The first in a new series exploring the special CCFC players. First up – a cocky sod who, somewhat ridiculously, may already be my favourite of all time: James Maddison.
We should get something out the way from the start: I reckon James Maddison might be a genius. I know that’ll seem like a daft thing to say about a twenty year old Championship footballer, and I’ll happily accept your viewpoint if you think I’ve run mad, but I also feel pretty confident in my interpretation of what makes a brilliant footballer. And I genuinely think Madders is one.
I first became aware of him in the summer of 2013, back when all my spare time was spent researching for Cov’s Football Manager database; rating every facet of our squad, sometimes based on little more than a YouTube clip or recommendation. That’s how these games work – they’re 10% algorithm, 90% know-it-all’s opinion.
James Maddison’s name cropped up in the new intake for the under-18s which meant he’d earned a spot in the game, and it was my job to conjure up some ratings that would fairly represent him. This was to prove tricky seeing as I knew nothing about the guy, while Google wanted sod all to do with him unless he was the fourth president of the United States. Interestingly Cian Harries and George Thomas were also on the same list, but they’d already received plenty of airtime on ccfc.co.uk due to their Welsh youth careers so people were fairly tuned in to their abilities, but Maddison’s name was a new one to me. I had to research.
That research consisted of a few conversations with youth team spectators and what I discovered was enough to pique my interest. While still fairly vague, I heard stories of a confident playmaker, with a great first touch, but he was still pretty small. Now, I’ve never let size influence me when it comes to football – it’s a very English mindset to treat that as a definite hindrance – so focused on the “great first touch and vision” aspect to guide my imagination in crafting this early idea of a digital JM.
After this initial introduction, it actually wasn’t until the following year that the Maddison name began to gain greater prominence. He made the bench for the first time in 2013/14 and his enhanced standing in our youth set up was becoming clearer. But I’d still not really seen him, aside from the occasional crudely-recorded video shared on Twitter. In fact, the first take-notice moment came via a low key end-of-season video posted by ‘gazmaddy’ (his Dad?) on YouTube, celebrating a “decade of development”.
If you’ve never seen it, I recommend you to take a look. It’s ten minutes of a flourishing Madders showcasing his quality for our youth team. Sure, you have to be a proper James Maddison nut to still be watching things like this long after he’s left the club, but to that I raise my hand. I’m that keen on him.
This quality and confidence wasn’t going unnoticed behind the scenes and Maddison made his debut early in the 2014/15 season in front of the Sky cameras at Sixfields against Cardiff. He was still a kid, but came on and showed more bravery and desire to influence the game in his short cameo than most of his teammates managed in the entire match. That’s not to say it was the most fluent of debuts; he was jumpy and overeager to show-off. But you could see past that. So much of youth development is in the head, and for years we’ve thrust kids into the first team without any genuine empowerment to express themselves. They go through the motions, refusing to showcase their capabilities, instead favouring safe behaviour. All before fading away from the first team, and the club entirely.
Maddison showed a different mindset. From this point his career was only going one way. The sub appearances started to build, the home crowds were given more exposure to his talent, and fans began to believe he was first team ready.
It’s clear that while was 2014/15 was his breakthrough season, 2015/16 alongside Armstrong, Murphy, Lameiras, et al, was the pivotal moment for for his career trajectory. He dominated pre-season and impressed Tony so much that he was handed the number 10 shirt. That was the clearest sign from the club that we had someone special. We’re usually desperate to play down talent and introduce them slowly, but Maddison was making that an impossible approach for Mowbray. He was just too good.
And it’s that single season which has ultimately shaped my opinion and enduring love for him. Yes, I know he got injured for huge chunk of it, and yes, I know he was never the same once he was sold in January. But for the games he did play we were treated to someone so enjoyable. His touch, his ingenuity, his deft drop of the shoulder. It was effortless. If you can’t remember (and let’s face it – many of you wont), just take a look at this second film documenting his best bits. I defy you to watch this guy and not be impressed.
Even now he’s not our player I still find myself splurging money on Now TV subscriptions just so I can catch him in a match. On one occasion I noticed that Aberdeen were playing, and even though I’d missed the first half, turned on the app to get my Maddison fix. Naturally he was subbed almost immediately and I spent the remainder of the game in the kitchen. In hindsight, paying a tenner to have Ian Crocker provide the ambient noise for my washing up may have been a little excessive.
But I digress. Maddison’s had his stint in Scotland and is back at Norwich raring to go for the new season. I’ve got to say, they finally seem to be starting to appreciate how lucky they are to have a player like him in their squad. He’s still got a lot of learning to do, but my one wish is that football embraces him. Wherever he ends up.
It’s noticeable that he’s starting to grow and adapt to the demands of the professional game – there’s no denying that’s tremendously important for a lot of managers and fans – but I’m also very mindful of managers obsessing over the defensive attributes. Much like Joe Cole, these players offer something unlike the others on the pitch – it feels somewhat criminal to stifle them. Ultimately, he’s a creative player and is at his best when given license to flex those creative muscles. If that means that he sometimes fails to track back to his own area, so be it.
I understand many of you have read this far and may be disappointed by the lack of the specifics. What has this young lad done to warrant the title as one of my “favourite Cov players of all time”?
The truth is, I can’t really answer that. All I know is that I just want to watch him play football. Whenever, wherever that is. It’s nothing more complex than that.
He has that special ability to make matches better simply by being on the pitch. Whether it’s leaving a defender for dead with an imperceptible sleight of foot, or even the tiniest pivots on the ball – these are the small things that excite me when watching football. Admittedly my desire to see flair players has been exasperated in recent years as we become entrenched in shitty lower league football, so the fact that one of our own was able to subvert that norm only further enhances my opinion of him.
Truth be told, I feel a connection to his career, in the same way that I do with Callum Wilson, or even Adam Armstrong. It’s odd to start a series like this with such a young and current player, but in a period when watching Coventry City has felt like such an ordeal, these are the players that have had it harder than previous generations; tasked with cheering up a bunch of fans that are pissed off pretty much all of the time. It’s hard to recall a player managing that to do that quite so well.
Next up in The Beauty series: Robbie Keane.