”He never disappeared.”
It was a seemingly throwaway line from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer about Daniel James’ return to form, yet it revealed so much about the winger’s work ethic, his relationship with his manager and why he’s been able to bounce back.
Of course, you would have been forgiven for forgetting about James, such has been the rarity of his starts for Manchester United over the past year. While others benefitted from football’s three-month break between March and June in 2020, James came back and found game-time hard to come by.
The signs of a slight decline were undoubtedly palpable before lockdown, although some argued James’ rocket-fast start to life at United was just a flash in the pan in any case. The Welshman’s nickname ‘Flash’ took on a double meaning. Some believed opponents had worked him out, after he’d scored three goals in his first four United games following a £15million move from Swansea — and then failed to score in his next 33 appearances.
Solskjaer kept faith with James solidly throughout that period, however, citing his overall contribution to the team as “the best defensive winger in the world” at one stage.
But the rise of Mason Greenwood put pay to James’ first-team role, a change in the side that few could argue with given the teenager’s goal returns.
James admits now that he began to question himself back then.
“There was a moment last season when I wasn’t performing as well as I wanted to,” he said after his goal against Newcastle on Sunday night. “This season I’ve reflected on that as much as I can, reflect on the games and working on the training ground as hard as I can.”
If that was not honest enough, James went on.
“I think I lost my way a bit. I wasn’t playing the same as I did at the start of last season. That’s when I had to look at analysis. I’ve had the right people around me to help me look at that, working with the coaches to get me back to myself and I’d like to think I’ve got there.”
James deserves immense credit for putting in the hard yards behind the scenes to prove he has a future at United, whether that be as a regular starter again or as a very useful squad player.
Solskjaer too is being vindicated for his composed management style and having patience with a player who — it should not be forgotten — was not even in the Swansea team 12 months before he arrived at Old Trafford. To jump from that, to regular playing time at United would have been astonishing. It was not a shock that the former Hull youngster hit a bump in the road.
But Solskjaer and United stood firm amid interest from Leeds United — who famously saw a deal for James fall through in dramatic style in January 2019 — in more than one recent transfer window. They wanted James to develop, and the player himself remained determined to prove himself again at Old Trafford.
“He has been working hard behind the scenes and always been available,” added Solskjaer.
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Manchester United made heavy weather of their 3-1 win over Newcastle, eventually getting the job done at Old Trafford.
Marcus Rashford, Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes were on the scoresheet as United got back to winning ways in the league. They have a Europa League second leg vs Real Sociedad on Thursday.
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“We work with him, we try to help everyone but of course Dan came from the Championship, he hit a few goals in the first games and it is bound to take some energy from you. He has knuckled down and really worked to get back to full fitness but maybe more so confidence, to believe in himself.”
There is something about James that gets supporters on his side. The way he celebrates with gusto after scoring a goal, his boyish smile and his rags to riches tale — it endears him to United fans.
He went from that, to becoming the brunt of many supporters’ jokes during his rough patch of form. And it was hard for him.
But it has been pleasing to see James’ work ethic, and Solskjaer’s careful management of the player, bear fruit in recent weeks. Three goals in his last three games — six in his past nine for club and country — is just a start. But United’s approach might just be paying off with the 23-year-old Wales international.