Daniel James pointed to the sky in celebration.
His debut goal for Manchester United was being watched by over 73,000 fans at Old Trafford and many more at home on TV. But for the 21-year-old there was only one person to think about —his father.
James has had a tough summer. He was on the verge of completing a dream move to Old Trafford when his father passed away suddenly, and his life was turned upside down. To their credit, United afforded the player and his family time to grieve.
“Every day, I miss him,” James said. “He always drove me on when he was here. There are times when I am a bit down about it, but what he would say is just keep playing and working hard. I know he is looking down on me now.”
It was a bitter blow for a young man that has ascended rapidly. James joined Swansea from Hull City in 2014 for £72,000, but his career in Wales didn’t truly kick off until last summer.
His emergence into the first team was as much about necessity as it was by design. The arrival of Graham Potter, a manager willing to give opportunities to young players, and a fire sale at Swansea in the wake of relegation, opened up a spot for James. His blistering speed was a unique gift that could be devastating when transitioning from defence to attack.
Amazingly, he was slated to join Yeovil Town on loan, only for Potter to spot a potential that now calls Man United home.
James made his first appearance in the third game of the Championship season against Birmingham City, and slowly worked his way from the substitutes bench to the starting XI. By January, he had attracted interest from then-promotion favourites Leeds United. On the final day of the transfer window the two clubs agreed on a deal in the region of £10million. As James sat at Elland Road waiting for things to be confirmed Swansea changed their mind and pulled the plug —much to the frustration of the player himself.
If James’ emergence feels meteoric, it is because it is. The previous summer, in 2017, he joined Shrewsbury Town on loan for the season. At the time he was finishing his recovery from a double hernia operation.
“It’s a little bit of how he’s doing in training,” Shrewsbury manager Paul Hurst said at the time. “I don’t think he’s quite up to speed. We’re looking at maybe a (practice) game this week that’ll maybe give him an opportunity to get some minutes and show what he can do. But at the minute I feel that what I’m going with on the pitch and on the bench is ahead of Dan at this time.”
Eventually, the deal was mutually terminated, with James not making a single competitive appearance for the club. It has since spawned headlines about James being a ‘flop’ in League One amid questions of whether he could handle the step up.
In truth, that doesn’t give the full picture, and it was more a case of bad timing. Hurst was limited to five loanees in his matchday squad, and the signing of James took the club up to that limit. That summer Shrewsbury had also been keen to sign Norwich City defender Ben Godfrey on loan.
The Canaries initially rebuffed their request, but towards the end of August, they relented. After Godfrey arrived, the club had six loanees, which would mean leaving at least one out from every matchday squad.
Barring injury, there would be little playing time for one of that group. Given that James was still regaining fitness and ‘struggling to get up to speed’ he was always likely to be the odd man out.
It would be unfair to call James a failure at Shrewsbury. His time there and his emergence into the Swansea first-team last season highlight how much of a role circumstance can play for a youngster trying to break into senior football.
Had one loanee been injured, had Swansea not been relegated, had Huw Jenkins signed off on the deal to Leeds, his path to Old Trafford may have been diverted. Instead, he has been backed by Ryan Giggs to succeed and represents part of the new identity Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is attempting to instill at Manchester United.
The winger is fast, direct, and dynamic, and it is that pace that troubled not only Championship defences last season, but also Manchester City when they met Swansea in the FA Cup.
“It is not for me to announce values and prices,” Potter said. “(But) against Manchester City (in the FA Cup in March) he matches the physicality of Kyle Walker, for example, and runs away from players at that level. That’s a direct comparison against Premier League players at the very top and you can see his quality.”
The hope now for James is that circumstances continue to conspire in James' favor. In return, he will no doubt provide the hard work required to make the step up and deliver on his potential, a potential his father always saw in him.