Jimmy Langley was that rare being in professional football during the middle years of the last century a flamboyant full-back renowned for his impeccable sportsmanship. Not for him the grim, frowning, overtly physical approach which characterised many of his contemporaries. The ebullient Londoner was a hugely accomplished performer who took his work seriously enough to earn three England caps, but still he conveyed the engaging impression of playing the game for fun.
Even in the heat of the most frenetic action, an ear-to-ear grin was prone to crease his homely features, and during his pomp with Fulham for eight years from 1957, he was invariably at the heart of dressing-room banter with the numerous Craven Cottage characters of that era. Reportedly most of the verbal cut-and-thrust between Langley and the likes of the winger Trevor “Tosh” Chamberlain and club chairman Tommy Trinder, the comedian, tended to be good-hearted, but it was never less than wickedly irreverent.
On the field, unlike less expansive flank defenders, Langley was ever-ready to try something enterprisingly different. He was adept at sliding tackles which seemed to go on forever and spectacular bicycle-kick clearances which required astonishingly acrobatic contortions to complete.
Occasionally, Langley caused palpitations among team-mates and supporters alike by outrageously delicate manipulation of the ball when besieged by opposition forwards inside his own penalty box, and his swashbuckling left-flank attacking forays, rendered all the more eye-catching by his distinctive bandy-legged gait, sometimes left gaps which colleagues had to race to fill.
Still, he was quick and skilful enough to be caught out only rarely and there were few wingers who could give him a chasing, although Chelsea’s Peter Brabrook did cause him more problems than most. Even then, “Gentleman Jim” tended not to resort to violence, although he was no soft touch, and feisty opponents such as Blackpool’s Arthur Kaye could easily find themselves propelled beyond the touchline at high velocity by a trademark Langley slide.
A beautifully crisp striker of the ball with his favoured left foot, he was an expert penalty-taker, becoming only the second full-back in Football League history to reach half a century of goals Stan Lynn of Aston Villa and Birmingham City was the first. Then there were his throw-ins, almost as long as corner-kicks, testimony to his wiry strength and capable of creating havoc among unwary defences.
Yet for all his ultimate longevity he left the professional game after playing some 650 matches in 15 seasons Langley had been a slow starter. As a teenager he played at non-League level for Yiewsley, Hounslow Town, Uxbridge and Hayes before joining Brentford, then in the League’s top division, as an amateur in 1946. He was rejected as being too small by the Griffin Park boss Harry Curtis, and returned to the lower level, first with Ruislip and then, after demob from National Service with the Army in 1948, Guildford City.
His League breakthrough finally arrived when he joined Second Division Leeds United as a left-winger in the summer of 1952, but despite scoring on his debut in a 2-2 home draw with Bury, he failed to carve a niche at Elland Road and switched to Brighton & Hove Albion of the Third Division (South) in July 1953.
At the Goldstone Ground he was converted successfully into a left-back, and soon shone so insistently that he won representative honours, three outings for England “B” and selection for the Football League against the Irish League in October 1956. After twice tasting the disappointment of narrowly missing promotion with the Seagulls, whom he captained for two years, the 28-year-old accepted a career-changing 12,000 move to Fulham, then in the second tier, in 1957.
He settled quickly in west London, relishing the atmosphere in an attractive side marshalled by the masterful midfield general Johnny Haynes. In 1957/58, Langley excelled as never before, featuring prominently as Fulham reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where they were eliminated by a patched-up Manchester United still reeling after the recent Munich air disaster only after a replay.
However, Langley had done enough to impress the England manager Walter Winterbottom, who was in need of a left-back following the death of Roger Byrne at Munich and called up Langley for his full international debut against Scotland at Hampden Park that April. He gave a creditable account of himself in a swingeing 4-0 victory, but then missed a penalty as England beat Portugal 2-1 at Wembley before suffering in a 5-0 reverse against Yugoslavia in Belgrade, where his immediate opponent, Aleksandar Petakovic, bagged a second-half hat-trick. After that he was dropped, never to be selected again; his international tenure had ended after 22 days.
Nothing daunted, he maintained a lofty standard with Fulham in 1958/59 as the team, now managed by Bedford Jezzard, finished as runners-up in the Second Division, thus securing elevation to the top tier. Thereafter, despite the occasional brush with relegation, Langley helped Fulham consolidate in the First Division over the next half-decade, during which highlights included his goal in the 1962 FA Cup semi-final replay defeat by Burnley and selection for the London side which lost to Barcelona in the final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.
Despite celebrating his 36th birthday in 1965, Langley remained in jaunty form and many fans were surprised when he was released that summer by a new boss, Vic Buckingham, who was seeking to construct a younger team. Not long before his exit, though, there was a tribute from an unexpected source. Stoke City’s recently knighted Sir Stanley Matthews, who had just turned 50, planned one last League appearance and scanned the Potters’ remaining fixtures for a suitable finale. The great outside-right wanted as his marker a man he could trust not to dish out brutal treatment, and who was not himself in the first flush of youth. He chose Langley, and bowed out in honourable combat with the Fulham number three, whose day was spoiled only slightly by Stoke’s 3-1 victory.
In July the still-sprightly left-back joined Third Division Queen’s Park Rangers in a £5,000 deal, but he was not looking for an easy billet to wind down his career. Thus he was ever-present as Alec Stock’s men finished third in the table in 1965/66 and missed only a handful of games as they climaxed the following campaign by lifting the title and beating West Bromwich Albion of the top division in the first League Cup final played at Wembley.
Langley, now 38, had showed no sign of flagging against much younger opponents, but he was freed at season’s end. Still as effervescent as ever, he was not ready to set aside his boots, and soon he became player-boss of non-League Hillingdon Borough, whom he led to the FA Trophy final in 1971. His team lost 3-2 to Telford after leading 2-0, but the irrepressible 42-year-old consoled himself by reflecting that he might have been the oldest man to appear in a recognised final at Wembley.
In August 1971 he started a coaching stint with Crystal Palace before returning to Hillingdon as club administrator in 1972, filling that role for the next 13 years.