REECE JAMES put Wilfried Zaha in his pocket on his first Premier League bow but it did not surprise those who know him.
The Chelsea rookie, 19, shut out Crystal Palace’s talisman during his side’s 2-0 win before the international break.
Yet those at Wigan would have smiled knowingly, having last term seen the then on-loan full-back outmuscle Brazilian star Hulk famed for his strength.
Latics skipper Sam Morsy said: “We played Shanghai Shenhua, the team Hulk plays for, in a friendly during the March international break out in Dubai.
“The game was a bit spicy. Reece went for a 50-50 with Hulk, shoulder to shoulder.
“Hulk just hit the deck. Against an 18-year-old kid! We were all just laughing. But that’s his power.”
'BEST TO STAY AWAY'
That physicality also denied Jadon Sancho a sniff in both legs of the 2017 FA Youth Cup final, when Chelsea beat Manchester City 6-2.
And it is one of many performances that led to Blues pal Mason Mount nicknaming him ‘The Beast’.
England midfielder Mount said: “I have known him from the academy since we were eight years old. He’s a very quiet boy. He has tremendous qualities and will be a great player.
“I call him ‘The Beast’ because he is so strong, quick and powerful.
“You don’t want to get too close to him in training because he will get you off the ball. It is best to stay away from him.”
Fast forward two years and James is facing his biggest test yet when he takes on City again in tomorrow’s teatime battle at the top of the Premier League.
Yet he is unlikely to be fazed by going head-to-head with Raheem Sterling — as composure under pressure has been one of his best traits since he was young.
James described how his mind goes “blank” when he takes to a pitch and what takes over is an insatiable desire to win.
It is something that was possibly ingrained from the never-ending drills he did as a kid with his sister Lauren — now at Manchester United — in the park behind their Richmond house, under the instruction of dad, Nigel.
James sometimes watches his old man’s side, Hanworth Villa, a young team based in Feltham, West London, that defied the odds to make the third round of the FA Youth Cup before being knocked out on Monday to AFC Wimbledon.
Nigel, a no-nonsense defender for Aldershot and Luton in his own playing days, also put together an amazing local Under-8s team back in the mid 2000s.
It included his children as well as City starlet Ian Carlo Poveda and Conor Gallagher, who played in Albania alongside James for the England Under-21s win on Friday.
Gallagher, on loan at Charlton from Chelsea, added: “We played Sunday League even before we went to Chelsea.
"Even then you could tell Reece was going to be a top player. We know each other really well and to see him go on loan and do well gave me and other Chelsea lads the confidence we can do the same.
THREE POSITIONS IN ONE GAME
“Now he’s in Chelsea’s first team so that gives me hope that if I do well this season there is a chance I can make it in there.”
James was picked up by Chelsea when he was six, after being scouted playing for Kew Park Rangers in a local tournament.
When he was nine, he was given a Chelsea shirt signed by John Terry and all the first team that still hangs above his bed.
He was in the same age group as Mount and captained the successful Under-18 side which also included Callum Hudson-Odoi.
When James was 13, he struggled with his weight and used to get up at dawn on Sunday mornings to do extra sessions with a fitness coach.
But it was the loan to Championship side Wigan that made him.
Signed initially as a back-up to right-back Nathan Byrne, there was not a lot of fanfare from the fans or even the squad when he arrived.
But it quickly became clear just how good he was as James went on to win the players’ and fans’ player-of-the-year awards while helping the club escape relegation.
A key game was April’s visit to promotion-chasing Leeds, where Wigan went a goal and a man down after 17 minutes but somehow won 2-1.
Young Lions boss Aidy Boothroyd was at Elland Road that day and witnessed James’ amazing versatility as he shifted from centre-back to right-back to central midfield.
CREATES AND SCORES
Boothroyd said: “The great thing is he can play well in so many different positions.
“If you ask him where he favours, he wants to play right-back, he wants to stop people and go the other way and score goals. As we saw against Ajax, he’s got that in the bag.”
That Ajax game, in which James completed Chelsea’s comeback from 4-1 down with a goal to make it 4-4, seemed a watershed moment.
It led to James starting against Palace and, given Frank Lampard’s faith in youth, he is likely to keep it a while longer now in favour of Cesar Azpilicueta.
The Spanish star, who captained the side, has been a great help.
And James added: “He has a lot of experience and is a great player.
“He’s going to be supportive but, of course, everyone wants to play. He’s been good with me throughout and I’m thankful for that.”
Morsy feels he should set his goals even higher this term, claiming he can be better than all his international competition.
That is despite England being blessed with the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kieran Trippier and Aaron Wan-Bissaka at right-back.
Egypt ace Morsy, who still speaks to James, added: “In due course, Reece can be England’s No 1 right-back, without a doubt.
“Defensively, he’s better than all of them, by a long shot. He’ll have to prove it which I’m sure he will.
“If you were going player for player, I’d say Jamo was better than Trent.
“I believe he can go as high as he wants. He should be targeting the Euros squad, 100 per cent.
“With Chelsea in the Champions League, if he can cement that right-back spot and play consistently, then why not?”