Jordan James is analyzing his first season as a professional footballer when he pauses for a moment just to think.
“This has happened a few times, where I sit down and reflect on the last six months,” the 17-year-old says, feet up on his front-room sofa and looking sunkissed from two holidays squeezed in between last season ending in early May and the looming start of pre-season training.
“It’s crazy when I think about it. Just crazy. I feel a real part of the first team now but I know I still have a lot more to learn and give. ”
The Athletic has been invited to the Herefordshire countryside, where the surroundings have helped shape one of football’s latest class of breakout stars.
Last season, Birmingham City midfielder James was the second-youngest player to start a Championship game and one of only four born in 2004 to be trusted with such a responsibility. His 20 appearances (14 of them starts) set the tone for a remarkable introduction to senior football and at the club’s end-of-season awards last month, James was named their young player of the year.
A whirlwind journey has seen this bright prospect develop into a dynamic midfielder who runs box to box, charges at defenders and plays progressive passes.
The likeable youngster has also forged a strong relationship with captain Troy Deeney, scored his first senior goal, sung a Drake song in front of his team-mates, learned not to misplace a pass to Gary Gardner, and transformed from “coffee boy” into a fully-fledged first-team pro, all while completing his studies and splitting time between digs in Birmingham and the family home 50 miles to the south west.
James is now on the radar of Premier League clubs but remains quiet and unassuming.
“I do not go out much. I just play football, come home, and then sleep, ”he says, shrugging his shoulders innocently.
When he turns 18 in just under two weeks, there will not be a big party, either. “Just a small family get-together,” he adds.
Naturally, parents Tony and Vicky and very proud, but it is their son’s backstory that is so inspiring for others, and far from an ordinary rise.
A star in the making. 🌟 @ JordanJaj66 is your Young Player of the Season.
– Birmingham City FC (@BCFC) May 8, 2022
James was – let politely put it – never identified as one to keep a serious eye on when he was coming through in Birmingham’s lower-age groups.
“He went totally under the radar,” says dad Tony, who played as a defender for clubs including Hereford United and Burton Albion in a 13-year career, and spent years driving his son to and from Birmingham’s Wast Hills training base, often after long days at work as a school football coach.
“Nobody talked about him but we were never bothered because we felt he would have a chance when he started to develop physically.”
If there was a moment to back up his father’s claims, it came in the 2020-21 season, which James had ended up playing an age group from the one he should have been in. Technically, there were never any questions about his ability, every end-of-season report he got was positive, but there was always the concern over whether he would be ready for the rigors of men’s football.
“Some people can take it in the wrong way because playing down is not ideal – you want to be playing up,” the teenager known as ‘JJ’ says. “I did not see it like that. I saw it as a place where I could be the best player and try things. I learned to communicate better, to be more vocal, and to lead. ”
Still, the journey he has since taken was not expected.
Last summer, when Birmingham’s first team were put through their paces by former Royal Marine turned TV personality Ant Middleton on the beach of Troon in Scotland, James was at Wast Hills, wondering what playing football for a living would be like.
When the seniors returned from their pre-season camp north of the border, his first steps of genuine progression were made. Finally, as he turned 17 that July, James was growing and filling out.
“I moved up into the under-18s, but the games felt too easy for me,” the midfielder recalls. “Then I played three under-23 games and it wasn’t long before one of the coaches called me over for a first-team session. I trained and thought that I just did OK but, the next day, the gaffer (manager Lee Bowyer) asked me to come back. ”
Bowyer’s instructions to the academy staff in late October, as the summer temperatures began to drop with the arrival of autumn, were short and simple. “Get me that blond kid back,” he ordered. James returned as requested, impressed again, and was called up to the manager’s office for a few short words to follow.
“On that same day I trained, he (Bowyer) told me I was in the squad. He said, ‘Pick your number’. The next day, I made my debut against Bristol City. ”
How quickly things can change in football. This was a player way down the list of potential academy graduates just last year, yet now he’s tied down on a professional contract and preparing for a second season playing in the Championship.
Speak to anyone within the academy or first-team set-ups at Birmingham and they will have only good words for the James family. Parents noted how Tony would often stand on the sidelines, watching quietly and away from the huddle of other parents, when Jordan was playing for the club’s development teams.
He is not a pushy father, but simply one who wants the best for his son.
“If ever he didn’t fancy football, I wouldn’t have taken him,” he says.
Now, though, the 43-year-old takes great pride in sharing words of wisdom with other families who ask about the journey; and after such a successful season for his son, the queries keep coming.
And what about “JJ” himself? What does a kid thrust into the limelight a year after leaving school do with this new-found status?
“Keep working hard and looking at ways to improve,” says James senior. “I do not want too many other distractions.”
For a youngster who does not go out often and enjoys the simple things in life, there is one other “love” aside from football.
“Trainers!” he laughs.
Mum Vicky thought they would have to build an extension on the house at one point to store them all. “His trainers need a room of their own,” she says. James smiles and admits: “At the start, it was a problem. Too many trainers! ”
To relax, James likes to play golf: sometimes with his father, or with an old school friend who is enrolled on a football course at college.
He recently passed his driving test and likes the new-found freedom that gives him. “It’s also saving Dad a lot of money on petrol,” he laughs, after their 10 years of shuttling between Hereford and Birmingham.
Perhaps an analysis of Chelsea and England midfielder Mason Mount gives a better insight into his character.
Mount was fresh in his mind when James chose shirt No 19 before that debut as a late substitute in a 3-0 home win over Bristol City.
“He’s my favorite player at the moment, so 19 just felt right,” James says. “Every time I watch him, he’s the hardest worker on the pitch and that’s a really big thing for me.
“He’s got so much quality and he brings so much. I like how he can go back and forward, and I think that’s similar to my game. “
Players need grit and determination to play for Birmingham. It’s warming, then, that James enjoyed the battle in a 3-1 defeat at Millwall in December, in just his second senior start.
“I loved it,” he says. “Millwall are loud and aggressive, but I think I showed a bit of personality. I was called all sorts of names but I blocked it out, and showed that I can go there and do my job. ”
Speaking of supporters, the ones at St Andrew’s demand effort and energy from their players, and manager Bowyer knows all about that from his time as a player for the club. The former Leeds, West Ham, Newcastle and England midfielder has helped James immensely with tips and advice on how to operate in the center of the park.
The youngster would not know the level Bowyer himself was at as a 17-year-old, ripping it up for Charlton Athletic in the second tier and earning a move to Leeds at 19 that made him the sport’s most expensive British teenager at the time.
“He doesn’t talk much about his career, but he’s been unbelievable with me,” James says. “He puts different rules on me in training; usually, two-touch only. He’s helped me with my positioning and toughened me up a little.
“He’s taught me how to be clever and how to deal with some of the difficult things in the game, like staying down, and things you only learn when you get older. I have a lot to thank him for. ”
For all the positives – James has watched his first, and so far only senior goal against Stoke City in February “over and over”, and is targeting more next season – there have been difficult times and periods where he’s had to stand tall.
Losing 6-1 away to Blackpool in April was one painful experience. “In youth football, if you lose by that scoreline, you just go home and it’s done,” he admits. “That was a big wake-up call. A real learning experience. ”
In a dressing room full of big characters, James has also had to grow up quickly. He recalls the nerves before his first away game, at Hull City in late November, when he was told to perform an initiation song in front of the rest of the team.
“I chose Drake – Hold On, We’re Going Home. The problem is, when you’ve got Troy Deeney in your squad, it’s not good! Troy was shouting and saying it was embarrassing. It was harder than my driving test. Worse than my debut. It was bad. ”
A special moment for JJ. 💙 pic.twitter.com/a0bVhagwbr
– Birmingham City FC (@BCFC) February 20, 2022
As the youngest player in the squad, James has faced other difficulties – like picking a seat on the coach for away games.
“I was next to the coffee machine, making all the coffees,” he says, laughing. “I knew I had to earn some respect from the players but they started to treat me a bit different when they saw what I was about.”
No doubt, veteran striker Deeney has played a leading role in the integration process. The former Watford captain and lifelong Birmingham fan sets high standards but also mixes humor with genuine care and consideration for the youngsters at the club.
Tony, who is closer in age to Deeney than to his son, is particularly grateful for the 33-year-old’s daily guidance.
“He’s helped me come out of my shell,” James admits. “He’s been so helpful. It’s great to have him around. Gards (29-year-old midfielder Gary Gardner) is also great to have on the team. He’s so dynamic and aggressive. A really nice guy off the pitch but on it, all he wants to do is win. I would not like to misplace a pass to him! ”
Now at a wonderful age where youthful exuberance is soon to mix with adult responsibility, James would be lying if he did not feel the pressure building on his broadening shoulders.
“Being an adult scares me a little, but I won’t change anything,” James says. “Making the first team at such a young age, it changes the way you look at things. I feel like I have to be a man already. It’s made me confident. ”
This summer, the aim for James is to continue to bulk up. He’s working through a carefully-structured weightlifting routine and speaks to a nutritionist who advises him on the best foods to maximize growth.
He has added protein shakes to his diet but even the pleasurable-sounding job of consuming more calories has been a bit of a challenge.
“I know what I need to do to get better, so I’m working through a schedule and looking forward to the proper training sessions returning,” he says.
James flies out to Portugal with the squad next month for his first full senior pre-season camp, before the 2022-23 campaign kicks off on the weekend of July 30-31.
Sometimes, he says, he still pinches himself to check if it’s all really happening.
“It’s just an honor, isn’t it?” he says.
(Top photo: Tony Marshall / Getty Images)