When Manchester United signed young Welsh international Daniel James from Swansea in June 2019, many opposition fans took the chance to laugh at United for being so bad they were now looking into the championship for players.
Some United fans probably will have felt somewhat embarrassed too, the club had just ended the season with a run of just two wins in 12 games and now were signing a relative nobody when most wanted a big name statement to kick off a key summer of recruitment.
However, those that knew James, like Ryan Giggs, knew he had both blistering pace and more importantly, a desire to progress his career, a desire not commonly seen in some of United’s more recent big name statement signings. Halfway through his first season, many of the Old Trafford faithful now adorn him with the same song they serenaded Giggs with for years.
Before James, the last player to be signed permanently from a lower league club was Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace, Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing as manager. Although Zaha’s United career never really got started, he has formed a career as a very successful Premier League player back at Palace and there are often reports linking him with a move back to the club.
Ferguson would often put his trust in players from the lower leagues, think Lee Sharpe from Torquay United and Denis Irwin from Oldham Athletic. Ferguson would also take players from clubs just relegated from the top flight like Alan Smith from Leeds United and Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest.
Many United fans laughed when Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp signed Georginio Wijnaldum from relegated Newcastle United, Andy Robertson from relegated Hull City, or when Joe Gomez was signed from Charlton Athletic in 2015. All three have now become permanent fixtures in a side racing away with the title.
Nowadays most people judge a player instantly by what club they are at, including Ed Woodward. Zaha’s transfer wasn’t an indication that this policy of signing players from the lower leagues needed ripping up, but for some reason Woodward and subsequent managers spent years chasing Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich players to get fans excited.
However talented those players may have been, they were never seriously going to want to make the step down from winning multiple European cups to playing in the Europa League. In the time since Zaha, plenty of talent from the lower leagues has passed the club by, with the likes of Dele Alli springing to mind, who shined in United’s 4-0 defeat at MK Dons a year before he signed for Tottenham Hotspur.
Ironically, these are now the same players the club are now chasing. James Maddison had just finished an impressive season with Norwich City, registering 14 goals and eight assists before Leicester City picked him up for £20 million in 2018. Jack Grealish was almost forced of Aston Villa, in the same summer, at a time when he was gettable for around £30 million. It will cost at least double that figure to secure his services now.
Woodward will have witnessed first-hand the difficulty in prizing players away from Premier League clubs in the last summer window. Leicester City wanted £80 million for Harry Maguire at the start of the transfer window and wouldn’t budge like United thought they would. The same went for Aaron Wan-Bissaka from Palace and Newcastle United even tried to bully United by wanting the same figure the Reds payed for Wan-Bissaka for Sean Longstaff.
There’s so much money now in the Premier League, even to the point that finishing in the bottom half will get you over £100 million. Therefore, if Aston Villa stay up and especially if Leicester finish in a Champions League place, then the pursuit of Maddison and Grealish will be an expensive one. Maybe the club could dip back into the championship in 2020 and find another cheap gem like James.
Written by Alex Metcalfe