Shortly after it emerged Manchester United were interested in Daniel James, a football agency touched base with their Welsh talent-spotters for feedback on a name that had hitherto flatlined on Google Trends. They replied it was a ‘joke’ United were preparing to spend more than double what Leeds United thought they had agreed with Swansea in January. The joke is now on them.
It has taken James, 21, three games for club and country to trademark a finish. Coincidentally, he is represented by the same group as Gareth Bale, so an application to copyright a right-footed curler cannot be discounted as another Welsh winger’s ‘brand’ expands.
Unlike Bale, James has an affable confidence and it has not taken United supporters long to embrace him. That video of a tearful James returning home to discover his girlfriend had finally bought a puppy for him on his birthday was certain to get the online demographic onside. Viral content has been supplemented by vital goals.
James was polite and personable when he stopped to chat with reporters in Perth and Shanghai during the pre-season tour. The sudden death of his father, whom accompanied him to Leeds for that proposed winter move, made that euphoric outpouring against Chelsea all the more delightful. United matchgoers have already serenaded James to Ryan Giggs’s Joy Division anthem.
Those who witnessed James’s first training sessions at Carrington said before United flew out to Perth his new teammates ‘could not lay a glove on him’. It was clear on tour there were kinks to iron out and abundant he was not a right winger in a squad lopsided by left wingers. Ironic then, that James crowned his debut with a goal from the right.
A scrappy finish by a beaming debutant as a substitute against Chelsea kick-started United’s season nine years ago. Back when Antonio Valencia was a right winger and not on first-name terms with the first man, he found an unmarked Javier Hernandez inside the six-yard box and the Mexican stretched to boot the ball against his face – and into the net.
That was the first of 20 goals in the campaign simply known as ‘Nineteen’. Hernandez was predictably likened to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (eight goals came via the bench) and was the populists’ choice for the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award in a campaign underpinned by the indomitable Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar’s Indian summer.
Hernandez settled league wins against Stoke, West Brom, Wigan and Everton. Most strikingly, in a mediocre Premier League season where United racked up 80 points and tallied just five away wins, Hernandez scored in all of them.
The irony of the Hernandez signing was it was announced to counter negative news in April 2010. Arjen Robben had swung a left boot to eliminate United from the Champions League and an embittered Sir Alex Ferguson bemoaned the ‘typical Germans’ of Bayern Munich whom all but frog-marched the dismissed Rafael da Silva off the pitch. The next day, United announced they had reached a pre-contract agreement with Chivas for the £6million Hernandez.
Amid under-investment in the squad and supporter discontent over the Glazer family’s ownership, eyes were rolled at an underwhelming and unknown addition (not much has changed, then). There was also widespread scepticism about United buying a Latin American player on the eve of their first tour of the United States in six years, which included a friendly at the new Chivas Stadium in Guadalajara.
The Glazers padlocked the purse strings in 2009-10, blocking moves for Karim Benzema and David Villa, and last month United passed on Paulo Dybala and Christian Eriksen. In both instances, the owners dictated moves for diamonds in the rough.
It should not diminish the out-of-the-box thinking United exercised with Hernandez and James. The club’s chief scout Jim Lawlor spent three weeks in Mexico in February and March prior to the April agreement for Hernandez, whom thanked Lawlor in his farewell message.
“Jim filed a fantastic report on the boy,” Ferguson said. “So last week we sent our club solicitor over there with Jim to do the deal. We’re delighted to sign him.” Giggs juggled coaching Wales with scouting for United by filing glowing reports on James in the spring.
Hernandez allayed concerns he would be as hapless as that other summer 2010 recruit – Bebe – with two tidy goals at that year’s World Cup, his first – naturally, off the bench – defeating a fractured France. That worldwide exposure quashed theories he was a mere marketing tool in the Dong Fangzhuo mould.
Another parallel Hernandez and James share is the Welshman was also present for United Champions League quarter-final disappointment in April. Back when he could stroll around Old Trafford anonymously, James was a guest for the 1-0 loss to Barcelona and shown around the stadium.
By then, he had come to the fore by frightening Manchester City in their FA Cup comeback that must have caused a slight spike in searches for his name. There are still ample similarities with Hernandez to categorise James as the first hidden gem United have happened upon in nine years.
He was a player you had to Google, after all.