England's James Maddison says Aberdeen spell was making of him

Get out and don't come back. No, not the anguished volley of a lover scorned but the sentiment expressed by England Under-21 coach Aidy Boothroyd when sending his babes up to the senior squad.
England manager Gareth Southgate, left, with James Maddison. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA WireEngland manager Gareth Southgate, left, with James Maddison. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
England manager Gareth Southgate, left, with James Maddison. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

The instruction was actually issued to Ben Chilwell, but by extension applies to Leicester team-mate James Maddison on the occasion of his first senior call-up. The sylph-like 
No 10 at the creative heart of the proposition is the piece of the England jigsaw that has so far eluded Gareth Southgate.

Whatever their attributes it is not a role either of Southgate’s absent friends Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard is capable of filling. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has the tools but thus far has failed to stamp his authority on 90 minutes. The returning Ross Barkley might yet be that man with more minutes at Chelsea, but no Englishman has impressed in the role as much as Maddison, who 
displayed all his wares on his 
Premier League debut at Old Trafford.

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Most in the crowd on that heady Friday night in August had come to feast on the gifts of Manchester United’s 
£50 million boy from Brazil, Fred. Leicester chucked less than half that the way of Norwich to land Maddison. Still a chunk, but on the evidence of that first hour he looked twice the player United imported from Shakhtar Donetsk, drawing from David De Gea the save of the night with a rasping right-footer

“I know I have been playing well for Leicester. I’ve played all the games in the Premier League this season and we’ve had a relatively good start but you know, you can never expect it [England call-up] I don’t think. It is such a big honour to come and play for England and get the call from Gareth and I am truly honoured,” Maddison said.

“We have been given this opportunity to come and show what we are about in the seniors. Me, Mason [Mount, Derby] and Jadon [Sancho, Dortmund] as young lads. If it was up to me I’d never go back to the Under-21s because this is where every young boy dreams of being.

“Aidy is saying ‘Give it your all and give Gareth a choice where he doesn’t put you back down and wants you here constantly in the squad.’ And that is what we are all aiming to achieve.”

Southgate was on holiday on the night the Premier League curtain went up but was given a tidy write-up by assistant Steve Holland and Maddison has subsequently impressed the boss sufficiently to receive a phone call. “It was just one of those moments. I answered the phone and I just didn’t know what to say. It’s one of them. I didn’t really expect it. I just sat there and just stared at the room,” he said.

You might call Maddison a confident boy. Small of stature as a child, Maddison played up the age groups, filling the space more effectively than the bigger boys. The urgency that took him to Coventry as a kid and then to Norwich drove him to engineer a loan move to Aberdeen with Alex Neil reluctant to give him his head at Carrow Road. It was, he says, the making of him.

“I signed for Norwich and I was not getting a game. I was on the bench and left out of the squad once. And the type of person I am and coming from Coventry where I had always played since I was 17 and was on the bench as a 16-year-old, it was hard for me. I had big competition with the likes of Steven Naismith, Wes Hoolihan, Alex Prichard. I was not getting a sniff so I went to see Alex Neill and asked if I could go on loan. We sat down and went through options and Aberdeen was the best.

“It gave me a different challenge, playing against the likes of Celtic and Rangers was a different prospect all together, big crowds which you do not get at League One level. I was there only four months but I look back at that. It was a big learning curve for me in that short spell there.”

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In his short time in Scotland he scored a last-minute winner against Rangers and contested the League Cup final against Celtic, moments of profound significance for an adolescent making his way among men. “To stick one in the top corner in the last minute to win it in my second game went down well with the fans. They were singing my name every week and they were happy with the performances I was putting in.

“Playing in a Scottish League Cup final at Hampden in front of 50,000 against Celtic is an experience I will never forget. Coming out to a big firework display and the [Celtic] fans were in full voice because they won 3-0. That’s an experience I wouldn’t have got by staying in England in the lower leagues.”

When he pitched up at Old Trafford Maddison was combat ready. “There was a moment in the warm-up when the crowd was filling up and it just hit me that this was the Premier League. You see all these TV cameras around the pitch, which you don’t get at Championship level, and I thought, ‘I’ve worked hard to be here. I deserve to be here. I belong here’.

“There is no bigger stage than Old Trafford on the opening day of the season. That was a dream I will never forget. I kept my own shirt from that game. I didn’t want to swap shirts with anyone else. I will get that one framed.”

And here he is two months later invited to demonstrate his qualities against World Cup finalists Croatia and a Spanish team utterly renewed under new coach Luis Enrique. Is he ready? Is he ever. “I’ve only been in the door five minutes but I’ve worked hard this season and I’m very grateful to get the call-up. I can only try and show everyone why I deserve to be here. I will try to showcase what I have to offer.

“I’ve always believed in myself. There’s never been a point when I’ve questioned myself. You have to come here and be yourself. If you come here and act like the new kid or the young lad then I don’t think it will work. Gareth said to me: ‘Go and show what you are about and why you are here’.”