Had events turned out differently, Daniel James would have been landing in Perth on Sunday afternoon and beginning the process of shaking off jet-lag in time for Wednesday night’s pre-season encounter between old rivals Leeds and Manchester United at Optus Stadium.
James is still preparing for that game – but as a Manchester United player, rather than the Leeds one it looked like he would be back in January.
“It’s surreal,” the 21-year-old told BBC Sport, with the warm words of new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ringing in his ears after a pleasing debut in the 2-0 friendly win over Perth Glory on Saturday.
“The amount of fans that came to training on Thursday, then those who came to the game against Perth Glory. It just shows the support this club has got. It is amazing really.”
The Ryan Giggs factor
It would be grossly unfair to burden James with the tag of being ‘the next Ryan Giggs’.
There are hardly any players who have achieved half of Giggs’ 13 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues and 963 United appearances.
Nevertheless, Giggs was a key figure in James’ £15m summer arrival at Old Trafford.
It was Giggs who gave the Yorkshire-born wide man his international debut for Wales against Albania in November 2018. And, after James’ proposed move from Swansea to Leeds collapsed on deadline day in January – with the player sitting at Elland Road waiting to sign after completing his medical – it was Giggs who steered his fellow countryman towards Old Trafford.
“He wasn’t bad was he?” said James. “Every young winger looks up to someone like him and he is obviously someone I aspire to be like. As soon as I came into the Wales set-up, he had ambitions for me and, after I joined United, he made a point of speaking to me and telling me to be myself.”
Not just a speed merchant
James has already impressed United staff with his maturity.
After Thursday’s open training session had finished, James willingly signed autographs and posed for selfies for an additional 15 minutes, long after most of his new team-mates had headed off to get changed.
On Saturday, there was no sign of nerves on his debut, although striker Anthony Martial and goalkeeper Sergio Romero made a point of giving the 21-year-old a hug of support before kick-off.
Evidently, speed is James’ major asset. In the process of scoring for Swansea against Brentford last season he ran 84 yards in 8.48 seconds.
But Usain Bolt is fast. It didn’t stop United’s assistant manager Mike Phelan quickly concluding that the record-breaking Jamaican sprinter had zero chance of a career in professional football during his short, but high-profile, spell with the A-League’s Central Coast Mariners.
James’ early days at United have involved working on movement, with and without the ball, the right runs to make, when to cross, when to shoot.
On Saturday, Perth Glory attempted to neutralise that pace by dropping deep and letting their opponents dominate possession. It meant most of James’ bursts were into central positions from wide ones, rather than down the touchline as he prefers.
It is clear Solskjaer intends to base United’s attacking threat around speed.
But, even if Romelu Lukaku eventually leaves for Inter Milan – something fresh uncertainty over Inter striker Mauro Icardi’s future makes more likely – with Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez competing for starting spots, not to mention 17-year-old academy product Mason Greenwood, who looks set to break into the first-team squad, patience may be required before the best is seen of Solskjaer’s first signing as United manager.
“Daniel is sharp,” said the Norwegian. “We will nurture him and he will be exciting to watch in many games.”
James’ vow to make dad Kevan proud
The sadness attached to James’ Old Trafford move is that his dad, Kevan, is not going to be around to see him in red.
Kevan – who James calls his “inspiration” – sadly died days before the winger completed his move north, and he has vowed to his dad to “make you proud”.
He has probably done that already.
Watching James confidently take possession against admittedly limited opponents and run at them with force – and bounce straight back up when one hefty challenge from Joel Chianese cut him down at full speed – it was hard to imagine that less than two years ago he had a loan spell at Shrewsbury cut short after failing to make an impression at first-team level.
James was not fazed by that setback. Neither is he concerned by the seemingly relentless negativity surrounding United at present.
“I didn’t think about that at all,” he said. “When a club like Manchester United come calling you can’t say no.”
Article courtesy of BBC Sport