Victor Orta’s avenging relief after Leeds United finally signed Daniel James might be nothing compared to mine, because while Victor felt the night he watched Daniel walk away like a mental scar until he could bring the young winger in through the door again, the whole time James was at Old Trafford I had to keep looking at a cute puppy video and hating it.

Dan James is holding his cute puppy Hugo in front of some balloons that say 'Birthday Happy Daniel', awwww
Artwork by Eamonn Dalton

It was my main discovery of January 2019, when I was researching a player Leeds had all but clinched. Orta and Marcelo Bielsa had their report, the folder spotted on Bielsa’s indiscreet desktop when he was confessing all after Derby County’s Frank Lampard Junior objected to his illicit scouting techniques. Perhaps they routinely, sadly, kept updating it, every graph trending downwards since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer starting telling him, ‘Do it more like Giggsy would have’ every day.

Meanwhile, I faced a similar problem. There in my bookmarks, in my YouTube watch history, taken up and distorted by association by Twitter banter accounts, was the video that gave me the same confidence in Daniel James as Orta’s scouts gave him. It’s on the Swansea YouTube channel and it’s called One Dan and His Dog and it’s Daniel James holding his new puppy, Hugo, in his lap, and telling the story of how they met.

His ‘missus’, otherwise known as Ria, had been refusing to listen to ‘im indoors begging to be allowed a puppy. What a horrible witch she seems to be at this point in the story. But then we see the video she made that went viral on social media, when she was filming Dan coming home from an away match at Rotherham (defeated 2-1 by two late penalties, although James had set up Oli McBurnie for the opener and Swansea had 72% possession). He’s surprised by a ‘Happy Birthday Daniel’ balloon display put up in his front room. And after a few seconds he breathes sharply in because now he’s noticing a tiny puppy, reclining on an ottoman with ribbons round its neck. Ria doesn’t seem so bad now, does she!

We can hear Ria laughing nervously while Daniel is standing in the doorway looking stunned. Maybe she thinks Daniel might hate this cute puppy? Oh that brute, he’d better not! She has to encourage bae like a sheepdog, “Go see!”, and after approaching the puppy, Daniel falls to his knees, takes it in his arms, and cries. Oh lord how he cries. Daniel James is not a brute.

Anyway the puppy is Hugo, and in the Swans TV video a week later Daniel has composed himself sufficiently to talk about the experience, but can’t resist constantly fondling the little dog’s floppy ears, which is absolutely the right thing to do when a little dog has floppy ears. Someone quote-tweeted the video and more than 185,000 people watched it, and Daniel said he was still getting notifications when people were tagging their boyfriends or girlfriends saying, “They need to get ready for Christmas to get them a dog,” which is not the right advice unless that dog is for life. The account that quote-tweeted the video is currently suspended but some of these heartwarming conversations remain in the replies, like one boyf tweeting at his girlf, ‘hint’, and her replying, ‘Get saving for a gaff then u might have more of a chance’, then him asking, ‘Wits a gaff got to do with it’, and her pointing out, ‘Ur own gaff = allowed a dog’, further adding when someone interrupts to suggest getting him a cat instead, ‘He neglects the 3 we have’. Romantic!

Unfortunately, nearly three years down the line, there’s precious little of Hugo on Daniel’s social media. It’s all just heinous photos of him playing for scum that need deleting. Old Trafford must have a ‘no cute pets’ social media policy so one of Pat Bamford’s first jobs should be to encourage Daniel to share more of Hugo with the world, perhaps setting up an all-Hugo Instagram account that can interact cutely with celebrity goldendoodle Duke Bamford. This would be really cute! And it has real life implications too. Pat and Dan can bond while walking their dogs together, Instagramming all the time, while Rodrigo and Rocky De Paul sit together in Madrid, fuming.

It all contributes to the idea that Daniel James is a nice young man who needed rescuing from his evil captors at Old Trafford. He helped this week by displaying his selective hearing skills in an interview with the Telegraph. Some people might say, with hindsight, that Leeds fans singing ‘You’re too shit to play for Leeds!’ at little Daniel a few weeks ago was mean. Songs, though? he says. What songs? He’s casting his mind back further, to the okay-ish times when he had been denied his Leeds dream but was at least still safely Swansea:

“Two and a half years ago I nearly signed for [Leeds], 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. 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 Patrick Bamford came off soon after.”

That’s something else he can discuss with Pazza Bamfs on their dog walks! Daniel was also kind enough not to mention any of this stuff that I faithfully noted down in my report on that game:

United’s players set about demonstrating how much work he’ll have to do if he wants to join their gang. Pontus Jansson was first, with two strong tackles and a consolatory high-five; as the Leeds fans sang ‘He wants to be Leeds,’ Luke Ayling followed him up the pitch, laughing in his ear. A chance to shoot was firmly blocked by Kalvin Phillips on the edge of the area; another block by Liam Cooper left him on the floor, now hearing, ‘You’re too soft to play for Leeds’. That might be true; Pablo Hernandez tackled him deep in Swansea’s half, and when James tried to get revenge, Pablo executed a matador’s sidestep that left James stumbling at his feet. Apprentice, meet the master.

Well, yes. Looking at young Daniel sobbing into a puppy’s fur, I can imagine that a few sessions of murderball and a bit of tough love from Billy and Coops won’t do him any harm. One of the oddities of Leeds United is that the fans don’t only want to see hard players in the traditional areas like defence and midfield, but we expect our wingers to play like amateur boxers too. Eddie Gray is 73 years old but I would not like to be in a ring with him. I dread to think how many pieces he’d tear Dan James into.

We also don’t like signing players from Old Trafford, even if it does turn out spectacularly when its John Giles or Gordon Strachan. Unfortunately there’s always Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Scott Wootton on the other side of the scales. That’s what they were like: you asked Wootton to measure out some sugar for a cake you’re baking, the next thing you knew he was headbanging the scales and the sugar was up the ceiling. Wootton spoke on a podcast recently about not really understanding the rivalry with Leeds until he crossed the Pennines, despite once seeing ‘carnage’ and ‘parents fighting on the sidelines’ in a youth team game. “It was quite difficult for me,” he said, “because there were times during my Leeds career when I’d be in the team doing really well,” and let’s all stop for a moment and remember those times. Done? Okay: “But if we lost the game it was my fault because I was the ex-United player.” But the current Leeds United player, Scott, which might have been part of the problem. And this from a scouser, too. What a mess!

Wootton, in common with Giles and Strachan, was more typical of our signings from Old Trafford, and Dan James is an exception. Adding Freddie Goodwin, Brian Greenhoff, Danny Pugh and Liam Miller, Leeds have usually taken players perceived to be on their way down from Old Trafford. Leeds were relegated with Goodwin and Greenhoff, had just been relegated with Pugh and Miller, and were firmly stuck in Division Two when Giles and Strachan arrived. Only once in our history have Leeds paid a big transfer fee to bring a player over the Pennines with the feeling of buying a top star from a direct peer, and that was £4.5m on Lee Sharpe in 1996. I wonder if Daniel James can dance.

James starts his Leeds career in a different place to most Old Trafford alumni coming to Leeds, and in different circumstances given the years pursuing him since he sat in the Elland Road offices and cried, and Victor Orta cried, and then I dunno if Dan’s puppy Facetimed him when he was back at the hotel but I bet there was more crying if he did. And he might have had a different chance of starting a game to most Bielsa signings, if Raphinha had been blocked from playing against Liverpool, although even under those circumstances it was hard to imagine Bielsa welcoming James back from international duty and throwing him straight in. James claims he’s been trying to fast track himself:

“I’ve spoken to Tyler [Roberts] 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 … It’s very tactical but he’s got a way of playing that I feel suits me.”

But I think we all know Bielsa will be the judge of that, and he might need longer than two days of training to make his mind up. Expect Dan James on the bench, then, and if we can’t watch him playing football, we’re going to need more videos of Hugo being wept upon in the meantime, please. ◉

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