Shrewsbury Town have only faced Manchester United once. The League One club have nevertheless played an improbable, if indirect, part in the rise of two probable United colleagues next season. A comfortable United win in the FA Cup in February 2016 came at a cost as Jesse Lingard and Will Keane joined a lengthy injury list. When Anthony Martial was hurt in the warm-up three days later, a debutant was parachuted in against FC Midtjylland. Marcus Rashford scored twice.
Some 18 months later, Shrewsbury terminated the loan of a young Swansea City forward. Daniel James had only been at the New Meadow for 63 days. He had failed to make a first-team appearance. Shrewsbury soon decided they would rather fill up their allocation of five loanees with Norwich City’s Ben Godfrey instead.
Two years on, that self-same Daniel James is on the brink of joining United for an initial £15 million (Dh70m). Like Rashford, it feels an unlikely path for two who nevertheless reached elite level at an early age. The temptation is to wonder how others missed evidence of their abundant potential. The 21-year-old’s route feels more remarkable as Yeovil were reportedly the only club interested in him last summer. Instead, the Glovers’ season finished with relegation from the Football League and James’ with interest from Old Trafford.
It is a swift journey from unknown to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first signing. Young, quick, attacking and British, he looks a symbolic figure, epitomising the new manager’s ethos. He feels the fresh face of a retro project.
Fittingly, given his turn of pace – he has been clocked at 36 kph, though he claims Kylian Mbappe is quicker than him – he has emerged quickly. Opportunities were fashioned by Swansea’s relegation from the Premier League, a clearout and the appointment of the progressive Graham Potter as manager. The statistics of his first season, of six goals in 39 games, were less notable than the 84-yard, 8.48-second sprint to score against Brentford; by April’s encounter with Stoke City, two defenders were sent off for failed attempts to halt him. “That probably sealed the potential Man United move,” said Joe Allen, the Stoke midfielder and a Wales teammate. “He caused carnage. It was one of the best individual performances I have seen.”
James almost joined another United. He was pictured in a Leeds United shirt before Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins pulled the plug on a January deadline-day move to Elland Road – a decision vindicated by the summer’s more lucrative switch. James was born in Yorkshire – sadly, his Welsh father, Kevan, died last month – and signed for Swansea from Hull City for an initial £72,000, but belongs to a lineage of Welsh wingers. He scored on his first competitive start for his country against Slovakia in March. Once again, though, his acceleration caught the eye.
“When you’ve got that raw pace, you’re a threat at any level,” said Ryan Giggs, the Wales manager and United’s record appearance-maker. Yet this may be a tale of three Welsh wide men. James’ arrival suggests Gareth Bale will never go to Old Trafford. It indicates a shift in policy, away from the failed Galactico approach. He looks the anti-Alexis Sanchez, a player whose best years are ahead of him.
And he arrives when there is a vacancy on the right of the United attack. The out-of-contract Juan Mata may leave. The versatile Lingard was only intermittently effective last season. When Sanchez joined and Henrikh Mkhitaryan left, United had too many options on the left and too few on the right. James can play on the either flank but the right winger has suddenly become the right man in the right place; for him and for Solskjaer, desperate to give United a forward-thinking reboot.