‘I started to play safe at Man Utd – and safe is dangerous in the position I play’

Cristiano Ronaldo will not be the only player in line for a rapturous reception this weekend. Daniel James is the man who made way for Ronaldo at Manchester United but, while his £30 million move to Leeds on deadline day marks a new chapter in his career, the Wales winger could be forgiven for feeling like he is also rolling back the clock in some respects.

It is no exaggeration to say this was a transfer two and a half years in the making and, as James prepares to finally make his Leeds debut against Liverpool at Elland Road on Sunday, 24 hours after Old Trafford welcomes back Ronaldo, excitement about what the future holds is partly informed by what happened in the past.

Barely a fortnight after Marcelo Bielsa’s original attempt to sign James collapsed shortly before the transfer window closed in January 2019, the player was back at Elland Road in Swansea colours and, to this day, he has never forgotten the reception he received from the Leeds faith when substituted in the 68th minute of that Championship match. It has certainly whet his appetite for what may follow.

“Two and a half years ago I nearly signed for the club and a couple of weeks later I played there with Swansea and had goosebumps that day because I’ve never experienced in a game someone chanting an opposition player’s name,” James recalls.

“It was a moment where you’re almost floating above your body and thinking ‘Is this actually happening?’. I remember coming off and getting a bigger applause than when [the Leeds striker] Patrick Bamford came off soon after.

“So going through that, having been on the other team then, it’s going to be great to see what it’s like now I’m actually playing for Leeds. I can’t wait to be at Elland Road.”

To suggest the pursuit of James was an obsession for Bielsa is an understatement. When the Leeds coach held his now famous Spygate press conference in which he spent 66 minutes detailing his analysis techniques in the wake of the storm over a club intern being dispatched to snoop on Derby training, a laptop file bearing James’s name was spotted on the overhead projector screen behind the Argentine. James can have no complaints about not feeling the love from Leeds but, despite being the most expensive signing in their history and an object of Bielsa’s desire for so long, he is not expecting any preferential treatment.

Over the past week, he has been picking the brains of the Leeds forward Tyler Roberts on international duty with Wales, who face Estonia on Wednesday hoping for another vital win just three days after a Gareth Bale hat-trick inspired a dramatic 3-2 comeback victory over Belarus in the pursuit of a place at next year’s World Cup. He has also been studying the demands Bielsa places on his wide players and hopes the club will be the ideal fit for his playing style. But James – who grew up in the Yorkshire village of South Cave, an hour east of Leeds – is not anticipating the transition to Bielsa-ball to be without its challenges. 

“It’s great for him to still believe in me after two and a half years,” he said. “I’ve spoken to Tyler to get a bit of insight and I’m trying to do as much research while I’m away to get an insight into how players in my positions play and what actions they make. I think you always want a little bit of insight before you go in about how things work but everyone knows from the outside that it’s hard work.

“But you’ve seen with the players he’s had over the years how much he’s improved them and that’s the thing I’m looking forward to most – seeing how he sees football. He obviously thinks I can fit in that system.

“But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m going to walk into that team. Hopefully I can adapt quickly to the system but I think it’s going to take me a little while. It’s very tactical but he’s got a way of playing that I feel suits me.”

It is a challenge you expect James to take in his stride. His affable manner belies a steely determination and any pressures he faces may pale by comparison to the circumstances he was forced to deal with around the time of his move to Old Trafford, aged just 21 and with only a season of senior football at Swansea under his belt.

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