It is not easy to explain, it may not bear forensic scrutiny but sometimes it just feels right, the possibilities so tantalising that they override everything. And so James Maddison signed for Tottenham in June; the showman midfielder, full of mischief and expression, at a club where a player of his ilk is practically a constitutional requirement.
“That kind of look on it was one of the factors in why I wanted to go,” Maddison says as he prepares with England for Saturday’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine in Poland and next Tuesday’s friendly with Scotland in Glasgow. “I could just see myself playing for Tottenham. I’m not even 100% sure what I mean by that so don’t ask me! But I could just see myself in that team, in that kit, in that stadium. It just fitted well for me. And they’ve always had that type of player.
“My dad’s favourite player when I was growing up was Gazza. That sort of midfielder who wants to be creative and entertain the fans and be a personality. Christian Eriksen in more recent years but since him they probably haven’t had that type of player. I’m not putting myself on the same level but I’m in that category.”
Maddison has made a spectacular start, two goals and two assists in four Premier League games, Spurs in second place with 10 points. He showed zero hesitation in taking over the No 10 shirt from Harry Kane after the England captain’s move to Bayern Munich and it has been love at first sight in the eyes of the fans – as it was always going to be.
Maddison now hopes to ignite his England career against Ukraine and Scotland, having won only three caps so far, his confidence sky-high, although that is more of a state of mind with him than any passing boost.
Aged 26, Maddison is too young to remember Paul Gascoigne. But Maddison’s father, Gary, a graphic designer, would put together video montages for fun in which the maestro featured heavily. Maddison would watch and re-watch them. Gary also has a YouTube channel – gazmaddy – to which he has uploaded videos of his son’s footballing journey.
“Before you become a professional, you are a fan of the game and I loved players who had personality, who had a little bit of cheekiness about them,” Maddison says. “Gazza was a perfect example.
“For example, something silly. I remember a clip where the cameras are going down the national anthem and it gets to him and he sticks his tongue out and starts messing around with the camera and going all bog-eyed. I just love that. That’s why I like interacting with fans. I don’t know if you saw the clip of me with the Bournemouth fans …”
Maddison is referring to the one from the Saturday before last when he goes to take a corner at the Vitality Stadium and is serenaded with: “Southgate’s right, you’re fucking shite.” Maddison deliberately spots the ball outside the quadrant to wind them up before putting it back with a big grin.
“It’s just little stuff like that which I enjoy doing, that keeps me hungry,” Maddison says. “I like the theatre element of almost being the villain. That’s how I enjoyed watching football and that’s how I enjoy playing it.
“I’m not trying to be the showman, that’s just how I am as a person. I go for a roast dinner with my family … I like to be the main man, you know.”
Maddison talks about how he is perfectly aligned with the new Spurs manager, Ange Postecoglou, who wants him to play with freedom and bravery as a left-sided No 8, pressing hard, always looking forward. It has been music to his ears.
The established narrative in terms of his relationship with Gareth Southgate, who has used him off the left wing, is different. Maddison has heard it for years. He made his England debut in 2019 and was pretty much out in the cold until his inclusion in the 2022 World Cup squad when, frustratingly, he was unable to play because of a knee injury.
Southgate overlooked him for so long, people have told Maddison, because he did not like him. Perhaps, it was down in part to Maddison’s extrovert nature, his love of a night out. But as with Southgate, Maddison continues to push back against the perceptions.
“Gareth gave me a massive compliment as we were leaving the World Cup,” Maddison says. “He said he knew it had been tough with the injury and not featuring but he was really impressed with the way I had carried myself round the group. That stuck with me.
“Did Gareth ever have a problem with me? I didn’t ever think that once, to be honest. There was a point when I wasn’t playing well enough. And after that you’ve just got to work hard to get back in because Gareth is a very loyal man, he trusts his players and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes it is harder for people to break in than actually get out, if you know what I mean.
“Listen, it’s important you have a social life as well. I am not going to sit in my room and go to bed at 8pm. I am a social guy. I like to go out. You need that stimulus in your life, a good balance. We are all professional athletes. If you don’t look after yourself, you get found out pretty quickly.”
Now for Ukraine and now to link up with Kane, as Maddison had hoped to do at Spurs, even if he was not so “naive” as he puts it, to think that the striker would not go to Bayern. As Maddison played throughout the pre-season in the No 71 shirt, there was even the conspiracy theory that he and Spurs knew that Kane would vacate the No 10.
“I was definitely not waiting for the No 10 shirt,” Maddison says. “I didn’t want it to become free because that meant one thing. The new signings got given pre-season numbers [in the 70s] and then, when the times comes, because there are ins and outs, and the club has to sell shirts …
“I didn’t want Harry to leave but when he did and the No 10 became free and the club asked me, then of course I wanted to wear it. It’s my favourite number, I’ve got it tattooed on me. I was never going to say no.
“I knew there was a chance Harry could leave but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There was such a good feel with the new manager coming in and new players, and I didn’t feel any hangover from the previous managers. There were connotations around more negative, defensive football [before Postecoglou] and I didn’t feel any hangover from that. Everyone was on a fresh slate. From the moment I went in until now it’s been really good.”