Daniel James celebrates scoring for Manchester United.

Opinion: James should be proud of first year in Red

Friday 12 June 2020 09:00

I remember listening to a football phone-in show the day Daniel James signed for Manchester United, exactly a year ago today, on 12 June 2019. The source of debate on this particular show centred around how many Premier League starts our new signing would make in the upcoming campaign. The general consensus? Less than 10…

I have to admit, I thought similar about the new recruit from Swansea City. Not that there was any doubting Dan’s ability and work rate, but having played just half a season’s worth of football in the Championship before joining the Reds, it was only natural to assume he wouldn’t quite be ready to immediately step into the first team.

Despite that, the early signs in pre-season were good – not just in training, where straight away Dan impressed his team-mates with his skill and speed – but in our Tour games, against the likes of Perth Glory and Internazionale.
Relive Dan's debut-day strike for United.
However, when the season did finally get up and running, the attacker had to settle for a place on the bench against Chelsea on the opening weekend. That grey August afternoon at Old Trafford was memorable for a number of reasons: a crushing 4-0 win over our old rivals, Pogba’s passing, Rashford’s finishing, but it was James’s 16-minute cameo that stole the spotlight for most.

Brought on with the score at 3-0, our no.21 certainly wanted to leave his mark on proceedings, and when Paul Pogba released the winger on the edge of the box he had one thought on his mind: shoot.

It certainly wasn’t the cleanest of finishes, but Dan, and the 73,000-odd supporters in the Theatre of Dreams didn’t care. After a summer of family loss for James, the emotion spilt over in his celebrations. It truly was a touching moment to see the euphoria that accompanied that goal and it remains one of my personal highlights of the season so far.

After that, it seemed to be a doddle for Dan, who took the Premier League in his stride. A maiden top-flight start followed eight days later, in a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers, before James netted against Crystal Palace the subsequent week.
Dan capped off a fabulous opening month as a Red by smashing in a sensational strike against Southampton on 31 August, meaning our summer signing had bagged three in his first four Premier League games. That strike was ultimately voted our Goal of the Month for August with Dan unsurprisingly scooping the Player-of-the-Month trophy to boot.

His excellent form even continued into the international scene, with the wideman scoring a superb effort for Wales against Belarus in early September. Suddenly, Dan was being spoken about as one of the world’s brightest young talents and that football phone-in seemed laughable.

Nevertheless, the youngster remained grounded. “I’m loving football at the minute,” he said at the time. “It’s started well but it’s something I have to keep continuing to do.”

After such an encouraging start to life at Old Trafford, soon Dan found opposition defenders keeping an ever-more watchful eye on him. Naturally, he found less time on the ball in the coming weeks, and fewer shooting opportunities followed. Understandably, the goals dried up a bit, but the impressive performances did not.

Against Liverpool and Sheffield United, Dan’s inch-perfect crosses led to easy finishes for his team-mates, while his link-up play with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial was outstanding during October’s trip to Carrow Road.
Watch Dan's best bits so far from 2019/20.
Even when not directly creating or scoring, Dan’s pace and direct dribbling has given countless defenders sleepless nights this season, including the likes of Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. Often, the opposition have simply resorted to fouling the youngster in order to stop him.

Even the most experienced professionals struggle to maintain the highest-possible standards over a season, and there is no shame that Dan’s form dropped a little over January and February. This was, after all, a lad not expected to reach double figures for Premier League starts in 2019/20.

But in those winter months, the former Swansea man’s effort, desire and commitment did not drop for a second, and everyone associated with United knew Dan’s form would return.
“It doesn't matter, scoring goals. It's the way you're playing, that's more important and that's what young players don't realise,” Scott McTominay recently told his team-mate. 

“When you're coming through, you think you're in a rich vein of form and you've got to keep that going and keep those levels. But, as you learn and stuff like that, you begin to notice how you keep playing well, you notice it.

“It’s a culture change. You have to adapt to your surroundings, it's not just going to be a straight click. You're finding your feet in the Premier League, one of the toughest in the world, so it's not like clockwork or dead easy,” he added.
The winger scored in our last game before lockdown.

After a tough winter, Dan’s form was steadily on the rise again during the early spring. Excellent Premier League showings at Old Trafford against Watford and Manchester City were capped off by a great strike against LASK in our final game before football was brought to a halt, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

For Dan, the Premier League’s hiatus couldn’t have come at a worse time, just when the Welshman was beginning to again show the type of form he demonstrated in the season’s opening month.

But a well-rested, hungry James, who has had time to reflect on his first year at United, could be a real threat when the season again resumes next week. The winger is not averse to proving his doubters wrong, be that now, at Swansea, or even at the start of the season…

Oh and, by the way, Dan’s started 25 of our 29 league games this campaign – not a bad opening 12 months for anyone at Old Trafford, let alone an untested youngster.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.