Daniel James, for all of a few hours, was the equivalent of a Leeds United player. Shirt pics filed, his media work done, a shirt number assigned to his name. Leeds filmed an interview before last week’s transfer deadline but quietly dropped it into a vault, never to be seen again. Or indeed at all.
Footballers who know far more of the jungle than James would have found Thursday night’s fiasco intolerable and however many years he has on his side, he will be horribly unlucky if he comes so close to joining a club without the green light flashing again.
Some transfers gather speed too late to make the cut. Thursday was more like sabotage and a twist in a bigger political game at Swansea City. No surprise that James stayed in Yorkshire with his family over the weekend, trying to get his head around it.
The bigger picture became apparent on Saturday when Huw Jenkins, Swansea’s chairman for the duration of their elevation through the English pyramid, resigned abruptly.
Jenkins was bitterly opposed to releasing James and was, according to those who were handling the transfer at Elland Road, the man who stopped answering his phone as Leeds tried to iron out creases in the contract before 11pm.
The silence left everyone in a state of confusion, and James most of all.
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The deal was crafted by Swansea’s owners, one of whom Andrea Radrizzani knows, and Jenkins appeared to go rogue at the end of a fractious deadline day in Wales.
Who knows if he jumped before he was pushed on Saturday – Swansea’s statement about him later that evening was not wholly forgiving – but notwithstanding the fact that a 21-year-old was left to dangle in compassionless fashion in Leeds, Jenkins might be due some credit for following his heart: a one-time Swansea trainee and supporter of the club who saw the sacrifice of James in the same light as everyone else, did what he could to obstruct it and then walked out.
It writes a better epitaph than the alternative.
James and Marcelo Bielsa were in the same building for a matter of minutes on Thursday – James arrived at Thorp Arch as Leeds’ head coach was finishing his press conference and preparing for his usual long, cold walk back to his house in Wetherby – and when it came to it, Bielsa failed to get his man.
James was his man insofar as he of all the wingers suggested by Victor Orta met the Argentinian’s requirements most closely. James would have been integrated quickly with United’s remaining Championship games running towards single figures but, if he was philosophical about the collapse of the transfer, as his agent David Manasseh said, then Bielsa felt the same.
“I don’t see the fact he couldn’t come as an obstacle for us,” Bielsa insisted.
That was the peculiarity of Leeds’ relentless courtship of James and Swansea: a deal Leeds devoted days and weeks to without any fall-back, a transfer which would have cost £7m-plus had it become permanent in the summer but a transaction which no-one saw as defining in the context of this season. James has pace and a good attacking brain but he is less than 20 games into his career at Swansea and the overwhelming feeling provoked by the shambles on Thursday was one of sympathy for James himself.
He was royally messed about, and no mistake, but he was a tactical target for Leeds rather than a pressing one. Unlike a new goalkeeper and Kiko Casilla.
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Bielsa’s reaction to the breakdown of talks sent his squad the right message, regardless of whether certain players thought another signing would have helped: that he had confidence in them irrespective of James slipping away and would lose no sleep over a failed transfer.
It contrasted with Tony Pulis ending January by admitting the window “in some respects made the team weaker than stronger”, although Middlesbrough won at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday an hour before Leeds began losing the plot against Norwich City, so the science of psychology is not exact. And Bielsa has made no pretence of the head count at Thorp Arch being as high as it was.
Since Leeds’ signed Patrick Bamford in July, four players who Bielsa considered to be part of his armoury – Ronaldo Vieira, Lewis Baker, Jamal Blackman and Samuel Saiz – have gone, for reasons ranging from cold, hard cash to personal circumstances and a broken leg. Casilla and Izzy Brown were added to the squad in the same period.
Over the course of Bielsa’s seven months as head coach, the comparison is seven signings in versus four transfers out and, were it not for the six Under-23s who Bielsa has blooded, Leeds would be bottom of the table of players used in the Championship.
This, you try not to forget, is how Bielsa prefers it (which is not to pretend that James going begging was part of the grand plan) and he remains, on a wage far higher than the average manager earns at Elland Road, the club’s best signing of the season by a street.
There will, though, be instances in the run-in – and there were some against Norwich at the weekend – where the stress and tension generated by the tightest of leagues takes a degree of control out of his hands.
Those moments are when Bielsa will discover if a club in the Championship can skate on thin ice, without falling through.