Manchester United forward Daniel James has revealed team-mate Juan Mata was one of his footballing heroes growing up and says it has been a “surreal” experience playing alongside the Spaniard.
James had only spent one full season playing professional football in the Championship with Swansea before United signed him last summer, suddenly uniting him with one of the players he idolised most as a child.
Asked about his footballing heroes, James said:
“Everyone looks up to Lionel Messi, but I think I’ve got to go for Juan Mata. He’s someone that I’ve always looked up to.
“I think when I first met him it was just a bit…weird for me.
“Growing up as a kid looking up to someone and then you’re playing with them and not just being great on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. He’s someone that inspires me a lot.”
Away from football, Mata, the former Chelsea and Valencia midfielder, made quite the impression on James when their paths first crossed.
“When I first met him, he came and sat next to me in the changing room and said, ‘I know it’s a big move for you, if you need anything here is my number and if you ever need to talk about anything I’m here.’ That was obviously great for me,” said James.
Pressed on what it was about Mata that caught his eye, James added:
“Just what he did, he is so graceful on the pitch. I remember I got one of his shirts, his Europa League shirt when he won it for Chelsea.
“And he’s just someone that I’ve always looked up to and to play in the same team as him is just surreal for me.”