Every player has supporters; loved ones, friends, who believe in them, no matter what. But it’s probably fair to say that even Daniel James’ closest confidants and biggest fans are stunned by how seamlessly he’s adapted to life at Manchester United.
Adapt is probably a grossly unfair description of how well the Welshman has progressed since a £15 million summer move from Swansea City. The diminutive, yet dynamic winger, has illuminated the Theatre of Dreams. A place that has required plenty of brightening up in recent years.
United, on the whole, have been hit and miss this season – lurching from impressive triumph to depressing tragedy. Fans must feel like they’re on a rollercoaster – climbing to exciting heights one week, plummeting to their doom the next.
One of the few constants has been James, who has been devilishly difficult for opposition players to deal with. Many have resorted to doing so robustly – the sight of a groggy James gingerly getting up from the turf following another clattering challenge is a familiar one.
But up he does get and just keeps coming back for more.
In 12 games this season the Yorkshire-born flyer has crashed to the ground on average 2.5 times per game, hacked down 30 times in total – making him the fifth most fouled player in the Premier League after Jack Grealish, Wilfried Zaha, John McGinn and United team-mate Scott McTominay.
Besides the thumping challenges ridden, there have been plenty of other obstacles for the 5ft 7in Hull City graduate to negotiate. The overnight pressure of suddenly finding himself on the radar, as a move to one of the world’s biggest clubs will trigger.
An increasing desperation seeping through the Red Devils’ fanbase to perform instantly, at a time when there is perhaps even more scrutiny on United players than at any other time in the Premier League era.
James also had to overcome being hurriedly and inaccurately judged a diver. Penalised for simulation in back to back games earlier in the season against Wolves and Crystal Palace.
All this and coming to terms, at 21-years-of-age, with the sudden death of his father Kevan in the midst of negotiations with the club.
The pressure might have broken most people. But it has only galvanised James. He is thriving.
We all knew how fast he was. One clip of him torching the entire Brentford team on the way to a length of the field goal in a 4-1 FA Cup fifth round win in February went viral. It’s entitled ‘The Match That Made Manchester United Buy Daniel James’ on YouTube and has earned 798,000 views.
Another showing his exploits in the 3-2 quarter-final defeat against Manchester City – Swansea were victims of poor refereeing – has got 2.4 million.
Many skeptical United fans and pundits were critical though, demanding that more would be required in order to thrive at the Premier League level. Especially at a huge club with a crumbling empire.
But James has enjoyed a decorated start to life at the Theatre – even if United have wistfully been papering over the cracks for the most part.
Of the three signings made this summer, everyone – surely even James – would have been expecting him to be gradually integrated into the fold. Yet his 985 minutes played is sixth most among team-mates and he has appeared more than fellow new recruit Aaron Wan-Bissaka – though the young England right-back has had a spell on the sidelines.
In 2020 is when United fans would surely be able to judge James. And yet he is the team’s joint second highest Premier League scorer with 3 – trailing only Marcus Rashford (6). His efforts against Southampton and Palace have been spectacular too, showing excellent execution.
He scored a stunner for Wales in just his second cap, a 1-0 opening Euro 2020 qualifying victory over Slovakia in March. His winner in September’s 1-0 friendly victory over Belarus was even more eye-catching.
He is also joint second in league assists for United… alongside £89m French World Cup-winner Paul Pogba. His tenacious workrate, bravery and composure on the ball are impressive traits, as is his eye for a pass. He rarely makes the wrong decision and his 0.9 key passes per game at United is topped by just six players.
Many thought United’s acquisition of a player destined for fierce rivals Leeds United in last winter’s transfer window smacked of desperation. He would surely flop under the enormity of the challenge ahead.
Yet one more goal will see him match his Championship tally from 2018/19. Five more assists will do likewise. He has only played a third of the 33 league games he did last season.
James won United’s player of the month award for August with a staggering 61 per cent of the vote. He is the only player who has been in the running for the following two months also – receiving 22 and 13 per cent as McTominay won the September and October accolades.
In what has also been a testing period at international level – Dragons boss Ryan Giggs is ushering in a youthful revolution – James has roared.
He lashed what is fast becoming known as his trademark shot against bar and post in Baku on Saturday; Harry Wilson nodding in the rebound to give Wales a 2-0 win against Azerbaijan that puts them on the brink of Euro 2020 qualifying. Beat Hungary in Cardiff on Tuesday and they are through.
During a dark period for United, James, who grew up in the tiny east Yorkshire village of South Cave, has emerged as a dazzling beacon of light.
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