fabrizio Romano claimed last week that Liverpool are interested in Leeds United winger Raphinha, a signing backed by your ex-England teammate Glen Johnson. How excited would you be if your former club signed him and can you seriously see it happening when Liverpool already have the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Luis Díaz, Diogo Jota and Harvey Elliott on the books?

I like Raphinha. He's on nine goals this season. The one thing that sort of concerns me about him already being linked to Liverpool is that usually you don't know who Liverpool are going to sign until they sign. That Liverpool front four or five, whatever you want to call it, is he the same, is he better? Under Jurgen Klopp and in that environment, would he get better? Possibly. If it is true, I think the price would be the key indicator on that one.

I like him but again, when you look at Luis Díaz, who is a sensational signing, is Raphinha as good as him? I don't think so at the moment. It's whether he can be better than that. I think with Díaz you already had a superstar who came in and continued to be a superstar. Raphinha is a slightly different model I would argue.

Another forward from a Premier League side that Liverpool are linked with is Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli. How perfect a signing would he be for your former side? Should he be looking to continue his progression at Arsenal where he's become one of their main men in recent times?

Gabriel Martinelli is one player who I get excited by. If it was a choice between Martinelli and Raphinha, I would go for Martinelli. He's young and he's got everything you need. It's almost like a slightly rawer Díaz, and the beauty of Díaz is that he can play basically anywhere. Martinelli obviously occupies the left a lot more. I always think that with a good environment and age, you can manipulate a player into something else, and I think Martinelli fits that criteria. He's young and more than capable. And I can imagine him in a Liverpool kit, doing what he does with Arsenal, if not better, and just fitting in seamlessly.

If you look at Liverpool's recruitment, the age of the players they're buying - they're young: they're kind of like "we've already got the team now, but what's it going to look like in the future?" and they're bringing in those players to fill in those spaces where if [Roberto] Firmino, [Sadio] Mane, Salah drop out, they'll be ready to go and replace them.

Liverpool have been linked with a shock move with Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford. They've said to have let Rashford know that they're admirers of him. There's no way United would sell him to Liverpool, is there? And whether you believe the move will happen or not, do you believe he fits the profile of a Liverpool player?

There is so much history. Paul Ince, who played for both, went to Liverpool via Inter Milan from Manchester United. Marcus Rashford, age-wise, he's young enough now that if he had to move somewhere else before going to Liverpool, in some kind of long-term plan, then it could happen. However, because of the age he is now, now would be the time to get him. Marcus Rashford is a tremendously underused resource with Manchester United. I don't train with him so I only see what I see on the pitch, but he's a player I would play down the middle rather than playing out wide. I just think he's got all the attributes to be a false-nine, through-the-middle player, rather than being stuck out wide.

Therefore, again, when you look at the likes of Liverpool's fluidity, he could actually play wide, and in the middle, and essentially do anything he wants to do if he was playing in that Liverpool side. I don't think he's afforded that with Manchester United with their reliance on the likes of [Cristiano] Ronaldo going down the middle. In a theoretical world, if you took the rivalry out of the equation, I would snap him up straight away. I think he could be a valuable asset to Liverpool.

After Manchester United were knocked out of the Champions League on Tuesday evening, Paul Scholes whilst working for BT Sport claimed that this current Manchester United side would be absolutely fine with an elite manager such as Jürgen Klopp. Do you agree with this claim? Manchester United surely rue the decision to not appoint the German after Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement nine years ago?

The reason the two sides haven't had equal rivalry or equal challenges for the Premier League is simply because they haven't had the right managers at the same time. You go back to the very early days of the Premier League, Liverpool were equipped with as good a side as Manchester United - back in 1995, possibly in 1996. We weren't challenging for the title but we were about to rise, and then we played that FA Cup final and in my opinion that was a turning point, and that was the point that Manchester United rose and we dropped.

Fast forward to Sir Alex Ferguson's departure, I think if Jurgen Klopp had gone into Manchester United straight away he would have met with stiff resistance because of what Ferguson had done. The follow-on manager was always going to have a tough time. Jurgen Klopp was given more freedom, more allowance, at Liverpool, because the planning around his acquisition and therefore the players that had already been bought for the club that he took charge of, everything was already in place to work. Going to Manchester United he would have started with-a squad that was pretty much spent anyway (I think Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that at some point).

It's one of those things where I see the squad and I look at each player - [Scott] McTominay, [Paul] Pogba, [Marcus] Rashford, [Jadon] Sancho, whatever - all these players are top drawer players but they're not playing top drawer football. You look at the 'head' of the club and how that's affecting everything below it and no matter what we are as football fans, what we see on the pitch is a result of planning and process, and the planning and process of Manchester United is wrong. Had they appointed a better manager, I think this group of Manchester United players would be contending, not just for qualification in the Champions League, but for a chance, at least for part of the season, of winning the title.

I agree with Paul Scholes, I just think that they're a decent outfit who need a decent manager. Whether the board with their recent reshuffle are going to put themselves in a position where they're going to recruit the right manager to get these players playing.

Erling Haaland is reportedly demanding a wage of £500,000 a week if he's to make the move to Manchester City this summer. If this was to come to fruition, he would be the best paid player at not just the club, but the Premier League too. Can City truly justify giving him £150,000 more a week than Kevin De Bruyne?

The numbers mentioned could be accurate. However, there are many ways of formulating a contract that allows the players to receive what's being reported as a weekly wage. Players effectively get paid to train rather than play as they spend most of their week training. I just don't see him receiving £500,000 a week before any bonuses. For the footballers at the top of the wage bill, they'll have certain clauses in their contracts to either match or be in a certain percentage of the very top earner, so if one player came into Manchester City earning a straight £500,000 a week, then that would trigger a lot of clauses and cost the club millions trying to compensate the other contracts.

I can't see such a dramatic increase in one player's wages happening, but I do believe there's a way of formulating a player's contract to allow them to earn that certain figure via bonuses.

Erling Haaland is a very young player, with tremendous attributes and the potential for growth and further development. If you've got the best domestic manager around at the moment, with a squad of young players who're continuing their development, then it sounds like the perfect environment to bring someone in. With a young Erling Haaland, you're looking at Phil Foden, you're looking at Jack Grealish and all these youngsters and thinking that you could dominate Europe for the best part of a decade. That becomes a seriously entertaining proposition and therefore £500,000 looks like a cheaper expenditure. This player is a talent who needs to be on the biggest stage.

Borussia Dortmund use him in a way where he's a number nine but because of his age, he can develop his game further. Romelu Lukaku is a classic example with Chelsea. He's playing that number nine role now and I personally believe he's more than a number nine. He's proven that when he was younger but now he's almost typecast as an out and out number nine, which I think has become a little bit detrimental to his performances and that's despite the fact he had a great season in Milan last year and won a couple of trophies. You still believe you can get more out of Romelu Lukaku, but with Erling Haaland and his age, then you can get him to go in the same direction as Harry Kane who's now become a multi-positional player. Harry Kane was initially just an out and out number nine, but in his late 20s he developed into a more all-rounded player. So with that logic, what can Erling Haaland add to his game in his early 20s?

According to The Athletic, Kalvin Phillips is a transfer target for Aston Villa if Leeds United are to be relegated from the Premier League this summer. Manchester United are crying out for a holding midfielder, do you believe they should make sure they compete for Phillips' signature if the players become available this summer?

I do believe Aston Villa and Manchester United should compete for Kalvin Phillips' signature if he becomes available this summer. He's one of my favourite players and that's not solely due to his footballing talent, but he's a wonderful human being too.

The lure would naturally be Manchester United because of the size of the club but this is Kalvin Phillips who plays for Leeds United. But I also think playing under Steven Gerrard in that Aston Villa squad, and adding to that where Stevie wants to take them, I believe would be the right stepping stone for Kalvin Phillips.

I don't want to insinuate that Aston Villa are a stepping stone, but Gerrard will realistically want to manage a team that's eventually competing for major honours, whether that's Liverpool or another club. Kalvin could become a member of Stevie's group at Villa and then if he does well then he can go with Stevie to the next club he moves onto. Once Stevie likes a player then he sticks with them, which is something you can sense from his relationships. I can see Stevie bringing success to Villa and that would be one exciting bus for Kalvin Phillips to be on.

How do you rate your former side West Ham's chances of winning the Europa League this season? There's a potential semi-final with Barcelona on the cards.

We often talk about it in football about what a club's real focuses are. I don't think for one minute that David Moyes is going to come out and claim that the club are no longer going to push to get in the top four this season, but the defeat to Tottenham on Sunday has made the target so much more difficult to achieve. They'll still be focused to finish fifth so they can at least obtain a place in the Europa League for next season.

The main focus now for the club I believe appears to be winning the Europa League this season. Jarrod Bowen being out is a big miss, but if they can get a fully fit squad back together then why can't they win it? West Ham are more than capable. When your key players aren't available then that causes more of a problem to West Ham than it does for the bigger clubs. I'm a West Ham fan so I can't say that they can't win it. It's not going to be easy, but if anyone can do it then why can't it be David Moyes? The environment is good at West Ham. They look confident despite the loss at the weekend.

If you were to predict, who's winning the Champions League this season and why?

Liverpool have only lost three games this season. They can grind out a result and I hate that cliché because it almost sounds like they just do enough to win games, which isn't the case as they're always on the front foot. I watched Crystal Palace versus Manchester City recently and City completely dominated the game. The thing with City is that teams possibly find it easier to shut them out than Liverpool. Most teams however can't achieve that. With the clash between both sides on April 10, I don't believe it's going to be a title decider, but with this fixture being a possible Champions League final then I believe the league fixture will give us an indicator regarding which side is going to win the Champions League this season.

Real Madrid's win against Paris Saint-Germain was great to see, but that was an example of one side imploding and I don't believe Manchester City or Liverpool are capable of doing the same as PSG, so for that reason, I can't see Real Madrid winning the competition. There's a potential for the two best teams in world football to compete against each other in the final. How can you say that one side is better than the other? In English football now, we have two outstanding teams, two outstanding managers and because both sides are that good, I can't possibly call which of these two sides will win the Champions League this season.

 

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