INJURY-HIT REECE SET TO GO ‘HOME’
REECE James vividly remembers the 90 humiliating minutes that “killed” his dreams of playing for Manchester United.
August 26, 2014. MK Dons 4, United 0. A defeat so seismic and complete that, of the 11 players who walked onto the pitch, only David de Gea remains on the Old Trafford payroll.
Riddled by injuries and paired with League One minnows, new Reds boss Louis van Gaal effectively chucked a clutch of untested youngsters into a sink or swim exercise.
Lacking guidance from senior players like Javier Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa, they sank like a stone. Outplayed. Outfought. Outmanoeuvred in almost every aspect. The greatest day in MK Dons’ history was also one of the darkest in United’s.
James was one of them, a 20year-old kid whose dream debut descended into nightmare. And, deep down, he knew that his first appearance in the famous red shirt would probably be his last.
“It was a terrible night,” concedes James, who joined Wigan in the summer of 2015. “We were a team who’d never played together before, against a team who were really up for it.
“And let’s not forget how talented they were either. You look where Benik Afobe and Dele Alli are now and it maybe puts things in a bit of context. “We made a mistake for the first goal and just went under. We needed a leader to pull us through and we didn’t really have any. “That game killed me really, but I can only fault myself. The gaffer gave me an opportunity and I didn’t impress on the night. At clubs like United, you know you might not get another.” In James’ case, that defeat prompted a bout of soul searching, and the kind of questions no player wants to ask himself. “Sometimes you’ve just got to look in the mirror and be honest about whether you’re good enough to make the grade,” he admits. “And at that time, I felt I wasn’t. “When you’re at Man United, it’s the pinnacle, the biggest club in the world. It’s a club you don’t want to leave, especially because you feel part of the family and the history.
“But I’d been out on loan twice and wasn’t any closer to the first team. There comes a point where you have to think ‘It’s not going to happen for me here’.
“You’ve just got to be a man about it, look at yourself and say ‘I’m going to get out, improve myself and maybe there’ll be a route back’. Danny Drinkwater is a very good example of someone who left United and worked his way back to the top.”
Today James will return to Old Trafford for the first time, hoping to grace a pitch that he has only previously trodden in Under-21 games.
And as the nagging pain of that Dons defeat diminishes, he has plenty of good memories to reflect on – not least a brace against LA Galaxy in his first ever appearance for United in July 2014.
“I’ll never forget that game,” says the full-back. “I remember everything – David Beckham coming to our hotel, warming up, half-time on the pitch.
“I remember coming on, wracked with nerves. I was actually very jelly-legged. Then I scored the first goal and all the nerves melted away – it felt like I was playing parks football.”
Memories, too, of the friends made along the way, particularly his mentor Ryan Giggs and close friend Jesse Lingard, who is likely to start at Old Trafford today.
“I met some great people at United,” he says. “Phil Jones is someone who helped me out a little bit. Ryan Giggs was a big help. When he was assistant to Van Gaal, he was always taking time to talk to the young lads, saying ‘Listen, keep working, keep going, you’ll get your chance’. And he was right. You just need to look at Marcus Rashford and Jesse of course.
“Rash was pretty young when I was there but Jesse I know really well. It was unbelievable to see him score in the Cup final. Everyone who knows him will have been made up.
“Jesse is a great example of someone who stuck it out at United. He had a lot of loan spells, could have moved on. But he kept going and got his reward. I haven’t really spoken to him since I’ve left but I’m sure there’ll be a bit of banter in the tunnel.”
Perhaps the biggest influence, though, is current Latics boss Warren Joyce, the former Man United reserve boss who spent eight years nurturing the likes of Lingard, Rashford and Paul Pogba before arriving at the DW in November.
“He’s exactly the same,” said James. “I was really pleased when he got the job here because he’s someone who played a massive part in my development. Even after I left, he came to watch me, rang me on a regular basis. I think he’s like that with every player he’s worked with in the past. He’s the one who made me into a Championship player and hopefully he can improve me even more.”
James admits those jelly legs may return today and not just because he’s back at United. If the 23-year-old gets off the bench, it will be his first appearance after a year out with tendon and ligament problems.
He has spent long months dreaming of this moment, helped only by his brother Matty, the Leicester City midfielder who has just joined Barnsley on loan after missing the whole of the Foxes’ title winning campaign through injury. .
“It seemed like a minor injury and I went over to Spain for surgery,” he explains. “But there were underlying problems that only emerged when I got back training. I broke down in pre-season and ende needing a second surge
“It’s been tough, and thing that helped me brother. He had a crucia at the same time, and ac suffered a lot worse. think ‘Well, at least I’m not that bad’.
“We actually lived together in a house in Manchester at the time. He was two-weeks housebound on his crutches, couldn’t really move. It was my job to get up and do the coffees.
“But then the tables turned and it was my go. I rang my little bell and rinsed life out of him!”
Matty is hoping to b Trafford today, along clutch of friends and fa
“If I was to come on, be a bit nerve-wracking Reece.
“But as soon as you have your first touch, you settle down, focus and everything else goes out of your mind.”
OLD DAYS: Reece James at United and, inset, Jesse Lingard