United old boy hoping to haunt Red Devils at Old Trafford
The FA Cup is all about making dreams come true and Wigan Athletic's Reece James is hoping exactly that happens this afternoon at Manchester United. After 12 months on the sidelines with an ankle injury the left-back is ready to return and Warren Joyce has promised he will try to involve him at some point, though for James the end of a long wait would be only part of the story. The 'dream coming true' bit would apply to actually stepping out in front of a full house at Old Trafford, something James never managed to achieve in his three-year spell at United.
"The only time I ever played there was for the under-21s in a pre-season match against Valencia," James says. "If I can get on, in a real game with a proper crowd, it will be an aim achieved, something I have always wanted to do."
James is not exactly unique in being released by United a few years after being signed up as a promising local teenager, though the two senior games he played for the club tell quite a singular story. It is fair to say the 23-year-old prefers the memory of the first, when he made his United debut on their 2014 pre-season tour of the United States and marked it with a couple of goals against LA Galaxy. It was Louis van Gaal's first match in charge, David Beckham popped by the team hotel to say hello, and United ended up winning 7-0. Perfect. Just like a dream.
"I remember everything about that night," James says. "When I came on I felt nervous, my legs were like jelly, and then as soon as I scored the first goal all the nerves went away and instinct took over. It was just like being back in local league football. It's a memory that will live with me forever."
That is just as well, for his other memory, though equally powerful, is nowhere near as pleasant. A month or so after the American adventure James found himself selected for his first start and his first competitive game, the infamous 4-0 League Cup defeat at MK Dons. If it was the low point of Van Gaal's first season, it was even worse for the ramshackle side he fielded. All 10 of the outfield players who began the game have left the club, including James, who is in no doubt the performance impacted badly on his United career.
"The MK Dons game killed me and I can only fault myself for that," he admits with disarming frankness. "I didn't impress on the night and it was a bad result. It was difficult though. A few of us had been chucked in and it was a squad that had never played together against a team that was really up for it, a good technical side. You look at some of the players they had - Benik Afobe, Dele Alli - and you have to say they are not bad. It was just one of those nights where a mistake leads to the first goal and then you go under a little bit. We needed leaders to pull us through and that night it didn't happen."
James never played for United again and after a couple of loans and a few injuries had moved him further away from the first team he found himself ready to embrace the possibility of finding a new club.
"United is a club you never want to leave, so to make that decision is tough," he says. "I have every admiration for Jesse Lingard, who was and still is a big mate. When he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final last year I was thrilled for him, because he stuck it out at United."
In what was described as a coup for the then League One club, James agreed to join Wigan, playing 24 games before injury struck. He was living with his brother, Matty, who was recovering from a much more serious cruciate injury. Reece missed the final months of Wigan's climb into the Championship, Matty missed the whole of the most successful season in Leicester City's history, which helped keep things in perspective.
That was Gary Caldwell's Wigan, not the present Joyce version. When James heard his new manager was to be his old United reserves coach he was delighted.
"I couldn't wait to work with Warren again," he says. "He used to come and watch me play last season just to see how I was getting on. That's the sort of character he is. We both know how difficult it is going to be at United but we will give it everything we can."
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