In 2016/17, his name was right there in the leading pack of National League marksmen. Among those top scorers, James Alabi was the youngest of the lot, as he helped fire Chester to survival. In the three years since, the former Stoke City and Celtic prospect has been part of a title win in the same division with Leyton Orient, and had another taste of League football. It is true to say, though, that the pieces have never quite fit the same since he left Chester for Tranmere Rovers, with regular starts far less forthcoming for one of non-league's leading lights not all that long ago.
His acrobatic effort at Guiseley, the textbook hold-up and strike at Dover, the confident spot kicks, and numerous other goal-bound contributions will remain in the mind for Chester fans. Unlocking that James Alabi again has been the aim for managers since, and having recently joined Bromley, boss Neil Smith is one willing to invest in him as a person, not just a footballing commodity.
His last opportunity for competitive action came on loan with Eastleigh in March, but the 25-year-old goes into the new National League season fresh from scoring in Bromley's 4-0 win over a Crystal Palace XI this week. Here is some in-depth insight into the man behind the smile, the successes, and the strains...
You got a goal for Bromley in the Palace game, how have you been feeling just lately?
Yeah, I’m feeling good, I’m feeling confident. Feeling good physically and excited about the new season. Just excited to get back into the swing of things after this whole period.
You joined the club a few weeks ago, what were the options you were looking at this summer? What was key for you in this next move?
What was key for me was going somewhere where I’m wanted, first of all, and going somewhere where I believe I can get a lot of game time. I had options to go to some League clubs, but after the talks I had with them, it didn’t sound like they wanted me that much; it was a case of maybe I could be a back-up squad player. After I went to meet the Bromley gaffer Neil, he really gave me that feeling of the belief that he had in me. Throughout the pre-season period, me and him have got on well, he’s a really good man-manager and motivator, so I feel like it was a great decision for me to come to Bromley. It’s a place not far from home, so when fans can get back in, my family can come to games, and I can see them after games and whatnot. So yeah, it was a no-brainer for me.
In what seems like an eternity ago, back in March, you were on loan at Eastleigh from Leyton Orient when the season stopped. When that happened and lockdown etc. followed, what did it mean for you? Was there uncertainty about what was next, or were you quite relaxed?
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of uncertainty for footballers in general, but I’m quite a positive thinker, and when the situation happened, I just tried to make the good out of the situation that we were all in. Obviously there were days where I thought ‘okay, where am I gonna play next?‘ but at the end of the day, I believe in my ability and that a club would come in for me, and that I will go on and do well, wherever that may be. I channelled my energy into other things, like keeping fit, staying positive, staying in touch with family and friends at the time. Just keeping the smile on my face regarding the situation, because when you start thinking negatively, it’s not gonna help the situation. We were already in uncertain times, so to think negative on top of that is not gonna help your mentality when you do start getting back to the serious things. It was tough but I still learned a lot about myself.
What else was passing the time in lockdown, did you dive in fully with TV series, films etc.? Any new things in general you turned to?
I was watching Money Heist. That was good, and there’s this app called Houseparty, so me and a few of my mates, on a Friday night, it’s embarrassing but we’d proper dress up, like we’re going out, and we’d play music on the speaker and just have a chat and enjoy that side of things. In terms of keeping fit, we used the same app; there was six or seven of us, and every morning we’d do a workout, whether it was cardio or it was core. I started reading books, which is crazy because I never really read books in school. There were times, when we were allowed, that I’d go to my friend's and we’d just play FIFA.
Chester's obviously the standout time in your career so far, and a really productive spell for you. Looking back three years or so on, what made it work so well?
I would say it was a combination of a lot of things, but the main thing I’d say was that the onus was on me to go and do the business for the team. I had that kind of responsibility, where if we were going to do well, I had to do well. I took to it well, and at the time, the manager (Jon McCarthy) had so much belief in me. He gave me the confidence to just go and play my game no matter what. Even if I played a game and didn’t do so well, he still had the belief in me that I would go on and score goals. I’d mainly say that it was the confidence that the manager had in me. He used to say ‘James, if you go ten games without a goal, I don’t mind, because I know you can go ten games and score ten goals.’ That kind of belief in me just gave me the drive to want to play for the manager and the club. The fans took to me well, and the performances started shining through, because I remember at the beginning of that season, I didn’t score for a few games. I remember driving home, me and my housemate Kane Richards, I said to him ‘how am I gonna score goals? It’s been three or four games, I’m not scoring.’ He just said ‘listen, they’ll come.’ Then once I scored my first, the rest just followed.
To @ChesterFC thank you for your support,belief and all the great memories I’ll never forget. Big thanks to the fans who have been amazing💙 pic.twitter.com/1pLrXxg3bs
— JA9 (@JamesAlabi) July 10, 2017
It seems obvious, but is Chester the most all-round, the happiest, most complete spell you've felt in football so far?
Yeah, I’d say Chester was all-round, because you’re at your happiest when you’re playing week in, week out and doing well. The only thing that didn’t help the situation was we didn’t challenge for anything, we didn’t get into the play-offs, we just played to be safe in the league. That’s the only downside, but in terms of playing, that’s definitely the happiest I’ve been; playing, scoring, assisting, doing well.
You mentioned the belief and patience Jon McCarthy had in you at Chester, is that the kind of approach that you feel gets the best from you? Or does getting into you, riling you up work as well?
I think it’s a mixture of both really. I feel like a manager encouraging me and telling me that I’m a good player and I can do the business, but at the same time, when I’m angry, I do become a beast, and anything in front of me has to get out of the way. If a manager’s telling me ‘you need to liven up’ and he’s shouting at me, I can be angry at the manager for shouting at me but it’s gonna be on the pitch where I take my anger out. I can do the business and be like ‘yeah, look, I’ve done it now.’
I’d say Jon McCarthy was the best one, definitely. I came from Ipswich to Chester, and when I came through the door, he was the assistant manager, and this line will always stick with me: he said ‘I can’t believe that we’ve got a player of your calibre at the club.’ When I heard that comment, straight away I was like ‘okay, cool, I am this player then.’ I wasn’t really playing at Ipswich, I was just with the 23s, so when I’d gone to men’s football at Chester and he’s told me that, it gave me confidence straight away. Then when he became manager, he came to me one day and said ‘we’re gonna give you all the games that you need, because we believe you’re the guy who’s gonna score the goals.’ I had to work long hours in terms of doing more things after training like shooting, so it didn’t just come overnight, but that gave me the confidence to do well. Jon McCarthy was definitely the manager who knew how to manage me well and how to play to my attributes.
On the other side of that, what about the most difficult time so far? Has the enjoyment been lost at all ever?
Tranmere Rovers. I’d done my season at Chester, and because I’d done so well, a lot of teams started calling my agent and telling me they wanna sign me. I was meant to sign for Barnet in League Two at the time, but the move fell through because of certain things in my contract that weren’t there. Tranmere came knocking and they offered everything that I wanted, and they were so keen, so I went to go and do the move and signed for them. I played my first pre-season game and I ended up scoring five in one half. That was the first time the Tranmere fans saw me, so it was like ‘we‘ve got the best striker, he’s gonna score 30 goals etc.’ We had Torquay away in the first game of the season and we drew. I wouldn’t say I played bad but I was average, I didn’t score. Next game, I was out the team, we drew against Boreham Wood, and I came on. I had a header and the player handballed it off the line, but the ref didn’t give it. All of a sudden, I’m getting abuse on social media that I missed an open goal, but there was a picture that came out of the guy handballing it.
I scored these goals in pre-season, then second game of the season I’m getting called shit. Fans are fans, one game you can be the best, next game you’re the worst, so I didn’t mind that too much, but my teammates, I don’t know if I didn’t get on with them or if they didn’t like me, but it just wasn’t a right fit. We were losing games, and we had a game against Maidenhead we lost, and I came on late, but in the changing room, the manager’s acting like it’s my fault, even though I only played 10/15 minutes. That’s when I knew ‘this is a low point’, in terms of confidence and playing-wise. Coming into training was just dark and gloomy. I was a long way from home, living in Liverpool. I’d say it was my toughest point, and then the gaffer just took me into a meeting one day and said ‘okay, we want you to go here,’ then ‘we want you to go here’ and so on.
On the pitch, has there been a teammate in your time in the game so far who you’ve felt an extra sense of connection with when you play? Just that seamless understanding.
Definitely Kane Richards at Chester, 100 per cent. We used to live together as well at the time. To be fair, it was all him. He just used to say ‘I’ll get the ball, you just run in behind, trust me, I’ll find you.’ So whenever he got the ball, I was gone. He was good in the box as well for winning penalties, because I got a few of them as well. Kane’s thing is he’d rather assist than score; it’s crazy to say as a striker. It was a great match, because I wanted to score and he wanted to assist me.
— Kane Richards (@kane_richards10) December 6, 2016
Born and raised in England, but in terms of your African heritage, how prominent would that be in everyday life for you growing up, and also today?
My background, Nigerian/Ivorian, is a big part in my life. My family, my friends, they’re mostly from the same countries as me. We’re big on culture; when we go to church, it’s a Nigerian church, the food that we eat is African, sometimes the way we dress for weddings. I’m from a big African community as well, where I live. So it’s a big thing, and whenever I’m doing well football-wise, there’s a large group of Nigerians, Ivorians, Ghanaians that support me, even back in Nigeria and Ivory Coast. It has a huge impact on how I live, in terms of how my family back there have gone through things and it puts things in perspective. I know I was born here but I do believe that I’ve been brought up in an African way, and it’s helped me for the better.
Being at Stoke and Celtic as a young player, was there anyone from the senior teams there who particularly took time to offer some guidance to you?
Yeah, there was loads at Stoke City. Tony Pulis was a big one, he loved me at the time. Cameron Jerome was good, I still talk to Cameron now. Kenwyne Jones was good with me, Ricardo Fuller, Peter Crouch when he came, even Michael Owen when he had a stint at Stoke. They all gave me words of wisdom, knowledge. Ryan Shawcross, Rory Delap. At Celtic, the likes of Kris Commons, Neil Lennon, Victor Wanyama. There was a few that spoke to us a lot and gave us guidance.
As a player, a person, have there ever been any misconceptions about you in your time in the game so far? Or mostly a fair understanding?
I feel a lot of clubs I’ve been to maybe have an impression of me that maybe I’m too nice. Maybe that I’m lazy in terms of the amount of games I’ve played at certain places. For me, though, I’m just a guy that’s been brought up off and has lived off hard work. The stage that I’ve got to now is from hard work. If people knew my story of where I’ve come from, they’d appreciate it even more, but with football, people think of what you do on a Saturday and that’s how they take you. I always wanna do the best when I’m on the pitch, and if people were to meet me or to know me, I’m positive, I’m happy, I try to see the good in situations and I’m humble as anything. At the end of the day, we’re on this Earth to live life and not to be stressed or to have any regrets. With this current situation, I’m just grateful to still be in the position I am, playing football and having my family and friends around me. That’s the most important thing to me, and long may it continue that I’ll make people happy through football and through being James Alabi.
Have you ever had to sing when you joined a new team, and if so, which song(s)?
I’ve sang too many times; I’ve been to too many clubs! My go-to song is Mario ‘Let Me Love You’; to be fair, that’s one of the only songs I know the words to properly.
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M O O D 😁
Outside of the game, what else gives you inspiration and enjoyment, whether that's just something to switch you off, or something you're interested in pursuing long-term?
I love fashion. Fashion’s my thing in terms of dressing up, looking nice, because I’ve gone to America a few times, I’m into basketball, and some of the stuff players wear when they come to basketball games, if we were allowed to do that with football it would be amazing. Here, it’s looked at that you’re being too flashy, you’re not focusing on football. America’s obviously the entertainment country, and it’s a joy to them, they’ve got a smile on their face, they’ve just got that feelgood factor. I’m the type of person that loves that freedom, so fashion’s a big one. I don’t really have any hobbies, but I’ve got a clothing line that I’m bringing out. Going out with friends, playing FIFA, I’m into that, listening to good music, going to the gym. I’ve had opportunities to do modelling and that’s an avenue that I might go down after football. I’d be lying if I told you that I’ll be getting into coaching or managing after playing, because for me, I believe that this stage of my life is for football, but I feel like once I finish football, that’s gonna be it for me and I’ve got another calling to go and do something else and experience another side of life. I don’t believe that it should just be football throughout the whole of my life, and that’s no disrespect to the people that go and do coaching and whatnot.
Finally, reflecting on all you've learned so far, what do you know now at 25 that you didn’t as that player, that person just coming into the game?
The game’s never gonna love you. You can only control what’s in your hands. Another thing I would say is never get too low or too high. One thing I’ve always known is just stay in your own lane, don’t look at other people. Work hard; your reflection’s your only competition. As long as you’re doing what you’re meant to do with yourself, and you believe in yourself, you’ll be fine. So to wrap it up, the one thing that you have to have in this football career is belief in yourself.
Interview by @chris_brookes