James Speirs was born in Govan, Glasgow, on 22nd March, 1886. He worked as a clerk but was a talented footballer and played for Maryhill in the Glasgow Junior league before joining Glasgow Rangers. His debut in the Scottish League came in September 1905. He scored six goals in his first season at the club.
In October, 1906, Speirs married Elizabeth Lennox Maben. He remained at Glasgow Rangers for three years and in 1908, Speirs played for Scotland against Wales. Scotland won 2-1 but Speirs failed to score. Later that year Speirs was transferred to Clyde.
The following year Speirs signed for Bradford City. He became captain and scored the only goal when the team won the FA Cup final against Newcastle United in 1911. The following year Herbert Chapman managed to persuade Leeds City to pay £1,400 for his services. He developed a fine partnership with Billy McCleod and in the 1912-13 season Leeds broke the club record with 70 goals.
On the outbreak of the First World War Speirs enlisted in the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders. He was posted to France in March 1916. After winning the Military Medal for bravery in the field he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.