Issue 02: James Maddison

Photography: Joupin Ghasmari / Styling: Jay Hines / Interview & Words: Kyle Harman-Turner

This article is an excerpt from the James Maddison interview feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.

Being a leader requires a special set of characteristics. You need charisma, confidence and total self-belief under extreme pressure. What’s scary, is that James Maddison ticks every one of these boxes at only twenty-two years old.

Whilst most of us try to avoid high pressure situations, James not only welcomes pressure, but actually revels in it. Whether he’s stepping out on the pitch at Old Trafford for his Premier League debut in front of 75,000 people, taking high-pressure free kicks and penalties when his team needs him most, or using a huge transfer fee as motivation rather than suffocation.

“I was having a conversation the other day with one of my closest friends in football who I was with at Norwich,” James explains. “We were talking about penalty shoot-outs and he said that he’d prefer the first penalty so he can get it out of the way and if he missed, then there’s someone who can still save him. But I look at it in the opposite way. I want the most pressure on the penalty as I can get. Purely because I think I can deal with that situation well. It’s a strength of mine. The more eyes that are on me, the better. Because if I go and put it in the top corner, there’s more people to see. I don’t use that as a negative. I use that as a positive. Good, there’s more people watching. More people to show that I can stay confident and cool in this situation.”

To have an English player who actually revels in the pressure of penalties is a rarity and will no doubt tweak the ears of Gareth Southgate ahead of Qatar 2022, but where does that psychological strength and self-belief originate from?

“I was a lot smaller than everyone else when I was a young lad. I developed a lot later,” he reflects.“I was a lot smaller and skinnier than the rest, so I had to back myself even more with the ball and my touch and technical ability. I had to be that step better otherwise I’d be pushed to the side and out of the system. I realised that early on. I’d practice on a Saturday and Sunday with my dad and uncle. When it got to the stage where I was catching up development wise, I was maybe that step ahead technically. I’ve had such a good upbringing and I’m so grateful for my family. I’ve got a tattoo here that says, ‘the love of a family is life’s greatest blessing’, and I genuinely believe that’s true because I wouldn’t be where I am without my family.”

“I want the most pressure on the penalty as I can get. Purely because I think I can deal with that situation well. It’s a strength of mine. The more eyes that are on me, the better.”

Jumper GUCCI at MR PORTER, Jeans AMIRI at MR PORTER

Having to fight against the odds and elbow your way into contention has clearly stood James in good stead. So, are those leadership qualities transferable from the pitch to the podium? Could one of the Premier League’s most talked-about number ten’s ever make a move over to Ten Downing Street. If so, what sort of leader would he really be?

“I’d be an authoritative leader. I’m quite a straight-talking person in general. I’m quite a confident person, in a good way. I’d like to think I’d be a leader who would be straight-talking. Know what I want and go and get it.”

“You need to have a strong personality. You need to be able to point the finger at people and not everybody is comfortable with doing that. I’ve been in changing rooms before where senior players may think something, but they’ll keep it to themselves. I think if you’re a captain and a leader you always need to be open and honest with the whole group and expect criticism back and be able to take that and I think that’s a good quality.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to work under some great captains and leaders. When I was at Coventry City, Sam Ricketts was my captain. He was first to every meeting, first on the training ground, first to a gym session, first to everything. It made me feel like if I was late to a meeting or a training session, almost like I’d let him down. He was perfect for me at Coventry. He’d sometimes pull me to the side and have a little chat and tell me I’m doing well. Almost like a coach role. Maybe one day I might be a captain myself.”

Influence, integrity, natural leadership. Not the words that get associated too often with the modern day Premier League footballer. Not to mention, awareness. James knows the impact on leadership at the very top level. “If you have a leader or a captain who’s not giving everything, or not wanting the best for the team, I think that can be quite poisonous to be honest. You’ll see teams come off the rails.”

On his journey to the Premier League, James’ talent was never in doubt. What was sometimes in doubt, in his initial months at Norwich at least, was whether he would make the most of it. His recent form for club and country has provided the answer, though it is clear he shares his managers’ hunger for constant improvement and the belief that there is always more to achieve. 

“Brendan Rodgers says to the group; ‘The best players show their personality on the pitch.’ No one can believe in you, if you don’t believe in yourself.”

As the football season kicks off again, we are all inundated with a new sense of optimism. New excitement for the heroes that will emerge. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we felt the same way about the people who run our country? Who knows, maybe one day those very same players who inspire us on the pitch, will also inspire us off it.

James Maddison is a client of Base Soccer.

Like this article? Enjoy all cover features and interviews in Issue 02: Heart and Soul – available now from the GAFFER Online Shop.

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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