It’s always a risk covering a great song. Few get it right like Jimi Hendrix with his immortalisation of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ the outliers in a genre littered with toe-curling efforts. So when Manchester United fans started singing the famous Joy Division-inspired Ryan Giggs chant about their summer signing Daniel James, a few eyebrows were raised around the Old Trafford stands.
Football fans have been known to jump the gun at times by latching on to any similarity between emerging talent and a club legend who spent years earning his stripes on the pitch. It’s difficult to keep count of the number of times we’ve heard that the ‘Next Paul Scholes’ or the ‘New Roy Keane’ is on United’s transfer radar or is about to breakthrough from the club’s youth system (and let’s not even get started on the player likened to Duncan Edwards by Sir Alex Ferguson a few years ago).
The actual Roy Keane took exception to inheriting Paul Ince’s title of ‘The Guvnor’ when Ince left United for Inter back in 1995. Fans meant it as a compliment to the young Irishman but the player himself made it clear he intended to be his own man and live in no one’s shadow. The guvnor chant hasn’t been heard at Old Trafford since.
James is no doubt only too happy to have inherited Giggs’ song and it’s probably only a matter of time before the number eleven shirt that his current Wales manager wore with such distinction follows. Few would argue with that in recognition of James’ meteoric rise to prominence in the current United first team, especially given how likeable he is and how much he clearly feels honoured to play for the club.
The immediate similarities between James and Giggs are also the most obvious – he represents Wales at international level, plays on the wing and is absurdly quick. Yet, despite James having made an instant impact in his first few appearances for United with goals against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Southampton, that initial excitement was somewhat quelled by more quiet outings in the following weeks. Injuries to crucial players left the team, as a whole, struggling.
Therefore, those looking to the young Welshman to immediately make that step from promising newcomer to the game-changing sorcerer like Giggs before him may have been disappointed. He lacks that ballerina-like balance that his predecessor possessed, relying far more on his electric pace than Giggs did in his early days. While watching James knock the ball past an opponent before accelerating beyond his grasp is doubtless exciting, it is less enthralling, less magical, less bewitching than the way Giggs used to. In the words of Ferguson – twist defenders’ blood with a dropped shoulder here or a shimmy of the hips there.
That being said, James has already shown improvement in his final ball, his crossing and his vision, linking up increasingly well with teammates such as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, making them a trio increasingly feared by opponents.
The way in which he brushes off the bullying tactics of brutish defenders, who often appear like giants crashing into his tiny frame, is also to be applauded. Against Liverpool, for example, he never stopped racing up and down his wing with the energy and enthusiasm of a Duracell Bunny, unperturbed by the likes of Virgil Van Dijk clattering into him like ferocious waves beating against a dinghy. Such attention from opponents speaks of their inability to deal with him fairly- resorting to intimidation that not worked so far.
James’ rise to first-team prominence since joining from Swansea City has been quicker than those at the club had anticipated. With circumstances as well as James’ excellent form forcing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s hand, it is remarkable to think this is a player only deemed ready to make his Championship debut last season. Opposition fans who laughed at United for shopping in that division over the summer have gone strangely quiet in recent months and while doing so is always a risk, James’ success reflects well on the club’s huge scouting network that was often criticised since Ferguson’s departure.
James is still raw, still naïve and still feeling his way in a new league and a new team only just emerging into Solskjaer’s embryonic vision. At this stage, he’s more karaoke than a cover version of Giggs. United fans have seen enough promise, however, to hope he really will be tearing teams apart for them for many years to come.
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