Daniel James has completed a £15m move to Manchester United but just two summers ago he was being sent back to Swansea by Shrewsbury because he could not get a game. Adam Bate picks up the tale with the help of the man who kept James out of the team in League One…
The rise of Daniel James is a tale as irresistible as some of his runs. At the start of the season he “didn’t really feel like a member of the first team” at Swansea, but that soon changed. He was moments away from a move to Leeds in January. He ends the season as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first signing for Manchester United, the poster boy for a new era at Old Trafford.
Appropriately given his outrageous speed, everything seems to have happened in fast forward for James. His senior Wales debut came in November after making just seven league starts. His solo goal in the FA Cup against Brentford in February then elevated him to another level entirely, alerting the wider world to the prodigious pace that sets him apart.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his career to date is the spell at Shrewsbury that lasted a mere 63 days before being sent back to Swansea without seeing a single minute of first-team action. “Reality hit me,” James has since said of his time at the League One club. “It was a harsh reality but it made me more determined. It was a good experience.”
So what really happened in Shropshire? Should James’ subsequent success be a source of embarrassment for then Shrewsbury boss Paul Hurst? The truth is a little more complicated. Certainly, the youngster’s talent eluded absolutely nobody at the club’s Sundorne Castle training ground. Just ask the man who kept him out of the team.
Alex Rodman made 55 appearances for Shrewsbury that year, scoring nine goals, including one in the play-off final at Wembley. It was a stellar season but even he admits there was one department in which he was no match for the young man who was after his place.
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“I had never really seen pace like that before,” Rodman tells Sky Sports.
“Off the mark, wow. I remember playing against Antonio Valencia for Aldershot in the cup back when he was a young winger and his standing start was unbelievable. You knew he was going down the wing so you would stand a yard off him because of that but he would still drop the shoulder and beat you. You cannot stop it and Dan reminds me a bit of that.
“It was frightening. Scary. I saw it in a reserve game against Walsall. He was outstanding. Then there were the training sessions when he would just pick up the ball and do things that other people can’t do. That’s why clubs like United sign people, because they do things that others can’t. If he gets one-on-one with someone in a foot race there is only one winner.
“If you have a footballing brain on top of that, and he obviously does given what he has shown this year, then it is no wonder that Manchester United have made a move for him. I guess I have to be grateful that he went back because if he had started showing some of the form that he has got now I would have been straight out of the team.”
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James himself has since acknowledged he was not at his best, a hernia operation shortly before his arrival affecting his ability to make a quick impact. “I don’t think I was as fit as I would have liked to be,” he said. But there have also been suggestions on both sides the loan move was not the right one because of Shrewsbury’s robust style of play.
“We were probably a bit more a physical,” adds Rodman. “We were a big and strong team that year at Shrewsbury so starting week in and week out might not have been for him back then. It was just how we set up but in the right team he would be devastating.”
The biggest factor was financial. A loan signing who is not an integral part of the team is an expensive indulgence at that level and Shrewsbury already had five on the books when the opportunity emerged to sign young central midfielder Ben Godfrey from Norwich.
It was one they could not pass up but there was no room in the budget without letting another player leave. So James made way and Godfrey went on to play a huge part in Shrewsbury, the pre-season relegation favourites, finding themselves in the top two at the turn of the year. Only an extra-time defeat at Wembley eventually denied them promotion.
“The central midfield role was probably more important,” explains Rodman. “There was more of a pressing need in the middle of the park. With the success we had, you couldn’t say it was the wrong decision. They didn’t send him back because they thought he was a bad lad or that he couldn’t do it. If he had stayed he would have been a big player for us.”
Instead, James swiftly became a big player for Swansea instead.
Rodman, now at Bristol Rovers, even had time for a brief catch up with his old team-mate when the two clubs drew each other in a cup tie in December. “I had a good chat with him afterwards and he was loving it there,” Rodman said. “He had found his feet. I saw him playing a lone striker role on TV too and it was clear that he had come on so much.
“He is a good lad with a level head and that’s why he has kicked on so much. You kind of expect a young lad to have his head all over the place at that age but he is really level headed. He is a homely type, not someone who is out and about. He is very focused on his football and I think he has grown up a lot this year too.”