It was February 2019 when Daniel James went viral playing for Swansea City. In February 2021, he was scoring for Manchester United in a 3-1 Premier League victory over Newcastle. It’s been a remarkable rise for the 23-year-old that has been full of dips and even stagnation since he joined the Red Devils in a £15m deal 20 months ago.
James shot to fame for the Swans in an FA Cup tie against Brentford. Blocking a ball deep in his own half, the youngster put his head down and turned the jet turbos on. His only intention was to race towards goal. James sped away from a helpless Bees rearguard with such velocity, he looked like a player in a computer game. The pace didn’t look real. He approached the finish line like Usain Bolt and went on to score with aplomb.
Fans were excited when a five-year deal with United was announced. He was seen as a player for the future who could inject energy into the present team. On his competitive debut, it seemed as though the hype had been justified as his late goal put the icing on the cake of a 4-0 victory over Chelsea. He then added another two strikes in his next three matches. James was the real deal, doing the business on the grandest of stages for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
However, while he was the club’s assist king when football was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a seven-month goal drought led to doubts over his long-term future at Old Trafford. That’s what happens when you play for Manchester United. There is no time for patience, no acceptance of slow periods since the stakes are simply too high. At Manchester United, you have to be at your best and win every week. He’s been in and out of the team this campaign and linked with a number of temporary moves away.
Had James played at, say, Leeds United, who were one of the teams reportedly showing interest this season, any displays under 7/10 would go under the radar. He would be able to train and focus without that pressure cooker atmosphere which must surely envelope players at United. The glare is heavy on each and every player in a Manchester United squad. If one guy isn’t at it, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows keeping him in the team will come down on him. Young players can’t be given free rein to make their mistakes.
“Dan takes a lot of knocks but gets up, gets on with it and demands the ball back,” Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, his manager for Wales, said of the winger shortly after he signed for the club.
“United fans like players who like to attack, who gets the fans off their feet - and he’s somebody who does that. He’s added goals and assists, which is a winger’s game. He will get better and better — and I’m pleased for him.”
High praise indeed, and on Sunday James continued his recent return to scoring form which had seen him net against Southampton and Real Sociedad in his two previous run-outs, controlling the ball and rifling it home against the Magpies. The delight, and relief, was clear to see. It was the crucial go-ahead goal that would lead them to victory, with Bruno Fernandes’ penalty rounded out the 3-1 win. After Alain Saint-Maximin had ruled out Marcus Rashford’s first-half strike United needed some inspiration, and James delivered it.
“He never disappeared. He has been working hard behind the scenes and always been available," said Solskjaer afterwards when asked about James' fluctuating fortunes as a United player. "He is always a player you can use in different areas with his energy and pace.
“We work with him, we try to help everyone but of course Dan came from the Championship, he hit a few goals in the first games and it is bound to take some energy from you. He has knuckled down and really worked to get back to full fitness but maybe more so confidence, to believe in himself."
The Welshman can be a useful United player for years to come and win the medals he craves, whether that means playing 38 games a season or being an impact player in 20. Big clubs, with big squads, have room for all types of contributions. For James, as for United, progress is being made; it’s just that success might have to come tomorrow rather than today.