“Lauren had to learn quickly,” says Nigel James. “Otherwise she didn’t get the ball. When she and her brothers were having a kickaround, they wouldn’t let her just come and take the ball. She had to work very hard to get it. And when she did get it, they made sure she didn’t have it for very long!”
As the father of the 19-year-old Manchester United forward who received her first call-up from Phil Neville this week and Reece – the Chelsea full-back who has become a regular member of Gareth Southgate’s squad this year aged 20 – James is in a unique position. Never in English football have a brother and sister represented their country and, although the cancellation of the women’s friendly against Norway on 1 December means Lauren will have to wait a little longer for her debut, her dad is justifiably proud of both his children’s achievements.
“It’s been a team effort,” James reflects. A former defender who was on Aldershot’s books when he suffered a broken ankle in a motorbike accident, James Sr turned to coaching in his mid-20s. He has worked at Fulham, Reading and Tottenham and runs an academy called Nigel James Elite Coaching, based in New Malden in south-west London, as well as managing the local side Hanworth Villa Under-18s.
He has played a role in the development of more than 20 current professionals including Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher – who is on a season’s loan at West Brom – the Leeds forward Ian Carlo Poveda and Sheffield United’s Rhian Brewster, but it is his own children who have benefited most from their father’s passion for the game.
“Football has always been in the family and I was fortunate to be able to see their development from all angles as a coach and a parent,” says James. “I didn’t really get to that level as a player but understanding the game and what it takes to make it at the top level has always interested me.”
His oldest son Joshua was on Fulham’s and Reading’s books, and James spent countless hours honing the technique of all three children with the aim of ensuring they were all comfortable on the ball from a very early age.
“It was just about playing,” he recalls. “I used to set them challenges in the back garden and if they did well at that, I’d give them 20p and then another 20p. Before you know, you’ve changed up £20 into 20ps and they’re all gone! It became fun. The key thing was that they were doing the right things. If you don’t know the standard that you have to set yourself then there is no way they will improve. In the end they pushed themselves to get better. I was doing it as work and they came into training with me so it was like: ‘If you want to be good at this, then this is what you have to do.’”
Reece joined Chelsea’s academy at six and was later joined by Lauren, although she opted to join Arsenal when she was 13. She excelled for the club’s under-17 side despite being three years younger than most of her teammates, and the decision to do away with that age group for the following season meant she ended up training with the under-15 boys’ side instead. “
It was challenging for her but it was also challenging for some of the boys and their parents,” James says. “There were quite a few who didn’t like it and had a lot to say but what they needed to do was just keep quiet and let their boys’ feet do the talking.”
He adds: “Lauren has always played with boys and you don’t realise over a few years what it was doing for her. It was a fun environment without realising that she was being really pushed. She would just muck in and play.”
Having made her Women’s Super League debut on her 16th birthday, Lauren’s decision to leave Arsenal and join the newly-formed Manchester United women’s team in July 2018 could not have worked out better.
“She had a fantastic first year in the Championship and then last season she did really well before getting injured and being out for almost a year,” says James. “It was really frustrating for her but she has worked hard and it was only a matter of time before England came calling.”
Reece made his England debut against Wales in October having excelled for Chelsea since returning from his loan at Wigan during the 2018-19 season – a move made possible by his father’s decision to take matters into his own hands. “I spoke to a number of agents and it’s easy to be impressed when they say they have worked with this player or that player. But that doesn’t mean they are going to be able to do that with your child. We looked at it as a family and felt that with Reece’s ability, he wanted to go to a Championship club. Every agent that we spoke to said that he would have to go to League One. We looked at the three clubs who had just been promoted and eventually it was a choice between Rotherham, Blackburn and Wigan.”
James adds: “We thought: ‘Nobody needs to tell me how good they are or anything about football.’ They might be able to tell me the other stuff but I’ve got my sports lawyer, Udo Onwere, for that. Reece wouldn’t be where he is today otherwise, not forgetting too that he turned in some real, high-level performances. The fact that Chelsea had the transfer ban that year meant that he was in a position to make the step up after a year in the Championship.”
James admits there has been the occasional squabble down the years, and they now rarely see each other as a family given their hectic schedules. “When they were a lot younger, like every brother and sister they had their moments,” he says. “All of them are very close but these days everyone has been pulled apart because of their work. But they are always there for each other.”