Just how good is James Maddison – and how good could he become? Coventry fan and journalist Tom Furnival-Adams salutes a kid who makes watching football fun, and gives the lowdown on a player who could light up Norwich’s future
Everyone who played football in the playground at school remembers the one kid who could ghost past 15 opposition players in a single run.
You’d be on a concrete ‘pitch’ with fluorescent-coloured Umbro rucksacks for goalposts and a Laughing Cow triangle in hand, and you didn’t get a look in. He’d be picked first for every game, and all he ever wanted to do was talk about football. When everyone else stopped watching Match of the Day and started wearing Nirvana hoodies, he still only wanted to talk about football.
James Maddison is that kid.
James Maddison makes watching football fun. Football as pure euphoria, not statistical analysis or death by tactics – just a player who makes you hold your breath with anticipation every time he gets the ball.
That’s why Maddison emerged at the right time for Coventry fans. We’d spent months, if not years, wearily following news of court cases, transfer embargos and points deductions, and suddenly here was a kid who reminded us what we were all here for.
With some players, you can see instantly there's something special about them, and Maddison stuck out straight away. After a couple of substitute appearances as a 17-year-old at the beginning of 2014-15, he marked his first start with a goal in a 4-1 defeat to Oldham. With his tiny frame and exuberant style, he was a boy among men – but in the best way possible.
Maddison is not a physically imposing player – in fact, at that point, he looked like a small child – but his sublime technical ability means that he has had no difficulty evading bigger, stronger, more experienced League One defenders. As his reputation has grown, so too has the tendency for sides to attempt to intimidate him, rarely with any success.
In that respect, he may as well have been custom-built to play at the highest level.
He is adept at dodging his marker with his close control and quick feet, which makes him superb at negotiating his – and his team-mates’ – way out of tight spaces and packed defences. A strong awareness of his surroundings means he has a great knack for picking exactly the right pass when under pressure, even if it barely registered as an option from a spectator’s perspective.
He’s most effective when playing alongside players on the same wavelength as him, who are similarly nimble and sharp. We began the season with back-to-back victories against Wigan, Millwall and Crewe, and Maddison was the fulcrum of a devastating front four that also included Rúben Lameiras, Newcastle’s Adam Armstrong and the Canaries’ very own Jacob Murphy, all of whom shared in common speed, dynamism and a predilection for rapid interplay.
Maddison’s ideal position is as a free-roaming No. 10, where his ability to control the ball, bring wide players into play and thread incisive passes forward is best utilised. That said, he’s able to use both feet and is equally as effective playing either side of the three behind the striker.
When asked about him last August, Coventry manager Tony Mowbray said: “I think he likes football. Some players don’t – they’re just good athletes with the attributes to get them into a team, but I think James likes talking about football. He’s a very intelligent, bright lad – he knows about tactics and what’s expected.”
It is this palpable enthusiasm for the game and genuine self-confidence that set him apart. Some young players are bizarrely overconfident in comparison to their ability or work rate, but Maddison is confident in a constructive way; he simply knows how good he is, understands what he needs to do, and has the self-belief to take control of games. Becoming a key player at such a young age might have overawed some, but Maddison thrived on it. He takes responsibility and wants to be the protagonist. Not at the expense of the team, but almost out of a sense of duty.
On a gloomy day in Sussex last May, in a final-day relegation decider against Crawley Town, it was Maddison who came on early in the second half with his side 1-0 down. We were a one-goal swing elsewhere away from becoming a fourth-tier side, and it speaks volumes of Maddison that it was he who inspired the revival – and scored the winner – that ultimately kept us up.
He has that rare ability to create a moment of magic from nothing, to single-handedly spark a lethargic team into life. His first touch is phenomenal and he is one of the most instinctive, naturally gifted footballers we’ve ever had.
It is worth noting how much time he’s spent out injured since breaking through – he suffered a back injury last season and only recently returned after damaging his ankle in August – and he could do with scoring more regularly, especially for a player who has his fair share of attempts on goal. But I think it would be unfair to claim he’s injury prone, and there is plenty of time for him to fine-tune his all-round game.
Although his departure was inevitable, I’m gutted that we’ve sold him. Not only because he’s a Coventry kid and a Coventry fan, and because of the romanticism that accompanied the prospect of building a side around a player like that, but because the timing of the deal has left us short as we look to capitalise on a decent start to the season.
The departure of Callum Wilson in 2014 – another Coventry-born academy graduate whose spell in our first team was similarly, frustratingly, fleeting – put us in our place. Maddison signing for someone else after only 12 starts further reinforces just how hard it is to compete as club at the lower end of the food chain.
Supporter reaction to the news of Maddison’s departure – on Twitter at least – resembled the five stages of grief, condensed into a frantic, expletive-filled half-an-hour: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and – perhaps only after a good night’s sleep – acceptance. Aware that he was being watched by scouts from Liverpool, Spurs and Man City, some even suggested it was an unambitious move, to a club that may be in the same league as Coventry next season. Once the dust had settled and the financial implications had become clear, though, most fans had come to terms with the deal itself and were simply left scratching their heads over the timing.
In choosing Norwich over the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham he’s made a very astute choice in terms of his own development. I fully expect him to realise his immense potential, but it’s going to take a while for us to recover our morale. I’ll take solace in the fact that he’s with us until the end of the season and pray that he can help mastermind promotion – what a fitting legacy that would be for a player who is already a Sky Blues legend.
Good luck, James – don’t ever stop being that kid in the playground.
Tom Furnival-Adams inherited the unfortunate affliction of supporting Coventry City from his dad in 1994-95, when Ron Atkinson oversaw a squad that included Dion Dublin, Peter Ndlovu and Nii Lamptey. Two relegations, three stadiums and 20-odd years later, he still follows the club home and away as much as possible. He is a trainee journalist and you can follow him on Twitter at @Tom_FA
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