The smile on Daniel James’ face has been hard to dislodge since he signed for Manchester United earlier this summer.
The 21-year-old has the wide-eyed wonderment of someone who still can’t quite take it all in. Here he is, signing for one of the biggest football clubs in the world, catching the eye of his teammates in training and winning fans all over the world with the grin that has barely left his face since he signed a five-year contract with United last month.
There’s certainly been a lot to take in for the Wales winger. This time last year he’d played 28 minutes of senior football. Then 20, it didn’t look like the path to stardom was clearly lit for James .
But fortunes can turn quickly in football. James made his Championship debut in August and hasn’t looked back since, often travelling too quickly to even consider turning around.
He’s been a breath of fresh air at United this summer, but two years ago he walked into another new club and struggled to make quite the same impact.
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When Swansea sent James on loan to Shrewsbury in July 2017 it was meant to be his first taste of senior football, but he returned to South Wales after just over a month in Shropshire, failing to make a first team appearance.
It was a blow to James and at that stage of his career the future seemed far from certain, the thought of a move to Manchester United in less than two years couldn’t have been further from his mind.
James’ electrifying pace was already an open secret in football circles two years ago, but he arrived at Shrewsbury, having been watched for Swansea’s Under-23s, carrying an injury, which set his progress back, and as the start of the League One season approached there were concerns he might not quite be ready for a hectic campaign in a physical league.
“He came in during pre-season and he’d had an injury,” remembers Shrewsbury Town chief executive Brian Caldwell.
“We went through the rehab and started playing in pre-season but there was a feeling at the time that he wasn’t going to be able to handle the physicality of League One. It’s a totally different league from even the Championship and it can be very physical and there’s a lot of games.”
James had joined up with his teammates ahead of a training camp in Portugal but was still recovering from a hernia problem so was already playing catch-up in pre-season.
He featured in a couple of pre-season friendlies and a reserves game against Walsall. It was in that fixture that his rapid pace really caught the eye, but by then talks to end the loan agreement were already going on.
“We spoke to Swansea about it and we didn’t want to waste their time or the player’s time, so we arranged for him to go back there and try and further this career back at his own club,” said Caldwell.
“We terminated the loan before he’d played a competitive game for us, he played a bit in pre-season.”
Shrewsbury enjoyed some very successful loans in the 2017/18 season. United goalkeeper Dean Henderson impressed in League One, earning the step-up to Sheffield United last season, while Ben Godfrey spent a campaign on loan from Norwich. Last season he was a regular for the Canaries and has been linked with a move to United as well.
But it didn’t work out for James, not that he let the setback derail his career. Tomorrow he’ll walk out at Perth Glory’s Optus Stadium to play his first pre-season game for United , two years on from a loan move to League One that turned sour for him.
“In football you just never know what is around the corner, we’ve had players who have transformed their careers here with a good season,” said Caldwell.
“You have to understand in football that one rejection or one bad spell doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Everybody has a different opinion of players and players mature differently as well.
“We’re all delighted for Dan that he’s made the big step up. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for him when he was with us, but we hope it works out for him now.
“He came to us a young age and it’s difficult to tell at that point how it’s going to pan out for him.”