Leeds United kept their word to finally claim what was rightfully theirs in the transfer window – Beren Cross

Exactly 31 months after he first walked into Elland Road, past the cameras and into the boardroom for his pictures and signatures, Daniel James completed his Leeds United move.

Finally is the word which has been used everywhere for this transfer. Nobody at the club or in the stands has ever got the closure they needed from that bizarre January night in 2019.

James’s name has always been there nagging in the background, first on Marcelo Bielsa’s desktop as he delivered his Spygate lecture and then at the foot of every transfer rumour round-up.

The Wales international was the one that got away, the extra in Take Us Home, the one swooped up by that lot down the road and, crucially, the one Bielsa liked.

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Of the dozens of names Victor Orta and his recruitment team compile upon long lists and shortlists for Bielsa’s approval, very few pass that acid test.

When you find one he likes, see James or Ryan Kent, you find their names stick and just because they end up signing elsewhere does not mean they stop sticking.

There was always the sense James’s leap from the Championship with Swansea City to a squad dripping in international regulars at Old Trafford may have been a step too far.

James had one season of regular senior football to his name, in the second tier, when he headed to Greater Manchester. This was not a talisman outgrowing a bottom-half Premier League club on the back of years at that level.

The winger would make 26 league starts in his first term under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but that would regress to 11 last season. Coverage of the Red Devils never had James pinned down as regular there. And then came Jadon Sancho. Then Cristiano Ronaldo. The writing was on the wall for James.

Twelve months ago, and then again in the last January window, with James down the pecking order, the links with Leeds were easy to make. Always lurking in the background. A link which would never quite die.

You wonder if James himself ever longed for that feeling of closure as Orta and others did at Elland Road.

As the progress of that transfer from Swansea showed, James was excited to return to within an hour’s drive of the East Yorkshire village he grew up in.

He had exchanged messages with fellow Hull boy Liam Cooper. It was a move which ticked all the boxes for an ambitious young footballer until it was snatched away by Swansea silence.

The documentary crew captured that silence in all its blunted agony at Elland Road, where phones were thrown, doors were slammed and forlorn goodbyes were exchanged.

Ever since that night, even with the transfer to Old Trafford, in a way James has always felt like an adoptive Leeds player. Always like he might one day sign at Elland Road.

Pablo Hernandez battles with Daniel James. Championship - Leeds United v Swansea City - Wednesday 13th February 2019 - Elland Road
Daniel James returned to Elland Road with the opposition less than two weeks after his transfer failed

Much like Ben White was an unknown quantity when Orta plucked him from the obscurity of Brighton & Hove Albion’s youth ranks, James was barely halfway into his first season of regular football at Swansea when Leeds showed interest.

Nobody in the press was linked with James before Leeds in that January window. This was a winger who had made one senior appearance in 2017/18 before his breakthrough under Graham Potter in 2018/19.

Within five months of his breakthrough season, Orta and Leeds were onto him. It was impossible not to feel Solskjaer’s mob only went after him because of the column inches Leeds’ near-miss had generated.

James went from being a nobody to the hottest property in the Championship and like your new favourite restaurant around the corner, it felt like Leeds owned him because they found him at Swansea first.

Finally is the word for James’s arrival, but it’s also the word many fans used once the transfer was announced. Finally some more money has been spent, finally the squad has been strengthened after a patchy start.

Helder Costa’s later exit from Elland Road would mean no net gain in manpower for the squad, but the fee at least quietens a few dissenting voices about a lack of ambition or standing still in this window.

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As Angus Kinnear and Orta have always maintained, inaction has never meant an inability to buy players. It has been a case of waiting for the right player at the right price.

No doubt James has always been the right player for Bielsa and though £25m feels a touch steep, it’s not out of kilter with what other British talent has gone for in recent windows.

Ronaldo’s transfer opened the door and Orta had to move through it quickly, just as he did with Raphinha last October.

James may still only be 23, but the Whites now find themselves with an asset on the back of two years in the top flight rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s best footballers.

With the faith and coaching of Bielsa behind him and a proper run of 90-minute outings, James may finally begin to realise how much potential he really has.

There cannot be too many finer compliments than seeing a coach of Bielsa’s experience retain such a keen interest for so many years.

Finally, Orta and United can stick the torn-out page of January 31, 2019 back into their Bielsa scrapbooks and close that chapter. There is a new one ready to be written in white.

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